By Azu Ishiekwene
The news last week of the deaths of two young people, Tolulope Arotile and Fahim Saleh (Gokada entrepreneur) whose paths may never have crossed but who nevertheless shared the same kindred spirit of adventure, left me in a daze.
Both died in different places and under different circumstances, but you only need to look a bit closer to see the dots connecting the tragedies. Like candles in the wind, as Elton John would say, they burned out before their legend ever did.
Let’s start from home, with Arotile.
I don’t know which one got me more confused – the first statement by the Air Force authorities announcing Arotile’s tragic death, or the second, which was supposed to clarify the first.
Arotile, a flying officer and the first female helicopter combat pilot of the Air Force, was the poster girl of the service. Her face was the spirit of the evolving future, the place where the Force was hoping to be sooner than later.
At 24, she wasn’t exactly a rookie. She had been flying several combat missions, especially in the North-east. She had accomplished what generations of women enrolled in the service in the last 56 years could only dream of, standing on the shoulders of first female combat pilot, Blessing Liman; and the first female senior non-commissioned officer to be promoted to the rank of Air Warrant Officer, Grace Garba.
Three years after Arotile earned her commission, it was a mark of the confidence that the Air Force placed in her that she was assigned the duty of explaining the features of a newly acquired attack helicopter to President Muhammadu Buhari at the Eagles Square, Abuja in February.
My friend and presidential spokesperson, Femi Adesina, himself father of a pilot, who was present at the Eagle Square on the day, attested to Arotile’s charm and confidence in a widely published tribute last week.
That tribute reflected the statement by the authorities that, “Arotile died in an auto crash at the Nigerian Air Force Base in Kaduna.” I was struggling to recover from my sense of shock and confusion when the Air Force issued a second statement on Sunday, that compounded my misery.
Let’s be clear. An accident is what happens unforetold, in some cases, in spite of the best precautions. How we respond to the grief, recover and possibly prevent or reduce the chances of future occurrence, however, depends largely on how we confront the facts, especially inconvenient facts that may be demanded of us.
For example, although the first announcement on the Air Force Facebook wall on July 14 said Arotile died “as a result of head injuries sustained from a road traffic accident at the NAF base Kaduna,” a number of people were left wondering just what kind of road traffic accident inside a military base would lead to fatality.
Accidents can occur anywhere. But for many years I was a regular visitor to the NAF military base, Ikeja, Lagos, probably one of the busiest for motor traffic in the country. I never once heard of a road traffic accident for over six years when I visited my former schoolmate, Amaechi Aghachi, who had his office there, or later on, my father-in-law’s younger brothers, who both lived in the base.
Drivers can be mad outside, but once inside the base (at least at that time), they behaved, without being told.
So, what kind of “road traffic accident” took Arotile’s life on the spot inside the base on a weekday? In a 1,297-word attempt to clarify the ambiguity in its first Facebook post, the Air Force raised more questions than answers and if journalists who attended the event in-person asked any questions, it didn’t show in the reports.
The second statement by the Air Force said Arotile, who was staying with her sister, Mrs. Damilola Adegboye, outside the base, had just finished her promotion exam, “awaiting deployment for her next assignment.”
But that fateful Tuesday morning, she got a call from “Flying Officer Perry Karimo, a fellow helicopter pilot from the 405 HCTG, who wanted to discuss arrangements for their return to Enugu, requesting that she comes to the Base so that they could work out the modalities.”
So, what was it? Was she awaiting deployment or planning to return to Enugu or both? Also, while the statement recorded the time Arotile received the call from her colleague and when she was dropped off at the base by her sister, we’re not told if her meeting with Karimo held, where and for how long?
And at what point did she drop her phone for charging at the instructor pilots’ quarters – after the meeting with Karimo or before – and did her sister wait all the time (between 11am and 4pm) before dropping her off at the mammy market?
We were told that three of Arotile’s former schoolmates at the Air Force secondary school, all civilians living outside the base who were in a car, saw her as she was returning from the mammy market inside the base after 4pm, going in the opposite direction.
According to the statement by the Air Force, the driver, in a hurry to meet up with Arotile, reversed the car “knocking her down with significant force and causing her to hit her head on the pavement. The vehicle then ran over parts of her body as it veered off the road beyond the kerb and onto the pavement, causing her further injuries.”
Except if the driver had a premeditated intention to kill a long-lost friend or was suddenly overcome by suicidal instinct, assuming all three occupants in the car saw Arotile and she didn’t see them (which we are not told), the normal thing would be for the driver to horn, before stopping and then reversing.
I’m bereft at how the driver moved from the excitement of seeing a long-lost friend to halting the car, and flying back in reverse at killer speed knocking down and climbing over Arotile without warning or any alarm from the other two passengers in the car or even passersby that may have alerted the victim.
Generally, jeeps tend to have slower acceleration than sedans. Except if the Sorento involved in this accident is a Sorento SXL that can potentially reach 60mph in eight seconds, it would be interesting to know the distance from the reverse point to where Arotile was and the speed of the car at impact. Did the driver in a regular Sorento SUV go from zero to 20kph? 30kph? 40kph? 60kph? inside a military base, before knocking down and killing Arotile?
And apparently, after the accident, the vehicle came to a stop, with no other casualties and no other incidents. And from the 1,297-word press release by the Air Force we are not informed of any eye-witnesses – a most troubling thing, if ever there was one, for an accident that occurred in broad daylight in a military base supposed to be a safe and secure location.
I understand the frustration of the Air Force authorities, especially with the ethnic twist some are giving the story. But they have themselves to blame for the gaps in the information.
When an Air Force man killed a female colleague supposed to be his lover in Benue three years ago, the public was outraged, but the interest was different.
Although we don’t know what eventually became of the suspect, the authorities were unusually, but robustly open, admitting that the airman and the airwoman were in a love relationship, which resulted in the deadly shooting.
The unanswered questions in Arotile’s case, make the current story difficult to swallow. The final report must provide answers, instead of raising doubts.
That’s where the story of Saleh’s death is different. To slightly paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, every family bears its grief in its own way but I guess for all those hurting, truth makes closure a bit easier.
How do you explain a situation where the kindness of Saleh to his assistant, whom he protected in spite of the fellow allegedly stealing big time from him, would eventually lead to his murder?
I’ve heard all sorts since Saleh’s murder; from those who plainly admitted that they didn’t know what else he might have done to save his life, to those who said he might have been alive if he reported his assistant early on but probably didn’t report because he didn’t want to become the unintended target of investigation himself.
Whatever his killer’s motive, the New York Police Department didn’t have to issue multiple statements for the evidence or circumstances of his death to be clear. They know what that would mean for confidence in a police system already under scrutiny, and particularly for the reputation of the city as the world’s financial capital.
Within two days of Saleh’s murder, CCTV footage of how it happened was out and the suspect facing trial. That’s how to discourage crime.
Nothing that anyone does now will bring back Arotile or Saleh. But how their deaths have been handled in both jurisdictions is the difference between lingering grief and closure, between accident and prevention.
Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview