“Valour is stability, not of leg and arms, but of courage and the soul.”
–Michael de Montaigne
By Omoniyi Salaudeen
The incredible story of how a pilot with the Nigerian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo, escaped from intense gunfire by armed bandits who shot down his Alpha Jet in Zamfara State is still a subject of discourse in many circles.
As the narratives available in the conventional and social media platforms clearly revealed, the experience of the young gallant officer is not only chilling and frightening, but also distressing. Even put under a mere imagination, the story of his mysterious escape from the den of bandits can make anyone cringe in despair.
Unlike many before him, the combatant officer walked through the valley of the shadow of death several times in a row, but fought his way out and safely returned to the Air Force base to tell his story to the world by himself.
From the record, not many people had been so lucky. Divine providence, physical fitness, youthful energy, and skillful experience combined made him a living testimony.
According to the Director of Public Relations and Information, Nigerian Air Force, Edward Gabkwet, Pilot Dairo who had completed a successful air interdiction mission between the boundaries of Zamfara and Kaduna states was on his return journey when the aircraft came under intense attack and as it was bound to crash, he ejected.
And as it was not an expedition undertaken by a coward, the courageous pilot took his destiny in his hands, dialogued with his legs, and commenced racing for his dear life in a distance covering about 30 kilometres. He had this to say: “When my jet was hit by explosives and my flight control destroyed, I had no other choice than to eject. I just said God, finally, here we go.
“As I was flanked by the bandits, I kept praying and telling God to answer your prayers because I knew you were all praying for me. And I thank God for bestowing His love on me and saved me from death several times within the period.
“They were more interested in capturing me than shooting me even at a close range. He (God) gave me the strength to run and walk covering almost 30 kilometres even with one strained leg. Having not had food and water all day, I prayed for strength because I needed it and He gave me.”
Amidst the struggle for survival, Dairo had to improvise with his phone facilities to navigate his way through the enclave of the bandits to the nearby settlements where he sought refuge before the Air Force intervention eventually came.
Gabkwet corroborated the narrative, saying, “Luckily, the gallant pilot of the aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo, successfully ejected from the aircraft. Using his survival instincts, the pilot, who came under intense fire from the bandits, was able to evade them and sought refuge in nearby settlements, awaiting the sunset.
“Under the cover of the darkness and his phone for navigation, Flight Lieutenant Dairo was able to elude several bandits’ strongholds and maneuvered his way to a Nigeria Army Unit, where he was finally rescued.
That was skill, courage, and gallantry in display. And for what he vividly went through, he noted that the bandits were as ruthless as the Boko Haram insurgents. While the bandits were intensely pursuing him, he said they killed several persons and attacked so many settlements along the path, wondering the basis of semantic difference with the recalcitrant insurgents.
The two words have often been loosely used within the bureaucratic setting to signify a different scenario. But in reality, bandits and insurgents are one and the same.
Though they may differ in their mode of operation, their ultimate target is human life. Both have also assumed an alarming level of sophistication, which should ordinarily serve as a wake-up call for the authorities to begin to restrategise for more affirmative action against the threatening national security.
As indeed in other parts of the world, the issue of security is a work in progress. In Nigeria, the quantum of human and material resources that have gone down the drain in the course of the fight against insurgency, kidnapping, banditry, and other forms of criminalities cannot be estimated.
This year alone, no fewer than three major plane crashes involving military personnel have been recorded in the last six months. On February 21, a Nigeria Air Force King Air 350 which was sent out on a mission operation in Minna, the Niger State capital, went down near the Abuja airport, killing seven young officers on board.
Barely a month after the incident, precisely on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, another Alpha-Jet aircraft on a mission against Boko Haram disappeared from the radar only for the insurgent group to later release a video showing the crashed jet and the bodies of the two unfortunate officers onboard.
The most recent incident is the ill-fated Beechcraft 350i which came down in Kaduna, killing the former Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, and 11 others, including three generals, two majors, as well as army and flight crew officers.
The frequency and the manners of these incidents, therefore, underscore the need for regular and intensive training courses for officers of the Air Force as well as routine maintenance of the standby fleets.
Otherwise, the trend could spark off an atmosphere of mass hysteria within the rank and file of the combatant officers.
Even the lucky pilot who survived the July 18 crash did not hide the fact that he had had a premonition of his encounter with death days before the Nigerian military assigned him on the mission.
He survived, but the aircraft was reduced to a wreckage after the incident. For the latest successful voyage, Dairo’s place has been settled among the pantheon of heroes.