ABUJA, Nigeria—She was so young and daring, and a thorn in the side of ISIS-backed terrorists and bandits in north-central Nigeria. Her profile was rising fast and in her already extraordinary career she’d broken through the military glass ceiling. But the life of Tolulope Arotile, Nigeria's first-ever female combat helicopter pilot, was cut short on July 14 when she died in a strange and sudden accident.
According to the Nigeria Air Force (NAF), Arotile was “inadvertently hit by the reversing vehicle of an excited former Air Force secondary school classmate while trying to greet her” inside the NAF base in the northwestern city of Kaduna.
But not many in Nigeria are convinced the death of the 24-year-old was indeed accidental, especially because her nationwide fame as a talented combat helicopter pilot, and her regular bombardment of terrorist hideouts, had made her a target of armed militants. The manner in which Arotile was said to have died—from the impact of a reversing car—raised suspicion across Nigeria that she was murdered. The country's leading activists and politicians, including the outspoken former senator Shehu Sani, joined her family in immediately demanding an inquiry into the pilot's death. The NAF quickly responded by announcing a preliminary investigation into the tragedy.
Arotile had just come back from an operation in north-central Nigeria, where she was deployed in the fight to rid the region of ISIS-backed militants and other criminal elements by flying combat missions. The NAF said she served as a squadron pilot in what the military named Operation Gama Aiki and flew "anti-banditry combat missions to ensure a safer, more secured Nigeria.”
Since last year, armed bandits and militants, including those with links to the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), have terrorized a number of villages in north-central Nigeria, killing hundreds of villagers and displacing thousands from their homes. The military's response has been through airstrikes, many of which had been carried out by attack helicopters like those flown by Arotile and her fellow fighter pilots.
Arotile's last combat mission was devastating for the terrorists she targeted, a senior NAF official told The Daily Beast privately. She was said to have carried out airstrikes targeting bandits at Kasuwan Ango Community in Nigeria's north-central Niger State in late June. The Nigeria military had stated last month that strikes by the air component of Operation Gama Aiki at Kasuwan Ango on June 28 and 29 led to the "neutralization of some of the bandits" and the arrest of two foreigners, while the country's press release distribution agency, PR Nigeria, reported that corpses of bandits littered the area of the operation, an indication that the airstrikes killed numerous terrorists. Arotile herself was targeted by the bandits who shot repeatedly at her helicopter before she managed to overcome them.
"Much of our success in the north-central can be attributed to Tolulope [Arotile]," said the NAF official who didn't want his name mentioned as he wasn't authorized to speak. "She was extremely daring and fearless."
The manner in which Arotile was said to have died—from the impact of a reversing car—raised suspicion across Nigeria that she might have been murdered. The country's leading politicians and activists have joined her family in demanding an inquiry into the pilot's death.
The NAF stated on Sunday that its preliminary investigation found that three of Arotile's secondary school classmates—all civilians who live outside the Kaduna NAF base, and who were on their way to visit another friend living in the same vicinity—were in the Kia Sorento SUV that hit her. The driver, Nehemiah Adejo, recognized Arotile after passing her, and "reversed the vehicle, ostensibly in an attempt to quickly meet up with the deceased, who was walking in the opposite direction."
"In the process," said Ibikunle Daramola, NAF director of public relations and information, "the vehicle struck Flying Officer Arotile from the rear, knocking her down with significant force and causing her to hit her head on the pavement."
"The vehicle then ran over parts of her body as it veered off the road beyond the kerb and onto the pavement, causing her further injuries,” Daramola said while reporting on the NAF's initial findings on the pilot's death on July 19.
The three schoolmates were subjected to toxicology tests but no traces of alcohol or psychotropic substances were found in their systems, according to the NAF findings, which also revealed that the driver of the vehicle, Adejo, did not have a valid driver’s license. The trio are expected to be handed over to police, who are set to begin an investigation into Arotile's death.
The late pilot, who was commissioned into the air force as a Pilot Officer in 2017, made history last October when she was winged as the first-ever female combat helicopter pilot in the NAF after completing her flying training in South Africa. Arotile held a commercial pilot license and had undergone tactical flying training on the Agusta 109 Power attack helicopter in Italy. When Nigeria acquired an Agusta 109 Power early in the year, Arotile was asked to introduce the aircraft to President Muhammadu Buhari, during the induction ceremony in Abuja in February.
Arotile once said she joined the NAF simply out of "passion" for the military. In an interview with a local publication after Arotile's death, her father, Akintunde Arotile, recalled when she first developed a passion for flying:
“One day—when she was very small—she pointed to one small aircraft parked on a field and said, ‘Dad, one day I am going to fly that aircraft,’ and I said, ‘Amen,’” Arotile told The Punch newspaper.
Nigeria's leading politicians and institutions have paid tribute to her outstanding contribution to the country's long fight against terrorism. President Buhari recalled her "bravery" and "deft skills in manoeuvring combat helicopters" in a statement his office released shortly after her death, while the House of Representatives said she was “a heroine whose contribution in the war against terrorism and other criminal elements in the country cannot be wished away easily."
Arotile's death comes at a period when Nigeria is facing increased attacks from armed bandits and ISWAP militants in the north-central and northeast regions. A series of ISWAP attacks last month in the northeastern state of Borno killed close to 150 people, including 20 soldiers. The Islamic State-affiliated group suddenly became active in parts of the north-central region, where Arotile embarked on most of her missions, this year.
At a time when Nigeria needs its best hands to contain brutal terror groups like ISWAP, Arotile's death will definitely be a blow to its effort to defeat terrorists.
"I was heartbroken when I received the sad news," Nigeria's chief of the Air Staff, Sadique Abubakar, tweeted. "[Arotile] was one of our shining young stars."