By Emeka Obasi
While attention embraces the Army in the fight against insurgency, crashes here and there should be enough to remind Commander -in- Chief that the Nigerian Air Force deserves some upgrading in terms of aircraft maintenance.
The passage of Army Chief Ibrahim Attahiru and a clutch of big shots, was the third time in 2021 that the Air Force would lose officers and planes in the Northern part of the country. It happened in Abuja. There was a crash in the war ravaged North-East, before the mishap in Kaduna.
It is an open secret that even servicemen from other branches do not fancy flying Nigerian Air Force transport planes. I wonder why no one has been bold enough to whisper it into the ears of those who should equip our air branch. I wonder what happened to the National Assembly.
I must salute the immediate past Chief of Air Staff, Sadiq Abubakar for his role in moving to a higher level in terms of aircraft purchase. In November 2018 contract for some A-29 Super Tucano fighters was awarded to Sierra Nevada, an American company. Delivery is expected to be completed in 2024.
What faces his successor, Isiaka Amao is not only to take delivery of the Air monsters, there is so much to be done about maintenance. Unfortunately, he does not have the power to appropriate fund for such important task. The Air Marshal must wait for politics and politicians.
Until investigations are concluded, one is not in position to say what caused three mishaps in about three months. It began in February when Flt. Lts Haruna Gadzama and Henry Piyo went down with five others in Abuja. In March, the force lost Flt. Lts John Abolarinwa and Ebiakpo Chapele. The same date befell Flt. Lts Taiwo Asaniyi and Alfred Olufade in May as the flew Attahiru to Kaduna.
We must look back to understand how things worked out. In 1976, Col. John Yisa Doko became the first pilot to head the Air Force and he went about it with devotion. New ranks were adopted as he became an Air Vice Marshal.
Aircraft were purchased and pilots recieved the best of training. During the skirmish with Chad, fighter pilots like Ben Ekele, Martin Luther and OFI Ihenacho covered Gen. Muhammadu Buhari in the air as his troops approached Ndjamena.
When Buhari became Head of State, he dropped Dominic Bello, a pioneer pilot for Ibrahim Alfa, another pioneer. President Ibrahim Babangida arrived the scene in August 1985. In December there was allegation of another coup led by his friend, Mamman Vatsa.
There were reports that the Air Force got fully involved. Adamu Sakaba, Ben Ekele, Martin Luther and G.A. Ahura, all pilots were executed alongside Vatsa and other military officers. The Tactical Air Command (TAC) Makurdi under Cdre Bayo Lawal had to suffer as a result.
Some of the plotters came from that command. Wing Commander John Uku who controlled Alpha jets in Kainji bagged five years in jail even when in red eyes, he almost swore he was not part of the plot. Three other officers, Odey, Ekanem and Effanga were lucky to be set free.
Two former military governors, both Air Force officers, Adebola Latinwo and Ita Ikpeme were also questioned. Babangida did not trust the Air Force after that and had to rely on Squadron Leader Moses Gowon who was retired after the February 1976 for safety in the air
The governor of Benue State at the time of the coup was Jonah Jang, a pilot. IBB moved him to Gongola and redeployed Yohanna Madaki to Makurdi. Bayo Lawal had been governor of Benue between 1978 and 1979. Seven of the plotters hailed from Benue. They were Chris Oche and his nephew, Peter Odoba, Mike Iyorshe, James Onyeke, Ekele, Ahura and Odeh. There was no Kogi State in 1985.
After Jang, no Air Force officer was sent to Benue as governor until Babangida stepped aside in 1993. Madaki came, Ishaya Bakut followed and was succeeded by Idris Garba who was replaced by Fidelis Makka. Moses Adasu was there too.
Babangida tried to weaken the Air Force. In 1991, he retired 18 Jaguar fighters. The President donated some L-29s to Ghana but failed to buy about 27 Aero L-29s for Nigeria. That was the beginning of a downward slide. And this is part of the hangover.
I made some observations after the crash that killed Attahiru. His state was Kaduna and he died in Kaduna. The first Chief of Army Staff to die in air crash was Joe Akahan from Gboko. He died in Wanune, near Gboko in 1968. A former Army Chief, Owoeye Azazi died in another mishap around Okoroba, Bayelsa, his State of origin.
It is strange that many of the dead pilots in military crashes were Yoruba. Captain Olawale Idris died with Akahan. Co-pilot Adeyemi Sowole went down with Azazi. All crew of the aircraft that took off with Attahiru were Yoruba from pilots Asaniyi and Olufade to Sgt. Adesina Opeyemi to Aircraftsman Olamide Oyedepo.
Curiously, another Service Chief Shittu Alao, from Ogbomosho died in a crash at Uzebba in the Owan axis of Edo State in 1969. He flew solo. Some accounts say he could have been killed. One Dr. Ademola who was to address the press with his findings during autopsy was found dead before he could reveal anything.
The military aircraft which hit Ngokugh Hill, Benue State in 2006 was piloted by Wing Cdr. Solomon Balogun. Co- pilot E.O. Adekunle hailed from Ibadan. The Navy chopper that crashed in Owerri during the 2007 presidential elections had two Yoruba pilots: Lt. Cdr. Thompson Adekoya and Lt. Isiaka Yusuf.
The Yoruba have paid their dues.The first Black African to be commissioned by the British, Flt. Let Emanuel Adeniyi Thomas died in an air crash during the Second World War on January 12,1945. Flying officer Tolu Arotile was first female combat helicopter pilot. She died on the ground in Kaduna.
Air Chief, Isiaka Amao is Yoruba. The Commander- in- Chief should listen to him. Amao knows where the shoe pinches. We must allocate more fund to the Air Force.