On Tuesday, July 14, 2020, a glowing comet fell untimely from the skies over Nigeria, throwing the nation into mourning. The death of the first female combat helicopter pilot in the about six-decade history of the Nigerian Air Force, Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, didn’t come only as a shock to her parents, but to many Nigerians who took to social media to mourn the rising star and demand that justice be served on the matter.
However, a sister to the late officer, Damilola Adegboye-Arotile, told Saturday PUNCH that justice had yet to be served on the incident a year after her death.
Born on December 13, 1995, precocious Arotile died at the age of 24. The then NAF spokesman, Ibikunle Daramola, noted in a statement that Arotile was killed when she was inadvertently hit by the reversing vehicle of an excited former Air Force Secondary School classmate, Nehemiah Adejoh, while trying to greet her.
It was said that Adejoh drove a KIA Serento SUV, with registration number AZ 478 MKA and knocked her down while walking along Air Marshal Ibrahim Alfa Road in the NAF Base Kaduna at about 4.30pm on July 14, 2020. While Adejoh drove the car, his friends, Igbekele Folorunsho and Festus Gbayegun, were inside the car when the incident happened.
The preliminary report by NAF stated, “The vehicle struck Flying Officer Arotile from the rear, 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.”
The Air Force in the report also noted that Arotile was subsequently rushed to the 461 NAF Hospital Kaduna for treatment but was confirmed dead by the on-call doctor at the 461 NAF Hospital that evening as a result of “blunt force trauma” to her head and significant bleeding resulting from being struck by the vehicle.
The Air Force had on July 23 2020 laid the body of the late Arotile to rest at the National Military Cemetery, Abuja with full military honours while many Nigerians paid tributes to the late first female combat helicopter pilot who hailed from Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State.
Later on July 24, 2020, NAF transferred the case to the Nigeria Police Force, saying it was a civil case. NAF also handed over Adejoh, Folorunsho and Gbayegun to the Kaduna State Police Command and charged the police with the responsibility of investigating and charging the suspects to court in accordance with extant laws.
On August 20, 2020, a Kaduna State Chief Magistrates’ Court was reported to have set free Folorunsho and Gbayegun claiming that no charges were brought against them as they were passengers in the case. However, Adejoh, who drove the car that knocked down the victim, was reported to have been charged with culpable homicide and criminal conspiracy before the state High Court
On October 12, the Kaduna State High Court was reported to have granted bail in the sum of N2m to Adejoh. Our correspondent, however, could not confirm whether the prime suspect had met the bail conditions.
However, Adegboye-Arotile said the police didn’t carry the family along with the prosecution.
She said, “We are not officially aware that there is a case in court, we are not aware of postponement in the court (proceedings) or maybe the suspects were given bail. We are not carried along by the police in any way. So, till now, as a family, we have no idea. None of us have been called by the police, even once, or told that there is a court case going on anywhere or called us to observe any proceedings.”
Asked whether the Air Force reached out to the family on the progress of the prosecution, she said, “Officially, no; just a few people that we are conversant with have called to check on the family and some have taken steps further to find out what is going on (on the case) but officially from the Air Force, may be a letter saying something, no, nothing like that.”
She added that, “It has happened and no matter how I try to look at it, either on the good side or the bad side, it has happened. Even if justice is served now with these guys behind bars, I don’t know if it is really going to have much impact because at the heat of the moment, nothing was done. Of course, it would show the world that one can’t just knock someone down and go scot-free but right now, it just looks like that is what is going on.”
The late Arotile, a squadron pilot at the 405 Helicopter Combat Training Group (405 HCTG) Enugu, attached to the Air Component of Operation GAMA AIKI in Minna, Niger State, had completed her promotion examinations, and was in Kaduna awaiting deployment for her next assignment when the incident happened.
She stayed with Adegboye-Arotile at Sabo Area in Kaduna, and had visited the NAF Base on the day she died.
Reminiscing on her relationship with her younger sister, Adegboye-Arotile said, “There are many things I miss about her. I miss her singing, she always sang; she was a gospel lady and the moment you met her; you knew that she was a believer. She had every reason not to be a Christian because she was busy but she still had time for God. I miss her singing. That is one thing I miss most about her. Everyone missed her.”
She said one year later, the family had yet to get used to the fact that their beloved sister and daughter was no more.
“I don’t think we can ever get used to it because it is sadder that we are not aware of anything that is happening or what went down or the reason or how it happened.
“We all attended Air Force Secondary School and some of my younger ones attended Air Force Primary School. We know the basis; we know the maximum speed (at NAF Base). The maximum speed is 40km/hr. There are speed bumps. So, for you to speedily knock someone down and not give a tangible reason for it is fishy and it was expected that the Nigerian Air Force would push further than handing over to the police. I am not saying the NAF judgement is wrong but I personally expected more,” she added.
When contacted, the NAF spokesman, Edward Gabkwet, told Saturday PUNCH that the Air Force had not abandoned the case, noting that COVID-19 restrictions and the strike by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria stalled the case. The judiciary workers embarked on strike on April 6, 2021 to demand financial autonomy in the judiciary. JUSUN later called off its strike on June 9, 2021.
Gabkwet said, “We are following up with the case and we are interested in the outcome of the case because she (Arotile) was one of us and at the same time she died within our environment even though matters of death are usually referred to the state to handle.
“I am aware that the case is still in court and I am also aware that there is a legal officer of ours that has been asked to monitor the progress of the case.
“For a long period of time, the court has not been able to sit due to the COVID-19 situation and also, the judiciary workers went on strike and they just resumed barely a month ago. That being said, we are very much interested in the case. Of course, the Air Force trained her to that enviable level that she reached and her death is painful and unfortunate.”
Asked whether the Air Force was aware that two of the suspects had been released and the prime suspect granted bail, Gabkwet referred our correspondent to the Nigeria Police Force.
On whether the Air Force has been briefing the Arotiles on the progress on the case, the NAF spokesman said the Air Force shared in the grief of the family of the late flying officer. “We pray that God accepts her soul while we get to the bottom of this situation,” he added.
When contacted, Kaduna State Police Public Relations Officer, ASP Mohammed Jalige, told our correspondent that the case was still in court.
He, however, didn’t respond to inquiries on the status of the case and on whether the prime suspect and driver of the car has been granted bail. “Let me ask our OC (Officer-in Charge), Legal,” Jalige said on Friday. Subsequent efforts to reach him proved abortive as he did not take his calls nor reply to them as of the time of filing this report.
Meanwhile, activist, Joe Okei-Odumakin, told Saturday PUNCH that the only way to honour the memory of Arotile was for justice to be served.
Oke-Odumakin, who is the President, Women Arise for Change Initiative, said Arotile was another precious blood shed in the fierce battle for the Nigerian project.
She said, “We will keep the pressure for justice alive until justice is served. We have refrained from talking about this because we were made to understand that the case is before the court. But the long time it is taking must then shift the focus of all law-abiding people and democrats the world over to the painful delay in our judicial system.
“We cannot bring Tolulope Arotile back. We have lost her but that precious memory could be honoured by justice being served. No one should be able to easily reverse vehicles and kill others as casually as that and carry on. We also pray for heaven’s continued solace for her parents, siblings and loved ones.”
Flying Officer Arotile was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force as a Pilot Officer on September 16, 2017 and had a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from the Nigerian Defence Academy. She was winged as the first ever female combat helicopter pilot in the Nigerian Air Force on October 15, 2019, after completing flying training in South Africa. She had a commercial pilots’ licence and also underwent tactical flying training on the Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter in Italy. Arotile was a torn in the flesh of bandits in the country and was part of the Air Force many operations against bandits in the North.
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