Tolulope, forever

Ours is a country that wastes its best. If you have exceptional talents, be careful! Sooner or later, they will come for you. The hatred will come not only from your classmates but even from your teachers,your uncles and aunties. Household enemies can be the deadliest of all foes. The talents that bloom in our country often do so against all the odds – like wild roses growing amongst the rocks – like springs sparkling in the desert.

A tragedy occurred on Wednesday 15 July at the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) base in Kaduna. Kaduna is the city of my youth. Many years ago, during my time at the CBN, we were sent to the NAF base for fitness training and para-military drills. There is a vast, hilly wilderness behind the base. We had a map-reading competition in which a trophy was hidden at an undisclosed location several kilometres away. And just with the aid of a compass and a few vague tips, we were thrown into the wilds to find the trophy. I won that competition, with the right to keep the trophy. It is one of my prized mementoes.

On that fateful day of Wednesday 15 July, young Flying Officer Tolulope Oluwatosin Arotile had gone to the Mammy Market apparently to photocopy some documents. The Mammy Market is often the centre of social life in a typical Nigerian military barrack. Many of the clientele are “bloody civilians”, attracted not only by the reasonably prized food, suya, fish and drinks but also because it is very safe.

The story we have been told is that an old friend from her Air Force Secondary School days and a fellow veteran of the cadet corps was driving by with friends when he beheld Flying Officer Arotile walking by the roadside. In excitement, he drove in reverse so that they could exchange greetings. Unfortunately, he accidentally rammed into her, killing the young officer instantly.

Tolulope Oluwatosin Arotile was born in Kaduna on 13 December 1995 to the family of Mr. and Mrs. Akintunde Arotile who hail from Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State. That makes her an Okun Yoruba from the Middle Belt. She attended the Air Force Primary School in Kaduna from 2,000 to 2005 before proceeding to the Air Force Secondary School in the same city during 2006 to 2011.  In September 2012 she enrolled in the 64th Regular Course of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). She graduated with a B.Sc. in Mathematics and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 2017. She attended her commercial pilot training in South Africa. She later proceeded to the Augusta 109 Attack Helicopter Training in Italy, where she earned her wings as an attack helicopter fighter.

In October 2019, Arotile was commissioned as the first qualified female fighter pilot in the Nigerian Air Force. I have seen the clip of that ceremony. Air Force Chief Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar himself was there. Women Affairs Minister Pauline Tallen was in attendance. She spoke proudly of the strides being made by young women like Arotile.

In her address to the press, Arotile stood erect and spoke with the poise and verbal economy of a well-groomed military officer – mature beyond her 23 years. A natural beauty, with the wistful, dreamy eyes of a poet. She wore little or no make-up. Her hair was law-cut and woven in a simple traditional plait. She said joined NAF because of what it stands for and because “the carriage is simply exceptional”. She also said she felt“very privileged and very proud and happy that my success has brought me to this point…looking forward to giving my best to the service”.

She also advised the“younger ones out there is that they should keep doing their best, they should keep running the race until they finish and they should not set limits to themselves because the only limit they have is the one they set for themselves”.

Before meeting her untimely death, she had just returned the previous day from combat duties in the North where she reportedly recorded mighty exploits against some of the strategic positions of the murderous bandits that have turned our country into such a wasteland.

The spokesman for NAF public relations, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, made a press release, tersely saying: “During her short but impactful stay in service, late Arotile…contributed significantly to the efforts to rid the North Central States of armed bandits and other criminal elements by flying several combat missions under Operation GAMA AIKI in Niger State”.

The name of the classmate who “accidentally” killed her has not been released. He and his friends have been detained. All we have been told is that he does not have a driver’s licence. The remains of Flying Officer Arotile are to be consigned to mother earth at the military cemetery in Abuja this coming Thursday 23 July.

Speaking on behalf of the Yoruba cultural group, Afenifere, my friend Yinka Odumakin has declared that they would only accept Flying Officer Arotile’s death as an accident if there was an independent inquest by a coroner. The same sentiments have been expressed by Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yoruba land, Chief Gani Adams. They find it difficult to believe that a driver driving in reverse gear in a residential area could have made such an impact as to instantly kill an alert officer who was standing by the roadside.

If we lived in normal times, we would have had little reason to suspect foul play. But we live, sadly, in abnormal times. Ours is a country steeped in the kind of insane nihilism that would have shocked even the pessimistic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Less than a month ago, in June, Lt. Col.Abraham Gbileve, Commanding Officer, 2 Battalion in Kaduna was supposedly ran over “accidentally” by an allegedly drunken friend when he was on leave in Makurdi. Gbileve is known to be a brave warrior who has dealt heavy blows to Boko Haram.

I used to be an admirer of the Nigerian military. Not anymore. Our military have fallen from glory. Morale is at its lowest. Some of the high command are capable of the most egregious wickedness imaginable. In recent times we have seen soldiers and officers in the battlefields of the north east sending social media clips complaining bitterly of being used as mere cannon fodder for Boko Haram. Some of them even boldly bare their faces and reveal their numbers to damn the consequences. Theycomplain of one form of gross mistreatment or the other.

One soldier revealed that he resigned after being shot at point-blank range by a colleague. His crime: he was a left-handed sharp-shooter who single-handedly took down many of the insurgents. “I never miss a target”.  His success against the enemy was perceived as an original sin by some of his colleagues. He confessed that several of his comrades were killed by fellowsoldiers because they had committed the sin of killing Boko Haram insurgents.

A situation where so-called “de-radicalised” insurgents have allegedly been incorporated into the regular armed forces is a great danger to our country. It is no surprise that ambushes are frequent and so many of our brave sons are being mowed down like grass. It leaves one feeling that the whole insurgency and the atrocities of the foreign bandits are a well calculated conspiracy by some of our elites to strangle our country on behalf of Global Jihad.

In a democracy that is worth its salt, the military must operate within a constitutional framework governed by the rule of law. The lowliest subaltern has his or her own rights as a soldier-citizen. No officer, no matter how exalted, can act as though we live in a jungle with no law and no morality.

Her death may have been a tragic accident. But it could also have been an assassination. Her success in bombing the enemy may have drawn the ire of some people. Nothing can be ruled out in this wicked country of ours. Those who suspect foul play may have a point. A brave, patriotic officer of such great promise does not deserve to have her young life snuffed off in such a brutal and callous manner. It is a curse on the land.

The Roman playwright Plautus famously declared that it is those whom the Gods love most that die young. French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who also died young as a pilot, famously noted that, “Each man carries within him the soul of a poet who died young”.  A medieval sage observed that, “Some are bound to die young, by dying young a person stays young in people’s memory. If he burns brightly before he dies, his brightness shines for all time”.

Tolulope Oluwatosin Arotile was a bright meteor whose light shone briefly over the darkening gloom of our benighted nation before being extinguished. She has become an angel that will live forever.



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