A troubled helicopter conveying sympathizers to a funeral in Bayelsa state, burst into flames on Saturday, before plunging into the creeks, killing the governor of Kaduna state, Patrick Yakowa, a former National Security Adviser, Owoye Azazi, and four others in the nation’s fourth air disaster this year.
Messrs Yakowa and Azazi, and their aides, Dauda Tsoho and Mohammed Kama; and the pilots, Murtala Daba and Adeyemi Sowole, reportedly died in the inferno, having been badly burnt beyond recognition, witnesses say.
The chopper, owned by the Nigerian Navy, is said to have carried out repeated shuttles between Port Harcourt, Yenagoa and Okoroba, a town in Ogbia local government of the state, where the father of an aide to President Goodluck Jonathan, Oronto Douglas, was being buried.
The fatal trip, which was to convey the governor and the former Security chief to Port Harcourt, enroute Abuja, was to be one of the helicopter’s last for the day.
But at about 2.30 p.m., minutes after takeoff, officials say, the chopper crashed, sparking an emergency crisis, and plunging a shocked nation, well-known to air disasters but unused to them, back to fright and mourning.
President Jonathan said in a statement he was shocked and saddened by the accident, and said the losses were “extremely painful” for the nation.
“The President extends deep and heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the deceased, and the governments and people of Kaduna and Bayelsa States,” the statement said. “He describes the sudden loss of these distinguished Nigerians as extremely painful to the entire nation.”
The president was away from Bayelsa, his home state, when the incident occured. Mr. Jonathan has ordered an investigation.
The crash will be the fourth this year after the June 3 Dana airline crash that killed all 153 on board and about six on the ground; the helicopter crash that killed Assistant Inspector General of Police John Haruna, his aides and the pilot and the October crash involving the governor of Taraba state, Danbaba Suntai.
Mr. Suntai, critically injured in the accident, remains hospitalized abroad.
The details of events leading to the Saturday crash remained unclear. But multiple reports say the carrier wobbled shortly after it stabilized in air and then plummeted into the swamps.
Mr. Yakowa, 64, was amongst the few governors who attended the funeral. A member of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, he shot to national reckoning after taking over as governor of Kaduna state, to replace Namadi Sambo, who had been drafted by Mr. Jonathan as Vice President.
Mr. Yakowa’s elevation, making him the first Christian to rule the state since 1999, chalked up intense internal political wrangling, which, teamed with militant-related violence, unsettled the northern state.
For the most part, Mr. Yakowa was credited with nimbly managing the state’s fragile polity for more than two years, keeping the level of violence in check.
As speculation over his death mounted Saturday evening, it was his party, the PDP, that gave what was the first official confirmation he made the fatal trip.
The party paid tribute to the former governor in a statement signed by spokesperson, Olisa Metuh.
“The nation has lost a great patriot who in about two years in saddle as the Governor of Kaduna State demonstrated an unyielding capacity in wielding together varying fragile interests,” the party said. “Even in the face of daunting security challenges, nothing came close to compromising his iron cast resolve and faith that the phase must certainly pass.”
In Kaduna state, the state government said funeral arrangements will be announced later. Security was immediately heightened in the restive state, residents say.
One photographer who had met Mr. Yakowa at the burial, shortly before his death, took a shot of Messrs Yakowa and Azazi walking away, a picture now regarded as the last of the two men.
Cosmas Asogwa described Mr. Yakowa as “most cheerful man I met today (Saturday)”.
He said the governor, upon alighting from the doomed chopper that brought him into Okoroba, beamed with smiles, greeting and acknowledging cheers.
At one point, he took time to cheer up his kinsmen who were at a corner butchering a cow for the occasion before moving onto the reception hall.
Mr. Azazi, a native of Bayelsa state where the incident occured, was a retired Army general, who served as the Army chief under late president, Umaru Yar’adua. Colleagues in the past have described Mr. Azazi as a fine and brave soldier, and a brilliant intelligence officer.
Mr. Azazi took over as the nation’s chief security adviser under Mr. Jonathan before leaving office amid criticisms over his failure to scale down the bombing and gun attacks by the Islamic sect, Boko Haram.
Before leaving office, Mr. Azazi fell out of favour with Mr. Jonathan after publicly blaming the PDP for the violence in the north. The remark is said to have played a key role in his removal months later.
For hours, Saturday, after initial speculation about the deaths emerged, security and rescue officials scrambled information, declining to respond to media inquiries, and where they confirmed the crash, they declined to name the victims.
State television, NTA, ran a brief of breaking news for more than an hour without mentioning the names of those killed in the crash even after the deaths had been confirmed.
The National Emergency Management Agency only announced a rescue and search mission hours after the incident.
Hours later, the agency said the operation had been concluded and that the six occupants of the chopper were killed, without still mentioning their names.
But while they dithered, PREMIUM TIMES confirmed the incident and names of the victims.