The COAS plane crash and its aftermath

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By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha

All serious nations celebrate, honour their armed forces. It is a long-held tradition. Even in primitive societies, the gallant defenders were always honoured especially if they died in battle. The message or the subtext is to the living: if you die in service, we will give you a heroic burial and look after your family. A soldier’s life may sound romantic in the books. In real life, fighting in a battle is anything but romantic. It is rough. Even brutal sometimes. It necessarily involves death. I had a cousin who abandoned Army Training in Teshie Ghana in the 1960s after his officers told him he was being trained to kill the enemy! Kill people? It was a ‘no-no’ to him. He later became a highly successful international civil servant.

For the military, their lives in battle can be summarized thus: I die, or you die or someone is taken prisoner. It is this tradition that has given birth to immortalizing wartime heroes. Of course, nobody joins the army to die. But death is one of the constant variables of being an armed fighter. A man who is scared of violence or death cannot be a soldier. Even a soldier of fortune knows that death could come at any time!

On Friday 21 May, an air force plane carrying the recently-appointed Chief of Army Staff General Ibrahim Attahiru, some senior officers in the intelligence corps and men crashed in Kaduna. Investigations are ongoing. We cannot say with any certainty what caused the crash. The weather was bad on that day. Landing was difficult we are told in the Air Force Base. For this reason, the plane landed in the Kaduna Airport, crashed and burst into flames. None of the ten passengers survived the crash. Initial reports were conflicting. Persons who were not on the flight were reported to have boarded the plane. An old video clip surfaced on social media in which an eyewitness claimed to have seen two men jump off the troubled aircraft in a parachute. Of course, conspiracy theories developed immediately. The crash was sabotage! Dangerous nonsense if you ask me.

It was a sad day for the nation. A very sad day for the immediate families of the deceased. These were men who were alive one minute and were gone the next. They probably had phoned family to announce their imminent arrival. Suddenly, there is a news flash and a wife, mother, son, daughter hears on radio or reads on social media that their loved ones had just died in an air crash while performing official duties. There is something about death that unites humanity. No sensible human being one mocks the death of the other. It is a fate that we all will ultimately face.

The military was prompt in arranging for the funeral the next day. The Military Cemetery in Abuja played host to the victims. But the ceremony became a national embarrassment. The President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces was absent. One spokesperson explained that the President must be given a minimum of forty-eight hours’ notice before he can attend any funeral outside the Presidential Villa. The deeply profound inanities which some presidential spokespersons utter these days make a mockery of the Presidency. As a retired military officer, the incumbent president understands or should understand the need for respect for the dead. The psychology of physical presence counts a lot in motivating the men in a time of war. The Vice President was also not at the burial. The President was represented by Minister of Defence. Most state officials stayed away from the funeral. That same day, the second son of Abubakar Malami Attorney-General and Minister of Justice took a wife in Kano and most officials preferred to seek the good face of Malami. They shunned the burial. They showed their scant regard for the protocols of governance.

In the aftermath of the accident and burial, a deep analysis of the events once again showed the soft underbelly of state apathy and inefficiency. In a way, this is the story of Nigeria. No memory. No respect for institutions. No honour to the dead. Elsewhere, a burial ceremony for a fallen Chief of Army Staff or indeed for soldiers who died while serving their country would be so well-attended and colourful that one would feel like dying for their country. The burial site itself was a manual in disarray. We associate the military with precision, orderliness, even in the midst of a chaotic environment. War is chaotic. What makes an army win a battle is how effectively it organizes itself in the midst of disorder. Sitting arrangement was poor. There was no social distancing. What was the crowd of soldiers around the podium for? The atmosphere at the somber event did not show precision which the military as an establishment is known for.

Discipline is fundamental to military discipline. Military discipline is defined as ‘the state of order and obedience among personnel in a military organization and is characterized by the men’s prompt and willing responsiveness to orders and understanding compliance to regulation’. George Washington wrote: ‘discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem all’. That discipline extends to fairness, equity, justice and justness in employment, deployment, promotion and career advancement. Any nation which toys with the universal principle of discipline in the armed forces has only succeeded in destroying the military. The long-term effect of unfair and inexplicable political interference in the affairs of the military is what we are witnessing today. The broad goals of the army are not being met because of nepotism, and small-mindedness. ‘Discipline’, writes Jim Rohn ‘is the bridge between goals and accomplishment’. Politicians do not respect the military in Nigeria. Military men have also allowed themselves to be used by politicians. Senior officers have also become ‘militicians’, if I may borrow that word coined by journalists.

Discipline was eroded when the military entered politics. The coup and counter coup of 1966 ensured that the military was no longer what it ought to be. Seniority was compromised. Ethnicity was promoted over competence. There was the politics of exclusion on account of ethnic origins. Indeed, merit was and is being sacrificed. The current administration has demonstrated its disdain for the elevated ethnic promotions to a disgraceful height.

Nigeria had lost officers in air crashes in the past. Joseph Akahan (1967), Shittu Alao (1969) and General Azazi (2012) all died in air crashes. In 1992, 163 officers lost their lives in a Hercules C-130 crash after takeoff from Lagos. These were all men who volunteered to serve the nation. The integrity of that nation is being vigorously interrogated by non-state actors. The nation’s managers are being challenged for ineptitude, questionable decisions, and wrongheaded policies. In other words, the nation itself carries a fatal question mark. Is this why government officials decided to ignore the fallen men, the lead officers who had sworn to the defence of the country? At a time when an insurgency and banditry have shaken the nation to its foundations? It is not a good story to tell. It is not a good signal to serving officers. It must not happen again.

Professor Eghagha can be reached on 08023220393and [email protected]