Tears flowed freely yesterday at the National Military Cemetery, Abuja, as the body of the first female combat helicopter pilot, Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, was committed to mother earth. Arotile, who broke the record as the first female combat helicopter pilot of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) ever produced since its establishment on April 18, 1964, was laid to rest at 11:07a.m., in full military honours, including the ceremonial 21-gun salute, among others. The KIA Sorento SUV, which knocked her down, according to NAF, was driven by her former secondary school classmate, with two other occupants, who have since been arrested.
The remains of Tolulope, who died from what the NAF said was a “road traffic accident” at its Base in Kaduna on July 14, were buried “with restricted attendance in compliance with COVID-19 protocols.” Her death has continued to elicit emotional reactions, amid conspiracy theories, which compelled the NAF to caution the public against imputing political or religious colourations.
To underscore the national loss which Arotile’s death represents, senior government officials, the military high command, as well as other dignitaries, joined the family and the NAF, for the solemn burial ceremony. Among the dignitaries were the Governor of Kogi State, from where Arotile hailed, Mr. Yahaya Bello and his wife, Rasheedat; Minister of Defence, Maj- Gen. Bashir Magashi (rtd); Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs. Pauline Tallen; Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiyya Umar Farouq, as well as the chairmen of the Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Air Force.
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Gabriel Olonisakin, led the military high command, which included the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, as well as representatives of other service chiefs. In his remarks, the CAS lamented that Arotile’s death was a national loss, even as she died as a heroine, considering her recordbreaking feat. The NAF’s spokesperson, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, said in a statement that the CAS prayed for the repose of the soul of the 24-year old flying officer who made her mark on the sand of time. Daramola said Arotile proved that when it came to displaying excellence and adding value to the society, age or gender should not be barriers.
He added: “Tolulope, while you fulfilled your childhood dream of becoming a pilot, we could only scratch the surface of our collective dream as a Service for you. “We remain comforted by the peace which only God grants us all at this moment and at all times. Your memory will remain indelibly marked in our hearts each time we remember you. “As a service, we had so much expectations from her which she lived up to before her death. She made an impact on anti-banditry operations in the North- West and North-Central. Her memory will remain indelible in our minds.”
In an emotion-laden tribute on behalf of the bereaved family, Tolulope’s elder sister, Mrs. Damilola Adegboye, thanked God for blessing the Arotile family with the late Flying Officer, who she described as a daughter, a sister and a friend. While describing Tolulope as a prayerful person, notwithstanding her demanding schedules, she thanked the Air Force for investing so much in Tolulope, by way of training and other capacity building programmes. In his homily, the Director (Chaplaincy) of the NAF, Group Captain Dogo Gani, said the departed officer dedicated her energy and acquired training to fighting the evil in the country. Gani urged the authorities concerned to create the enabling environment for a generation of youths to carry on from where Arotile dropped the compass.
He added: “Except you Lord, no one can comfort your children because taking our sister at the prime of her life with so much good to offer our nation is a difficult thing for us to comprehend. It is very regrettable that compassionate people, givers are dying and those that are alive are the drug addicts, the bandits, kidnappers and terrorists.”
The Minister of Defence, CDS, CAS, ministers, mother of the deceased, as well as representatives of her course mates at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), performed the wreathlaying ceremony. Other key moments of the solemn event were the presentation of National Colours to the deceased’s Next-of-Kin by the CAS, laying of wreaths by dignitaries and the representative of the Arotile family.