By Yushau A. Shuaib
“Congratulations for emerging a Finalist in the IPRA Golden World Awards for Excellence in PR 2020 with ‘NAF Women of War’ in the Category Crisis management.”
That was the message in an email received from Janice Hill, the Member Services Manager of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), notifying the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) of its campaign on gender balancing in the Nigerian military. The campaign had previously won the Public Sector/Government Category of African PR awards for Superior Achievement in Branding, Reputation and Engagement (SABRE) initially billed to hold at the Conference of the African Public Relations Association (APRA) in Dar es salaam, Tanzania in May this year, but which was postponed due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic that had claimed much ground across the world.
The first female combat helicopter pilot in Nigeria, Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, who died in an unfortunate freak auto-accident on July 14 at the age of 24, was one of the prominent faces of the inspirational PR campaign.
Before her untimely death, Arotile’s outstanding profile and that of Kafayat Sanni, Nigeria’s first female fighter jet pilot, form part of NAF’s campaign on Women of War, in an attempt to eliminate the stereotypical notion that the military is dominated by men; and that more so women have no place in the combat operations of the armed forces.
The campaign was an initiative of the forward-looking and detribalised Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, in rebranding the service as the most reputable, humane responsive military service in the African continent. Due to it uniqueness, the campaign had won several credible laurels, including African and global awards on reputation and crisis management in Rwanda and Armenia, only last year.
While the Air Chief is not given to playing to the gallery or engaging in contrived and incredible propaganda towards political ends, he takes great delight in projecting the earned reputation of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) as a progressive institution, through the exceptional efforts and gallantry of its personnel.
Through the video and other levels of narrative, the ‘Women of War’ campaign proved that “what a man can do, a woman can do better” by depicting how female inclusiveness in the military is paying off. Apart from Arotile and Kafayat, other top female officers were interviewed in a documentary, as the campaign was towards proffering answers to questions pertaining to the roles of women in the NAF, which have been unfairly underrated and unnecessarily burdened by distorted cultural expectations.
The campaign portrays how women of war have persistently showcased fearlessness and courage as pilots, combatants, and armament specialists, among other no less significant roles. These have tremendously led to the increased participation of female personnel in combat and war support functions, especially in the fight against armed banditry and insurgency in Nigeria. No doubt, this has portrayed the NAF as a gender-sensitive and balanced military institution, which projects positive female role models in the likes of Flying Officer Arotile and others, to the great admiration of Nigerians.
The campaign has immensely boosted the morale of the female troops, who are everywhere, valiantly fighting armed banditry and terrorism in Nigeria’s North-West and North-East geopolitical zones. It has also further gingered the enlistment of female citizens into the Nigerian Air Force.
During the unveiling of the newly acquired Augusta 109 Power Attack Helicopters, it was innocent-looking and brainy Arotile who introduced the features and operation of the aircraft to President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja.
As such, the unprecedented outpouring of emotions, attendant upon grief and disbelief, was not surprising, following the death of the young female officer. When she was laid to rest on July 23, with full military honours, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar stated that the NAF was still in palpable shock and intense anguish over the loss of a mentee in whom the service had so much confidence. He described the late Arotile as a dedicated and goal-oriented young woman who carried out her assignments, both on the ground and in the air, with a high level of professionalism and commitment.
While reiterating how the fallen heroine had contributed immensely to the decimation of subversive elements in several anti-banditry combat missions, Air Marshal Abubakar condoled with the entire womenfolk of Nigeria, whom he said, the late Arotile had represented so creditably.
Born on December 13, 1995, Tolulope Arotile attended Air Force Primary School and Air Force Secondary School, both in Kaduna, from 2000 to 2011, before she later gained admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy as a member of the 64 Regular Course on September 22, 2012. She was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force as a Pilot Officer on September 16, 2017, and was winged as the country’s first-ever female combat helicopter pilot on October 15, 2019, after completing her flight training in South Africa. She equally held a commercial pilot licence and had undergone tactical flying training on the Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter in Italy. Before her death, within a short period of her commission, Arotile had attained over 400 flying hours in the service to the nation.
Truly, Arotile has left her mark in the sands of time, proving that when it comes to the attainment of excellence and value addition to society, age or gender remains a poor measure of capability, and hence should never be entertained as barriers.
While we thank the late Tolulope Arotile for fighting earnestly in protecting Nigeria’s sovereign integrity, I pray that other women of war would keep finding the courage to keep the flag of excellence flying, while never allowing their gender to constitute a hindrance to their remarkable capabilities.