By Lasisi Olagunju
The way we mourn tells something about our humanity. I read the Nigerian Army’s three-paragraph, late-night statement announcing the crash of an air force plane on Friday. It said the Chief of Army staff, Lt. General Ibrahim Attahiru “and ten other officers” died in the crash. There was another follow-up three-paragraph statement from the Defence Headquarters. It also said the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Ibrahim Attahiru and “his entourage” who were on an official trip, “were involved in an air mishap.” The statement prayed for the repose of the souls of General Attahiru “and other personnel on board.” Those other officers, did they not have names? Why did the system not name those it described as “gallant and committed” officers? I asked a retired senior military officer. And he replied me: “by training and convention, we pick the most senior person among the lot and say ‘and 10 others.’ ” What a convention! I exclaimed.
Generals give orders which get people killed. Whether the order is “fight to the last man” or “hold until relieved,” it is death. We were not there in their final moment, but we know those guys did not put themselves in that plane of death. They obeyed an order to so do – for their country. So, why did we deny them a paragraph- or even just a clause, a mention- in those press statements? I could imagine their children searching through those austere press releases for their dads’ names. We failed them. The names had to wait till the moment of burial on Saturday in the Chief of Defence Staff’s address. What good is a convention if it has no place for decency and sensitivity?
But, why would I pray the gods to kill the cook who prepared a tasteless pot of soup? What about the bigger chef who refused to cook any? We saw and heard the Generals, but where was/is our president? We lost the overall head of our army, three Brigadier Generals and eight other officers in that plane crash. They did not die going to a disco party. They died on active, official duty. Did we officially mourn the dead the way it is done in climes ruled by sanity? What death would qualify for a presidential address and a declaration of national mourning? Did we even fly Nigeria’s national flag at half mast? We forgot. The dead were buried on Saturday. Did you see their boss, the Commander-in-Chief at the burial? Why was he absent? The funeral events were held in Abuja where the C-in-C lives. Even if virtually, he should have been there. But, he wasn’t. He missed that moment of empathy – as he does always. Some governors were there, yes. But the dead were federal officers. Where was their employer? He was busy attending to himself. What adjective should one use for that presidential abstention from duty?
That Kaduna tragedy was not our first. It was not even the second. There was the Lockheed C-130H Hercules crash of September 26, 1992 that killed a plane-load of military officers. Again, on September, 17, 2006, in Benue State, thirteen very senior army and Air Force officers died in a plane crash. They included Major-Generals J.O. Adesunloye, S.O. Otubu, J.O. Agbola, S.M Lemu, Nuhu Bamali, P.M Haruna, J.T.U Amedu and Bitrus Duniya. There were also Brigadier-Generals Braimah, M.B Bawa, Wing Commanders S.S Balogun, E.O Adekunle and Lieutenant-Colonel N.A Mohammed. They were buried in that same cemetery in Abuja on September 21, 2006. President Olusegun Obasanjo led the Service Chiefs at the event. He was not absent in person and in words. So, why now? Why have things gone terribly wrong with us? Collin Powell, former US Secretary of State and four-star General warned all leaders never to give the impression that they do not care for their troops. If they do, they lose their command. We have them here.
“Nigeria isn’t worth dying for. My dad and 171 other senior army officers died in that Ejigbo 1992 plane crash, as in, they died in active service. What has the Nigerian government done for the family? Promising and promising since 1992…I thank God for where I am today.” That is the pinned tweet on Twitter handle @Virus_pluto. His experience represents how we treat those who serve us. Untimely death of a father (and mother) always wreaks tremendous alteration on destinies. Victims of such losses stand crippled unless God intervenes. Those officers and men who died last Friday had plans for what they thought was their future; their wives and children had plans on them too. But then, the thing called armour always carry a chink; it is called fate. Those soldiers had to fly to that space of forever. They thought they had a caring country. But, dust to dust, the dead were buried, snubbed; left lonely and alone. If I had a brother among the dead, I would close my eyes and, forever, hate the system.
How you bury the dead tells how well you would treat their memory. That is why military funerals are state ceremonials in societies where pigs are not bejeweled in gold. The United States of America provides a model in how to treat those who signed to die for their country. The US even has provisions beyond the soldier. The spouse or a dependant of an officer, at death, is also entitled to military funeral rites. The service where the primary party served or serves provides a casket team (guard of honour) and a chaplain for the dead spouse or dependant of the officer. I know we would say it is a lie. But it is true, the entries are there. Here, we remember spouses and children of our late soldiers when we think they are ripe for eviction from their barracks accommodation.
How we treat those who die for us is a window to the degree of our wellness as a nation. And it is not about region, religion and/or religiosity. You remember Qasem Soleimani, that Iranian Major General who was killed by the US in January 2020? He was not even the overall head of the Iranian army. He was of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But his country (and region) valued his service so much that he got an epic funeral which was held across cities in Iran and Iraq, from Tehran to Baghdad, to Karbala, Najaf, Ahvaz, Mashhad, Qom and his hometown, Kerman. When you celebrate the dead, you encourage the living. In Israel, there is the tradition of planting a small Israeli flag, a candle and a bouquet of flowers on every soldier’s grave before the country’s Memorial Day. America does same too for its fallen heroes. Can Nigeria give assessment access to the burial sites of its officers and men who have died since Boko Haram took on our country? The sites are probably flowered with weeds of desecration.
Military planes are made tough, so why are ours fallen like diseased birds? Friday’s crash was the third this year involving our Air Force. Only one of them happened during combat operations. In February, a small Nigerian air force passenger plane crashed just outside Abuja airport after reporting engine failure. The crash killed all seven officers on board. The plane, a Beechcraft King Air 350i, was on its way to Minna, Niger State on surveillance operations to rescue schoolchildren abducted from Government Science School, Kagara. The Air Force told the CNN: “The crashed aircraft was part of the air force’s contribution to the rescue mission.” What caused the engine failure? And, has anyone remembered to tell us the names of those who died here? A month after that incident, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, NAF spokesman, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, said an Alpha-Jet aircraft was lost. He said the plane was involved in the anti-terror war against Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province. We were told that two officers were onboard the missing jet. We are still waiting to be told what happened to the jet and the two airmen.
On Saturday, I got a video clip of three dashing young men dancing to some cool music. It is obvious that they were enjoying life which was bursting at its seams. Their dance steps pre-tell their grand entry to a great future that was waiting. But the video came with a caption: “All three were friends and pilot officers. Today they are no more. The first and the last were among the seven officers that crashed in Abuja on the 21st February, 2021, while the middle officer, Flight Lt. A.A. Olufade died in yesterday’s crash, three months in between.” It is heart-wrenching. What is happening to us? Did they have to die with their promises? Is that how other air forces suffer serial plane crashes, shrug shoulders, bury the dead and wait for the next without asking honest why? Tragically, we are not asking hard questions even if there won’t be answers. Why?
Soldiers are lit candles in the wind. In life and in death, they deserve our compassion and care. They are the bulwark against deadly surges of terrorism and banditry. They stand at attention before death, waiting for its poisoned spear point. I see them as a special breed of suicidal professionals. For whatever crazy reasons, they signed to die on land, on air and at sea for causes they have no control over. It does not matter what their primary profession is, soldiers exhibit same confounding passion for raw courage and risk. Whether now or in very remote past, they are the same: resolute, “obedient, expectant, ready to serve…” and die. Take a certain 19th century Surgeon-Lieutenant J. H. Hugo of the British Army who stood to save a colleague’s life amidst a splutter of bullets. He seized the injured officer, and his bleeding nerve, and took him to a place of safety, dodging bullets. The Surgeon-Lieutenant took the risk knowing that he had a country; here, he would be forgotten almost immediately. But Hugo’s heroic act is celebrated in a famous, fine quote of Sir Winston Churchill: “The spectacle of a doctor in action among soldiers in equal danger with equal courage, saving lives where all others are taking them, allaying fear where all others are causing it, is one which must always seem glorious, whether to God or men.” We have them too. The difference here is that we do not have a country.