Joseph Akahan sojourned home with clear intent. He wanted a little break from the military to access the wreckage of the ongoing Civil War in the land of his birth. It was a typical homecoming of an illustrious son.
The day was 5th August 1969, barely three months after secessionists declared the independence of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria. Akahan had just visited troops on the frontlines in Nsukka. His hometown, Gboko, was among the worst affected by the war with the toll on lives and property devastating.
Aged only 30, Akahan was the first war-time Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army (now called Chief of Army Staff, COAS). A gentleman Colonel, he was one of the country’s most brilliant military minds, so good that Head of the Federal Military Government, General Yakubu Gowon, described him as ‘a young and able officer’.
But Joe (as he was fondly called) never returned to the battlefield. Akahan’s chopper crashed few minutes after takeoff. His demise shook the entire nation and almost totally demoralised the federal troops and an army that had just taken on one of the largest secessionist movements in Africa. No particular explanation was given with the authorities describing it as an “accident”.
Akahan’s departure ushered an ugly episode in the military. Three more senior officials have died in air crashes, averaging a death in almost every dozen year. This is beside serial crashes involving middle-ranking officers.
In September 1992, a military transport plane crashed soon after takeoff from Lagos, killing all 163 people aboard.
Many of the Hercules C-130 victims were low-ranking Army, Navy, and Air Force officers attending a staff college course in Kano.
“The plane nose-dived three minutes after takeoff into a swampy area,” said an official in Abuja. Officials did not say where the C-130 came down.
The crash was Nigeria’s worst air disaster after that of 1973 involving a Royal Jordanian Airlines Boeing 707. The plane burst into flames on landing in Kano, killing 176 people.
The death of Akahan was quickly followed by another young vibrant service chief in October 1969. Lieutenant Shittu Alao died at the age of 32, just two years into service as Chief of Air Staff. Alao showed promise and intent as one officer who was capable of taking the wheel of the Nigerian Air Force from foreign hands and leading it successfully.
He died in active duty while taking a solo flight in an L-29 aircraft. He encountered bad weather somewhere around Benin and ran out of fuel while straining to navigate the fog. His attempt to make an emergency landing was terminated by trees and the aircraft crashed. He did not survive it.
Fast forward to 2012, tragedy struck again as another respected military chief perished. Although retired, General Andrew Azazi, a former Chief of Defence Staff, died in a helicopter crash around Okoroba Village in Bayelsa. He was aboard with Patrick Yokowa, former governor of Kaduna, and none of them survived.
The pair were returning to Port Harcourt airport after attending the burial ceremony of the father of Oronto Douglas, a special adviser to then-President Goodluck Jonathan.
Azazi was first appointed COAS in 2006 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Then he was named CDS by the administration that came after, led by the late Musa Yar’Adua.
He, however, was replaced by Paul Dike in 2008.
And on Friday night, yet another service chief took the same exit route. Four months into his new role as COAS, Lt. Gen Attahiru Ibrahim died in a plane crash. Attahiru was on an official trip from Abuja to Kaduna when the aircraft encountered inclement weather, according to military authorities. He and his entourage of 10 officers died as the aircraft nosedived aground.
It’s been nearly six decades since Akahan’s painful demise. Yet Nigerian authorities seem not to have learnt without any reasonable explanation or solution to the reoccurring menace. Senior military officials have sacrificed their lives not defending the country’s territorial integrity but to sheer ignorance.
In the last three months alone, 23 military personnel have died from crashes involving Nigerian Air Force planes. The latest incident involved 10, excluding the COAS.
In February, seven people died in a Beechcraft King Air B350i aircraft that crashed near the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja while two crew members were in the NAF Alpha fighter jet that went missing in the North-East Borno State where there was an ongoing counter-insurgency operation in April.
Will the military ever learn?
Attahiru’s death raises further questions on the safety of top military officials. The country’s VVIP security personnel have become easily prone to common hazards, many of which are avoidable in civil aviation.
Akahan, for instance, was reported to have ignored the warning to fly at twilight. According to tales, he was in hurry to return to the war and ultimately didn’t.
Alao, being a pilot flew himself. He encountered bad weather and ran of fuel too. Attahiru’s death was also linked to horrible weather. However, all these casualties could have been easily avoided.
The Nigerian Air Force manages a relatively impressive collection of modern aircraft – mainly of western origination. There are a total of 23.
However, training and maintenance capabilities has failed to keep pace with the ever-increasing demands of its fleets and chronic serviceability manifested with the number of operational platforms plummeted, compounded by financial problems brought about by falling oil prices. The lack of spares and adequately trained personnel is another bane.
In 1979 and the late 1980s the NAF reached its peak, participating in foreign peacekeeping missions and internal security initiatives and operating in support of the Army and Navy. Its fleet expanded greatly, with aircraft like the SEPECAT Jaguar, Dassault Dornier Alpha Jet, Aermacchi MB-339, Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, Aerospatiale Super Puma and others joining the fleet. During these ‘golden years,’ the NAF had around a hundred combat aircraft and was second only to the South African Air Force among sub-Saharan states in this regard. But it has come close to collapse in recent years.
According to military sources, the NAF’s aircraft are overused and overstretched prompting authorities to put some up for sale. It is said that the carrying capacity is usually exceeded.
Compared to commercial airlines, the military’s aircraft is a mess. It would be the worst in the country if it manages to escape the axe of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. Ask Azman Air.
Aside from putting up old aircraft for sale, little seems to have been done towards improving manpower and spare parts. The negligence of pilots and senior officials is an issue too.
Experience, as they say, is the teacher of all things. But will the military ever learn from past events?