STELLA OBASANJO AND THE BELLVIEW FLIGHT 210 CRASH OF OCTOBER 2005: 10 YEARS OF RAVAGING QUESTIONS
The third week of October mark some of the painful, unnecessary and reckless human losses we have suffered in the history of Nigeria, one of which was the horrendous assassination of Mr Dele Giwa, a vibrant journalist and editor par excellence, founder of the NewsWatch, magazine and the pioneer of weekly magazine publications in Nigeria, when his body was mangled via a bomb parcelled as a letter and addressed to him “from the CinC” on the morning of Saturday 19 October 1986. Whether that “CinC” meant the usual “Commander in Chief” or the “Chief in Concord” has remained a mystery up till now. However, what was clear at the time of that incidence was that Dele Giwa had ground relationship matters with both Chiefs, and they were in line of his duties. Its 29 years already, nevertheless, I wish to rather remind Nigerians that over these years we all accepted to ask the question “who killed Dele Giwa? I now ask to know if this question still upon our lips today? As we remember Dele Giwa and his contributions to journalism in Nigeria, the advancement and his shaping of the present standards for our newsprints, let us also reflect on the darkest night Nigerians have had to face exactly a decade ago.
Like Siamese, the one coming in trail of the other; Saturday 22 October 2005, with such suddenness, like the blasting from an “un-parcelled” bomb – the Bellview flight 210 that left the grounds of Lagos at 20:35 hours heading for Abuja disappeared from control radar a minute after take off; and was later found buried under the belly of Lisa village in Ogun State, Nigeria. While Nigerians were yet struggling with assimilating that break-in-news, especially with initial reports indicating survivors, we were subsequently told that all 117 souls on board Bellview flight 210 that night, 111 passengers and 6 crew members, were buried alive under the belly of Lisa village; another breaking news flashed on our tubes: our very amiable First Lady, Dame Stella Abebe-Obasanjo, on Sunday 23 October 2005 died from surgical complications handled by a “kind” of medical practitioner in a certain “kind” of hospital in “remote” Spain. The stories woven around these events led a BBC reporter to christen Nigeria as a place “where it is difficult to find truth”. We shall herein also dwell briefly on truth.
For me, both news had too many things to considered than just wishing them away like the government at that time tried to do. I raised questions which has endured with me these past 10 years; and I now feel very choked with them. The lessons these sad events taught us are still with us today, and has now pushed me to resound the inherent questions these incidences raised in my mind at that time they happened. It is in memory of all the 117 Nigerians who lost their lives on that dark, bone-chilling “Saturday night” that I dedicate this piece, and hereby also join all the families the victims left behind in remembering them on this 10th anniversary. I liken this effort to spiritualizing “common sense” in this matter, and I sincerely hope to be excused for whatever offenses my sincere questions may irk.
I will start this piece with a passage quoting Jesus Christ in one of his teachings. In Mathew 5.27-28 he said, “you have heard that it was said by them of old time, (that) you shall not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Apart from instructing his followers to always reconsider frail human desires and the need for self control, Jesus, here, taught about originating pure thoughts from the heart, buttressing the truth that all material things, seen and unseen realities, all berthed upon meditative contemplation, personal confessions (verbal or written) and deliberate works done.
Positive inspiration opines that a passionate desire in a human heart oftentimes materializes such desire, especially when it is confessed with the mouth and believed on with the heart. In other words, what a person desires and confesses is most likely to find existential life to push for its animation. It is truth to say a person is whom he believes and confesses to be: “as a man thinks in his heart, so he is”; so the Holy Book says. The late legal icon Gani Fawehinmi was seen to be a little hard and harsh on President Obasanjo in the letter he wrote to him on the occasion of his wife’s death, in which he queried Olusegun Obasanjo on why he allowed his late wife to undergo “cosmetic surgery” abroad. This question of Gain was very pregnant and his use of the word “allowed” was also instructive. Likely, the late legal luminary may have based his query on moral and religious grounds, being a devote Muslim. I joined some other Nigerians at that time and saw Gani’s query as a welcomed development. Let me therefore proverbially say that they who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. Gani’s letter, whether it was acceptable to Chief Obasanjo or not, is now a document of history, but permit me hence to dwell on the spiritual issue of nursing a desire, a passionate one at that, to materialise the “darkness” of Saturday 22 October 2005.
During the building of the Tower of Babel, according to scripture, it is recorded that “The Lord God said Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language…now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Genesis 11.6). Unless God interposed to restrain those builders, nothing would stop them from attaining their goal – that of linking heaven with the earth by a tower: a mission which was to lead to an infinite period but God saved those men such waste of energy; excusing their ignorance of the fact that “the earth is round”. I was therefore taken aback when Olumuyiwa Olusegun Obasanjo, the son of Olusegun Obasanjo by his late wife Stella, during the Federal Executive Council session held in honour of his late mother, discarded a prepared speech he claimed to have been given to him, from which, maybe, his father expected he read, but he asked to be allowed to speak from his heart. Whatsoever he said after that, I believe was from inspiration and divinely tailored to deposit divine revelations on the path for truth to prevail.
Mr Olumuyiwa Obasanjo revealed a discussion he had with his late mother relating to the funeral of Stella’s late grandmother, who also is Olumuyiwa’s great grandmother. According to him, his mother to him of how she desired the honour accorded her grandmother during her funeral, and she spoke so passionately about it. I wondered what aspects of her grandmother’s funeral captivated Stella so much as to arouse her desire for a funeral at all: what manner of a strange desire for someone who has everything going for her? This desire, although only spoken, maybe to Olumuyiwa, was buried under a more auspicious desire to celebrate a well-organized and well-attended birthday anniversary. According to Stella’s husband, he had granted “everything she needed” for that celebration. This according to him was to compensate her for “one promise he could not fulfill” in the past. Hmmm! “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear”.
According to the organizers of Stella’s birthday, on whom it fell to play and execute the celebration, everything was ready and in place for the “birthday” celebration, and invitation cards were already out. Almost every one close to Stella suggested that she might have had premonition that she would die. She requested the husband’s co-operation in “regularizing” their matrimony according to the strictest Catholic Church traditions, in order that she can qualify to partake of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Father Mathew Hassan Kukah, who conducted all close body rituals during Stella obsequies, revealed that any member of the Catholic Church who attains this privilege “enjoys equal Catholic funeral rites as the Pope, the head of the Catholic faith”. Stella’s husband, in furtherance of what Father Kukah revealed about this event, said that after the “Sacrament of Matrimony” was observed, Stella thanked him “for saving her soul”. If Stella therefore desired the glamour of her grandmother’s funeral, conducted while she was the First Lady of Nigeria, what time best fits the actualisation of such desire as she nursed? The various requisitions she placed before her husband for “regularizing all regularize-ables” found space on his official invoices; and she thanked him for “saving” her soul.
It was no longer news that almost all that was prepared towards the execution of a memorable birthday celebration were converted to the conduct of a well orchestrated funeral, except maybe that the number of dignitaries expected worldwide to grace the event were yet to be reached because the invitations were only out when her death was announced. We all saw the honour accorded the late First Lady in all the events concerning her funeral. Stella’s death waited until it could be a part of history. She became the first wife of a serving Nigeria President to die while the husband was in office. She was the first woman to be given a National burial. She is also the first woman of national prominence to enjoy a National silence commemorated as a part of a Federal Executive Council meeting. “Abeg, OBJ try for him wife joo!” A husband who desired to fulfill, at least for once, one promise he made to his wife, could not but put in everything to make it up for her in her burial, his regrets notwithstanding. Strange things happens “sha!” She was also the first to be celebrated at the National Ecumenical Center: the “one-stop-Church” for all Nigerian Christians. Stella could not have had it better. She opened the gates of Aso Rock villa to “all and sundry.” While it lasted, it was heard as “the loudest”. It is often said that it is good to quit when the ovation is loudest, here lies an important lesson from Stella to us.
Florence Ita Giwa, in her condolence homily at the mainbowl of the Moshood Abiola stadium in Abeokuta where Stella’s funeral rites were conducted, said that though Stella looked petite in frame, she was “a giant at heart”. Stella’s end was said to be “a courageous” one. I am saying this because I keep imagining how Stella died. I know that surgery bears wounds, and wounds are painful; but one thing I am certain about is that the death of our 117 brothers and sisters was not only painful, but also undoubtedly frightening. It was the height of spiritual wickedness in high places. I strongly believe that all we saw and heard emanated from one’s wish to be remembered like her grandmother at whose funeral a seed of desire was sown. Sometimes I am convinced that Stella died of heart attack. I will disagree that the hospital she attended in Spain was not a competent one: why would she do that when reports had it that the King and Queen of Spain were her personal friends; why would she sneak into their country and die under their bosoms? In line with my “heart attack” theory, I felt that it was the news of the missing Bellview flight 210 and the death of a multitude of Nigerians, passed on to her on her hospital bed, that led her to see the many troubles of her husband and this led to her passing out on them. We usually say God knows best, this is true no doubt, but God is a just God. When God is allowed to sway the conscience, a station he provided with rights of decision and substances of consequences, he bears safe in his arms. No matter the circumstance he leads into, he assures an expectant end. Stella’s death waited to be heralded by the unfortunate Bellview air crash.
Errors are human, and the forces of the dark world conspire constantly against humanity. When we see as we have seen, let us know that the power of darkness has aligned with human agencies to destroy ordinary men. It is a benchmark of God’s leadership, when a man would not do what he cannot confess. Our very lives hang upon God’s character of eternal mercy and loving-kindness. Glamour and prestige are twin; prestige leading the way of glamour. Most times, people think they are accepted of God by good works. Good works may attract rewards from God but it does not lead to God. Only a man can lead another to God, and when he comes to him, he learns of him. I believe that only Jesus led, and still leads the men he has chosen to lead others to God. Stella’s death was sad no doubt, but it is the way of all flesh. What was sadly tragic was the air crash that abruptly terminated everything about the 117 souls it claimed. For the investigators of that crash to say they could not find the Black box was most unfortunate: even if it meant relocating the people of Lisa to bulldoze that ground to exhume the corpses for burial and extract the plane’s data storage device for proper investigation. How then can we know what was the likely cause of that unfortunate crash that led to a complete disappearance of over 100 people in the face of a confused government?
All the moves of Government at this time were very faulty. Many opinions and suggestions were forwarded and analyzed concerning the crash, but I have not heard anybody question the rationale of Government organizing a quick “inter-faith” (whatsoever that means) memorial service for the victims of that crash. They called it an “Inter-Faith Memorial Service”: how can anybody celebrate an “official” memorial service for bodies not yet “officially” buried? The Babangida’s Government showed better sense in organizing a National funeral for victims of Hercules A310 of Ejigbo fame. The Government’s hypocrisy was further revealed by the rushing of every aspect of the passage rites for “the 117” to make it follow a comprehensive total package passage rite for Stella. This is the reason I say that the tragedy, which happened because of human error, heralded Stella’s death and government made it worst by making their “official” activities during this period look more like the funeral of traditional monarchs, who are usually buried with “human heads”. Was such “un-confession-able” notion borne in all preceding and initial arrangements as translated and acted?
From the day the events happened, I meditated upon them and followed every lead, yet there still remained a gap of information: what led to that crash? Lisa villagers said they cried for government’s attention without success, and regret that it took that tragedy to attain that attention. What is the present situation of those villagers; and how long ago did officials of government last visited that officially claimed “government memorial arcade” in Lisa, Ogun State?
As negligible as the words of man’s mouth can be, let us know that it could pave the way for such calamities. When the glory of God is not upheld by mortal men, those creations of God whose duty it is to glorify God at all times can rise against the defiance of God’s glory through calamities, in order to make certain that which is the pearl upon God’s crown as king over all creation. In this respect, let me recall the sinking of the “unsinkable’’ ship, the Titanic, in 1912. Shortly before the Ship set sail; one of Titanic wealthy passengers stood boastfully before his intended mother-in-law and said the Titanic was a ship “even God cannot sink”. Few hours after this lousy statement, the architects, builders and financiers of the construction of the ship assembled over dinner, to go over aspects of the ship that made it so secured; and tempted to alter its energy and advance as a means of boasting. Unknown to mortal men, the hand of providence led the ship to hit a precipice and from a very small hole made on the body of the ship, nature overtook subsequent events, leading to the loss of 1500 of 2200 souls on that cold and dark night.
We may say that the occurrence had a play of providence, but what led to that disaster was the instruction one of the financiers gave to the Captain. He told the Captain to accelerate the ship such that while they were been expected by noon at their destination in America as scheduled, they would arrive by dawn with the people waking up to find that they had berth in the early morning. They tried to save about 8 hours but ended in losing everything. Indeed “speed kills”. What was aimed at further enhancing the rating of the Titanic led to its ridicule: it did not get to its destination of its first sail; it was like a “still-born”. Against the advice of the Captain, the financier pressured him into increasing the speed and the two Deckhands set to watch the night-time distance were carried away by the love tango of two youths. The watch men abandoned their watch; and before they set again to their watch it was already too late. Their observation became late and so also was the alarm set off a little before the hit. The ship sank; the Titanic floundered. I wish to observe this tradition in every calamity: A lousy tongue, an unsustained human confidence and a distraction from duty.
Ex-President Obasanjo had during one of the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua memorial lectures in the year 2000, while commenting on the circumstance of Yar’Adua’s murder, said that although he was not disputing that there is an “act of God”, he said it must also be accepted that there is also an “act of man”. God only interposes in human affairs when his glory is brought to disrepute. In the Bellview 210 air crash, let us continue to be consoled; let our faith be grounded in only God. Though God allow calamities happen, what usually happens is caused by the errors of men. There are lessons in these tragedies to learn from, and until we do, we shall experience it again. Government should always stand up to its responsibilities. Those managing aspect of services that involves human lives must put into their duties their best of time and dedication. They must understand the sacred sanctity of a human life. Generally, we must be sensitive to our thoughts, confessions and confidences. The losses we suffered were definitely victims of careless men. The ex-President’s appeal that those tragedies should unite Nigerians was the most childish expectation by a grown man. It is like Father Kukah said in his exhortation at Stella’s funeral; we must sell all that we have and follow after Truth. It is only in Jesus that all varieties are made one. The tragedies that occurred can only enhance unity just as it could be expected that the “Apo Six tragedy” can unite Nigerians. All the tragedies are indicative of the caliber of Government we are operating in Nigeria. Let’s not run from it.
This is where people misunderstood the position of Gani Fawehinmi on Stella. She had her chooses and she had all she wanted; but “the 117” may never have the opportunity she had, especially in getting her husband to save her “soul”. All the same, may their souls continue their rest in peace. Finally, let me admonish that no President should look for unity in other peoples’ tragedies, but put concrete policies in place by assembling political and economic vehicles to convey an un-pretended national unity, speedy socio-economic advancement and progressive national stability. These are all founded only on truth, and it is truth that can unlock the shackles with which we are bound as a people. Until we deal with each other on the basis of truth, we are all lost. May the souls of Dele Giwa, Stella Abebe Obasanjo and all “the 117” brothers and sisters continue in their peaceful rest, amen. I just had to “talk my own make Nigeria for better”.