Defending the Bayelsa chopper crash

As expected, the recent crash of a Nigerian navy chopper en-route from Okoroba, Bayelsa state has kicked up a thick dust of controversy. The chopper was carrying some dignitaries who had attended the funeral of Barrister Oronto Douglas’ father. Douglas is a senior special adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria. On board the ill-fated chopper were General Andrew Owoye Azazi, a retired four-star general, former Chief of Defense Staff, former Chief of Army Staff and former National Security Adviser to President Jonathan; Governor Patrick Yakowa of Kaduna state; their aides, and two navy pilots.

An army of critics has rolled out, and the nation is now inundated with articles weighing in on the crash. I recently came upon one such write-up by Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri titled “Bayelsa helicopter crash: The gross abuse of public office.” The title is eye catchy, but that’s all there is to it as the body of the article fails to add meat to the bone.

I am not against constructive criticism. In fact, I support it. But Ibezim-Ohaeri’s article is far from being constructive and lacks substance. After reading it you get the feeling that she is more interested in sensationalizing the crash than addressing the topic she claims to be concerned about. It’s not enough to sound a loud trumpet about “gross abuse of public office” without accurate supporting information, which is what Ibezim-Ohaeri has done. The use of correct data, not trumped-up facts or scenarios, is quintessential in the treatment of an important topic as the title of her article. The article serves mainly as red meat to energize the base of President Jonathan haters.

The author starts off by showing no respect or sympathy for victims of the crash. I wonder if she personally knew the victims and is happy for their death based on some wrong they had collectively or individually done to her. Otherwise, how does one rationalize the state of mind of someone who starts off an article about a tragic incident thus: “I am neither going to waste my time on needless lingoes of sympathy nor pour out mundane ‘eye service’ adulation to the departed general Owoye Azazi and governor Patrick Yakowa as many Nigerians are wont to. Rather, I am going to vent my anger, asking the avoided questions that are begging for cogent answers…”

Vent anger for what, I ask? Victims of the crash did not steal the chopper nor was it taken out from a naval base unauthorized. For all we know, the navy may have, on its own, offered to do favor to a former military buff. What is wrong if a former top-ranking military officer like Azazi asks for favor from his former colleagues and it is granted? Is that something that does not happen in other part of the world?

One report has it that the Douglas family made private arrangements for choppers to transport their guests from Port Harcourt to Okoroba. According to the report the Nigerian navy made a chopper available for military VIPs attending the event. Azazi and Yakowa reportedly went to Okoroba in private choppers and upon arrival Azazi was offered a ride in the Navy Augusta helicopter back to Port Harcourt. Azazi took the offer and persuaded Yakowa to ride with him. Yakowa agreed.

Ibezim-Ohaeri makes an helicopter ride to be such a big deal. It is not, and shouldn’t be. In the U.S and other countries of the world you can hitch an helicopter ride from one location to the other for fun or as a transportation means in certain situations. So, to make big fuzz out of a chopper ride is ridiculous to the extent that she shows gross insensitivity to loss of lives in a tragedy.

Let me be clear, I do not support wanton misuse of public property or corruption. Therefore, it is fair for Nigerians to question the use of any government property for private use. However, the degree, type, and extent of use should weigh in the process to condemn the act.

Jesus Christ is quoted as saying in the Christian bible “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone.” If you must be that critical like Ibezim-Ohaeri and show no sympathy for loss of life in a calamity then I assume you have never taken a free ride in an official vehicle before, either in the public or private sector. You must have never used office stationery for personal correspondence, or allowed your spouse and/or children to use official vehicles in any capacity, or made personal telephone calls with official telephone lines, or printed personal documents with an office printer, or sent personal email using an office computer.

Further, Ibeazim-Ohaeri lacks knowledge of the terrains of Okoroba and Otueke which she respectively used as launchpads to attack Oronto Douglas, victims of the crash and President Jonathan. Or, maybe, she is well versed in the surface features of the areas but conveniently feigns ignorance. Consequently, she came to conclusions that are false but serve her purpose. For example, she does not know that you go to Otueke (President Jonathan’s hometown) by road not sea, while you go to Okoroba (Oronto Douglas’ town) mostly by road and the last leg by sea from Ogbia town.

So, the notion by Ibezim-Ohaeri that naval resources were diverted to Otueke to cater to top attendees of President Jonathan’s brother’s funeral is erroneous and misleading because there is no need to chopper guest to Otueke. That can only happen for the President and his family, not guests, (if need be) for security reasons. Hence, if no naval ships or choppers were used in the funeral of the President’s brother for a massive airlifting of guests, how could Douglas had copied from President Jonathan the act of using naval choppers for private endeavors as claimed by Ibezim-Ohaeri? By the way, what is wrong if federal resources are used to protect President Jonathan and/or high-value-target guests at the funeral of his brother? He is the president, for God’s sake.

She refers to Douglas in the article as a “common aide” to President Jonathan. He is not. But, what if Douglas is a “common aide” as stated by Ibezim-Ohaeri? What difference will that make, anyway? Is she suggesting that if a crime was committed in whatever that led to the crash of the helicopter that it shouldn’t matter as long as the perpetrator is not a “common aide” but a top-ranking government official? Aside from being a senior special adviser to President Jonathan, Douglas is also an attorney and enjoys international recognition as human rights activist on environmental matters.  He is also a former commissioner in Bayelsa state and one of the lead attorneys in the defense of late Ken Saro-Wiwa in the Sani Abacha regime.

Every president in the world is surrounded by special advisers. A president is not an expert on every topic; therefore a president must rely on special advisers to effectively govern. The team of advisers to a president forms the president’s intellectual base in governance and determines the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of that administration. Ibezim-Ohaeri’s reference to Douglas as an ordinary aide is disingenuous and shows she is more interested in taking a swipe at President Jonathan and Douglas or any affiliate of the Nigerian presidency.

Like most people Douglas has friends from all sectors of society – rich, middle class, and the indigent. For Ibezim-Ohaeri to state that Douglas’ friends and well-wishers who went to sympathize with him at the funeral of his late father did so to curry favor and gain political benefits, is not only preposterous but insane.

The helicopter crash is an accident, period. Mishaps do happen in the air, on roads, or in the sea. It is ridiculous for Ibezim-Ohaeri to also state that the air disaster could have been avoided if the roads in the area had been in better condition. Don’t people die by road accidents anymore? The last time I checked, travel by air is still safer than travel by road.

The debate of what needs to be done to curb or eliminate use of public property for private endeavors in Nigeria is good, and I welcome it. But it must not be done recklessly. Care should be taken not to over-exaggerate in order to make a point. Doing so reveals naivety on the part of the writer which in turn culminates to loss of confidence on the part of the reader, an undesirable effect.

Nigeria will be better served if the debate on misuse of public property is kept clean and focused. Manipulating facts, scenarios, situations or showing flagrant lack of commiseration to a tragedy that is worth empathizing with just to make a point, is unacceptable and self-defeating.

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