Tolulope Arotile (1995-2020): What Happened on the Combat Radar?

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The untimely death of Flying Officer Tolulope (1995-2020), Nigeria’s First Female Combat Helicopter Pilot has once more brought to the fore the Hobbesian dictum that life is “nasty, brutish and short.” The Squadron Pilot at the 405 Helicopter Combat Training Group (405 HCTG) Enugu was said to have recently completed her Promotion Examinations and was attached to the Air Component of Operation Gama Aiki, Minna. Tolulope was in Kaduna waiting for deployment when she met her untimely death on July 14 as a result of head injuries sustained from a road traffic accident at the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Base Kaduna.

Born on 13 December 1995 to the Akintunde Arotile family in Kaduna State, she attended the Air Force Primary School, Kaduna, from 2000-2005. From there she went to the Air Force Secondary School, Kaduna, from 2006-2011. Determined to fly, the young Tolulope gained admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), Kaduna, as a member of 64 Regular Course on 22 September 2012. After strenuous training, she was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) as a Pilot Officer on 16 September 2017. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the NDA. Alongside the First Female Fighter Pilot, Kafayat Sanni, she was winged as the First Female Combat Helicopter Pilot in the NAF on 15 October 2019 after finishing her flying course in South Africa. With an outstanding performance of 460 hours flight, her about two years career was marked by profound excellence and dogged service.

Tolulope is a candle that lives in the hearts of all aspiring young girls in Nigeria who are poised to rising beyond their potentials. It is hoped that her story would inspire every young Nigerian girl to move beyond facial make-up to making it concretely in a competitive world which only provides an opportunity for those who like her are ready to rule their world. She represents the best of us. In a society where folks still subscribe to the anachronistic ideology that woman’s education ends in the kitchen, she has defied time and circumstances to demonstrate that every girl-child can rise beyond impossibilities. Like icing on the cake of femininity, she has added her name to the chronology of high-ranking heroines in the country such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Zaynab Alkali, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Maryam Uwais, Oby Ezekwesili, Folorunso Alakija, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amina Mohammed to mention just a few.

Surprisingly, even within the Armed Forces, many Officers and others within the rank and file have a patriarchal mentality which gives men upper hand over women. Again, this has to do with low patronage as far as women education in the country is concerned. Last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) disclosed that Nigeria has 10.5 million out of school children – the highest figure in the world. It stressed that about 60 percent of out-of-school children in Nigeria are girls. The body maintained that many of those who enroll droop out early and attributed the phenomenon to low perceptions of the value of education for girls and early marriages among other reasons. It is in this kind of environment that the young Officer broke protocol to demonstrate that women too can fly and be combat-ready. For many years, this Flying Officer would be remembered for her extraordinary courage and resilience.

The recent disclosure by the Director of Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Ibikunke Daramola that the NAF made history with the conduct of an operational Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission by an all-female crew deserves commendation. According to him,  the mission which was conducted on 28 May 2020 using the NAF Beechcraft KingAir ISR aircraft, had Flying Officers Oluwabunmi Ijelu and Genevieve Nwaogwugwu as Captain and Co-Pilot, in that order, with Sergeant Njoku Patience as the Airborne Tactical Observation System (ATOS) mission operator and Lance Corporal Shawulu Godiya as the onboard technician. This further proofs the point that “What a man can do, a woman can do better.” In view of the 35% benchmark for women participation in governance, it is expected that women would be given their rightful place in all spheres of human endeavour so as to contribute their quota in nation-building.

Like her colleague, late Tolulope Arotile, Kafayat Sanni also made history on Tuesday, October 15, 2019 by becoming the First Female Fighter Pilot in the 55-year-old history of the NAF. She was trained at the Starlite International Training Academy, South Africa for 14 months to achieve that feat. After emerging as the overall best pilot at the NAF 401 Flying Training School, Kaduna State, in 2017, she did a course at the US Aviation Leadership Programme, United States of America.

Kafayat is the first female to undergo regular combat training at the NDA for a fixed wing fighter aircraft. After completing her training, she was decorated alongside 12 new fighter pilots at the NAF Headquarters, Abuja, in October 2019. Interestingly, she clinched the first female trophy in flying Alpha Jets. The story of the duo (Tolulope and Kafayat) resonates with feelings of nostalgia and extraordinary courage. 

It would be recalled that Tolulope was buried with full military honours on Thursday 23 July 2020 at the National Military Cemetery, Abuja. At the emotional ceremony were members of the Arotile family, personnel of the NAF led by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Sadique Abubakar, the Director Chaplaincy, Protestant Nigeria Air Force, Dogo Gani, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gabriel Olonisakin and the Minister of Defence, Bashir Magashi ably represented by the Permanent Secretary of the ministry, Sabi’u Zakari, Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, Governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello and other mourners who were there to pay their last respect to a gallant Officer.   

Eulogizing her, President Muhammadu Buhari lauded her skill and bravery. On his part, Air Chief Abubakar described her short stay in the Service as highly impactful. He disclosed that she was a committed and confident Officer in her service in the North West and North Central missions noting that her demise had affected the NAF and the country whose sovereignty she protected. He ceased the occasion to thank the deceased Officer for adding value to national security while assuring that both the NAF and country at large would not forget her contributions to nation building.

Also speaking at the funeral, Chaplain Gani eulogized her as a young woman of passion and courage who took up the challenge of fighting evil. Sister to the deceased Mrs. Damilola Adegboye who spoke on behalf of the family disclosed that her younger sister dreamt of flying a plane as a child and was passionate about her profession and family. She appreciated the NAF and Nigerians for their prayers, condolences and love shown to the family since the unfortunate incident. Recently, the Senate observed a minutes’ silence in her honour. This was followed by a motion moved by Senator Smart Adeyemi entitled “Demise of Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile,” on the need to immortalize the deceased by naming any Airforce edifice or institution of learning in Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State where hails from after her.

As a brave Officer, she added value to national security by protecting the sovereignty of her fatherland from Boko Haram terrorists and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). She responded to the call of the first stanza of the National Anthem: “Arise O compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey; to serve our fatherland, with love and strength and faith” while convinced about the letter and spirit of the National Pledge: “I pledge to Nigeria my country. To be faithful, loyal and honest. To serve Nigeria with all my strength. To defend her unity and uphold her honour and glory…” Indeed, she arose and answered the call without fear. She was determined to protect her fellow citizens from the marauding killer-herdsmen and bandits. By putting her life on the line in service to God and humanity, Tolulope typified the African spirit of Ubuntu – the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.

Everywhere the story of combating terrorism in Nigeria is told, her name would be mentioned as an Amazon who like the warrior Queen Amina of the city-state of Zazzau that ruled in the mid-sixteenth century, dared to change the narrative that women too count. While Amina rode on horses, Tolulope flew Alpha Jets and Augusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter to deliver her country from fifth-columnists. We commiserate with her mediate family and friends, the NAF and the government and Nigerians. For the citizenry, her short life was effective and efficient while for enemies of the nation, it was deadly. In the words of Julius Caesar: Tolu came, saw and conquered. I pray that the NAF and government would immortalize this gentle soul. May the labour of our heroes past, never be in vain. May her soul find peace with God even as He consoles the family. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!

Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.

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