Outrage over use of crashed naval helicopter for illegal, burial duties

The crashed chopper
Crash sparks questions on use of military copter for illegal shuttles

Three days after the tragic helicopter crash that killed six, authorities in Nigeria have been scrambling to outdo one another in bid to assure a distraught nation that actions would be taken to avert a reoccurrence even as outrage mounts among Nigerians who insist the crashed chopper was deployed for illegal duties.

President Goodluck Jonathan ordered an investigation; the Navy, owners of the crashed aircraft, announced an air accident investigation; and the House of Representatives pledged liaising with aviation authorities to conduct checks on military and civil aircraft in the country.

Separately on Monday, the House aviation committee announced sweeping inquiry into the “remote and immediate” causes of the accident that killed former Kaduna state governor, Patrick Yakowa, former National Security Adviser, Owoye Azazi, their aides, Dauda Tsoho and Mohammed Kama; and the pilots, Murtala Daba and Adeyemi Sowole.

“We will leave no stone unturned towards ensuring air safety in Nigeria by strengthening our oversight functions of the relevant regulatory agencies in the aviation sector,” chairperson, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, said in a statement.

But amid an outpouring of grief, and the routine promise to make our airspace safer, the crash, one of the nation’s most questionable in years, has thrown up a troubling concern that has helped light up fury across a mourning people.

Through Sunday and Monday, that question, dominating discussions on several platforms, stood clear: why a military transporter, under civil conditions, was deployed as a funeral ferry for non-military passengers.

“Who authorized the use of military helicopter in a purely private party?” Abuja-based rights lawyer, Kayode Ajulo, said in a reaction on his Facebook page on Sunday.

Dino Melaye, a former member of the House of Representatives, raised the same concern.

“Who authorized the use of Nigerian Navy helicopter for kabukabu operation?” Mr. Melaye asked, comparing the shuttles made by the ill-fated helicopter with a city taxi runs.

Then he noted: “Carrying non-Naval officers for a burial is not official.”

The disquiet, another commentator pointed, merely cashed on what has been a normal practice of diverting military, and civilian equipment, for illicit purposes, only headlined this time by the fatal crash.

“It is a reflection of the excesses and abuse of office going on routinely in the nation’s corridors of power,” Nwokolo Ernest said. “It would have passed un-noticed, un-examined as usual but for the ill-fated crash.”

By Monday, the details of the deployment remained scant and unofficial.

Naval authorities would not provide a formal explanation regarding why a national security asset was deployed for a burial of a private citizen and whether it was for commercial reasons, and whose responsibility it is to replace the wrecked chopper.

The presidency, whose authorization is required for such duty tour, and whose aide hosted the event at the centre of the accident, also offered no explanations.

The Naval official response since the attack, coming on Monday afternoon, barely attempted to address questions about the airworthiness of the chopper, an Italian made Augusta 105.

In a statement, naval authorities said the Navy carries out regular maintenance of its aviation assets, and that the crashed helicopter was last serviced on November 19.

The claim, made by the Chief of Training and Operations at Naval headquarters, Emmanuel Ogbor, said before crashing, the chopper still had more than 80 flight hours left, having covered 1, 704 flight hours.

“In order to ensure serviceability of helicopters, a certified technical support engineer from Augusta Westland is retained in Nigeria by the Navy at huge cost to support maintenance efforts,” Mr. Ogbor, a Rear Admiral, said.

But the statement was silent on the helicopter’s use, and whether naval regulations allows a national security asset to be used for commercial activities or extra-military functions, including the transportation of guests to the funeral ceremony of a presidential aide.

“If it is turned to commercial for the prevailing purposes, how much is in receipt of the Federal Government of Nigeria?” Mr. Ajulo asked.

Finding answers to these questions may be weeks, or even months away, analysts said, although the planned House of Representatives’ inquiry might yield some disclosures.

Used as operational aid, helicopters are deployed by many naval units across the world purely for aiding ship operations, and for special military exercises.

Extra-military applications, with the authorization of the president as the Commander-in-Chief, could only be for emergency needs, military analysts said.

Admiral Ogbor, who spoke for the navy, also underline similar rules of deployment in his statement on Monday, citing naval use of aircrafts only for “vectoring ships for interdiction and interception operations.”

“Considering our vast maritime domain, the Nigerian Navy employs helicopters to enhance its maritime capability by utilizing the speed and long range of the helicopters,” he said.

No part of those remarks alluded to the nature of the assignment the ill-fated helicopter was deployed to carry out.

According to the Navy’s official website, the crashed helicopter was amongst the only three aircrafts owned by the force, others being an Aeronautics Aerostar, and a Westland Lynx.

While the crashed chopper was a light utility craft, seemingly the relative best, the other two were a Reconnaissance and a medium utility helicopter respectively.

 The last two were purchased from Israel and the crashed one United Kingdom.

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