Beg for payment of their husbands’ entitlements
By Tessy Igomu
Three minutes after take-off, the plane lost its engines mid-air. It then manoeuvred dangerously in a last ditch effort to gain gravity. Next, it nose-dived, plunging about 32 meters of its mass into mangrove waters. That was the Nigerian Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane that crashed in Ejigbo, Lagos, on Saturday, 26, 1992.
Sixteen hours after the disaster, the plane’s wreckage was found in a swamp with 173 bodies; 23 others it was carrying were believed to be missing. Most of the deceased were the cream of Nigeria’s finest military officers of the 19, 20, 21 and 22 regular courses of the Nigerian Defence Academy. The rest were believed to be civilians and foreigners.
Now 24 years down the road, the widows of those deceased officers are still in limbo, hungry and forgotten. But their voices can still be heard, crying for help following alleged refusal by government to pay their husbands’ entitlements.
One of the victims was Major V. U. Mukoro. On this day, his widow, Mrs. Risikat Mukoro, sat in her sparsely-furnished living room calmly watching her 16-month-old granddaughter playing. With laboured gait, she gathered the tot and settled her on her lap and gently began to rock her to sleep.
The air around her suggested that all was not well. Her intermittent sighs were instant give-away that she was gravely burdened. This woman with a sprinkle of grey hairs said she had gone through torturous moments after her husband’s demise. She disclosed that she and other women who lost their husbands to the crash had been grieving.
“Life has been so hard for me and my children. It’s hard to believe, but I have been living at the mercy of my mother-in-law and some of my husband’s family members. Since I lost my husband, the military has turned its back on me,” she said tearfully.
In an emotion-laden voice, Mrs. Mukoro disclosed that she had not collected any dime from the Army since it relocated from Lagos to Abuja.
“The last time I went to Abuja because of this, I vowed never to go back. I was told to come one of those days so I took an over-night bus. I got to the Army headquarters in the morning, hungry and without taking my bath to be told that there was no money yet.
“For 24 years, we have been on this issue. I learnt that the wives of some military officers, who died in other air crashes afterwards were fully paid their husbands’ entitlements. I have been wondering what we did to deserve all this.”
Regrettably, after the then military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (retd.), promised to give houses and scholarships to children of the late officers in addition to paying their fathers’ entitlements, the promises have remained unfulfilled.
So far, the families of the deceased have been abandoned and left dismayed. But they have not given up on the fight to get justice for their husbands. Some of the widows, who travelled from various parts of the country to Lagos, shared their experiences, recalling how they had lived on the charity.
The widows decried what they described as injustice meted out to them by the military, noting that till date they had not been informed officially of the incident in line with the military’s rule of engagement. They claimed that they only learnt about their husbands’ death while watching the NTA network news.
Recalling how her late mother struggled to fend for the family, Bisi Johnson, who was 14, at the time of the crash said at a point, they had no house to live in. She disclosed that her mother, who never recovered from the shock of losing her husband, later died of heartbreak and hardship in 2009, leaving her and her brother.
The widows feared that their husbands might have died in vain, as the only memoriam in their honour was a building named “September 26” at the Command and Staff College, Jaji.
They alleged that barely three months after the tragic crash, they and their children were thrown out of their homes in various barracks, without provision for alternative accommodations by the military.
They recalled that after the burial of their husbands on October 5, 1992, General Sani Abacha, while addressing families of the deceased, promised that government would compensate them in line with the condition of service of the Army. They recalled that Abacha also set up a panel of enquiry, to look into the cause of the crash. They further alleged that they were warned not to remarry in order to claim their husband’s entitlements.
A letter, they recalled, was written to all the then state administrators, through the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff, mandating that accommodation should be provided for them in their states of origin.
They claimed that while states like Ogun, Oyo, Lagos, Osun and Ondo provided accommodation for some of them, others failed. Benue State, they recalled, allocated dilapidated houses to some of them, while Abia State promised to build houses if the widows provided lands. Most of the northern states, the widows maintained, had done nothing in that regard.
Mrs. Naomi Bature, widow of Simon Bature, a Major in the Nigerian Army, said immediately after the burial, she was given N50, 000 and later N350, 000 as her husband’s gratuity. Since then, she claimed she had received nothing extra. She also disclosed that the allowance that accrued to her husband monthly had not been paid in the past 24 years.
She also claimed that the Peugeot cars given to military officers from the rank of Captain and above were denied most of them whose husbands could not receive theirs before their death. She also noted that their children’s education was disrupted because the military reneged on its scholarship promised.
The officers who lost their lives in the plane crash included 104 from the Army, Navy, 17, and 17 from Air Force, eight foreign officers, 11 Nigerian Air Force crew, among others.
At their interment with full military honours in Abuja on October 5, 1992, the then Military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, described the accident as “a calamity, shocking in its impact and devastating in its finality.”
Sadly, years after the crash, they have not been honoured. Their memorial over the years waas always done by the widows.
In 2013, when the reporter attended a memorial organised for the late officers at the Adeyemi Bero Auditorium, Alausa Secretariat, Ikeja, no military personnel or representative was in attendance.
Even when the hall was given to the widows free by the Lagos State government, it was without the barest form of decoration. The podium for special guests was not adorned, as the poor widows could not afford N1, 800 to have it draped with cloth. The widows lamented that, that had been the tradition since the demise of their husbands.
Fight for justice
Due to the perceived injustice meted to them, widows of the late officers represented by Mrs. Hadiza Pindar, Doorshima Ada’a, Fianca Odache and Nwano Eze-Ukagha, petitioned the Human Rights Violation Commission headed by the late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, urging redress.
In the petition, they demanded among other things for the “Implementation of terms and conditions of service of the Armed Forces as contained in Sections 331 to 335, implementation of conditions applicable to Federal Government scholarship to students; that the widows who remain unmarried and their children should be paid the officers’ entitlements, The gratuities paid in 1995, which was wrongly calculated be recalculated and paid and that Julius Berger Nigeria Plc’s donation to the families of the victims be shared.”
The Army it was learnt then accepted to have an out-of-court settlement with the widows. In the memorandum of agreement, they agreed to settle the families and the widows of the deceased in consonance with Sections 331-335 of the Nigerian Army condition of service. With the agreement, the military was expected to pay N15, 000 to children of the deceased in primary school, N25, 000 to those in secondary school and N50, 000 to those in tertiary schools. But since September 19, 1999, when the agreement was reached, nothing has happened.
Mrs. Mukoro is angry that the C-130 remained the only military air tragedy no compensation was paid to dependants of the deceased.
“At this juncture, the relevant question to be asked is: Has this country compensated these officers for them to look back and smile at Nigeria? And when we say compensation, we do not mean the simulated kind of compensation where unknown streets or unpaved roads were named after them; the simple compensation they deserve after death is not a favour. By law, the wives of those fallen heroes are entitled to one-third of their husbands’ salaries till death, since they died in active military service. The wives of those officers, who were in their 20s when their husbands died, have kept the bond by not remarrying. But the leadership of this country has failed the helpless women.
“There is no justification for the government not to pay us. Various leaderships of this country have failed us; they played several tricks on us. At the 1999/2000, Oputa Panel, we made representations; but when the government discovered that its integrity was at stake, it quickly opted for settlement with a very strong promise that it would meet all our demands. They told us that our demands were justifiable and legal. Unfortunately, it was a calculated step to dissuade and beguile our confidence, as considerate mothers who were willing to listen whenever we were approached. The promises, till date have not been met.
“We also took our battle to the National Assembly but till date, nothing has been done. We went to the Ministry of Defence through the minister, but met a brick wall. We then decided to limit the struggle to our immediate constituency, the military, through various Chiefs of Army Staff and Chiefs of Defence Staff, but they failed us; they were even less interested. We then chose the legal option, since the law remains the last hope of the common man. Our Lawyers have taken the case to the National Human Rights Commission.”
Appeal to President Buhari
However, the widows of ‘C-130’ victims are hopeful that President Muhammadu Buhari would address their plight.
“Today is here and we make this demand in good faith, believing that President Buhari would look our way with pity. We are appealing to him for help. We are suffering; we believe in him and in his anti-corruption drive.
“Many of us have died, some are sick at the moment; some can barely feed. Some don’t even have their own houses to live in. Our husbands worked to defend this country. And so, the least this country can do for them is to ensure that their benefits are given to their widows. We should not be allowed to die miserably,” the women pleaded.
Government/Air Force responses
A source in the Nigerian Air Force said it was the Federal Government that was supposed to attend to the widows’ agitation.
Efforts made to get the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, to speak on the issues were not successful. Calls and a text message sent to him were not replied to either.