The death of Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in a military aircraft in Kaduna on May 19, 2021, has thrown many into mourning with several people suspecting foul play. He was COAS for about four months (January 26 – May 19, 2021). He had succeeded Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai.
But he is not the first military service chief to die in air crash in Nigeria. Long before him were two others, Joseph Akahan and Colonel Shittu Alao. Akahan was appointed Chief of Army Staff few months before his death in May 1967 at the onset of the Nigeria’s Civil Way. He died after visiting the frontline in Nsukka; he had returned to his hometown in Gboko for a brief rest and the helicopter he was travelling in, crashed on their way to Markudi,
Benue State capital. They were three in the copter. There was another meanwhile but he died in a plane crash after he had left office as Chief of Army Staff. He was General Andrew Azazi. He served as COAS between 2006 and 2008. He died in a helicopter crash in Okoroba village in Bayelsa state, while returning to Port Harcourt Airport after attending a funeral service on December 12, 2012. He died alongside the then governor of Kaduna state, Patrick Yakowa.
Shitttu Alao lost his life in similar circumstances during the 1967-1970 Civil War in Nigeria. Alao, who hailed from Masifa in Ogbomoso, an area known for its military capability in the olden days, was however born in Dorowa Babuje in Plateau State. His mother hailed from Shendam in Plateau state. Born in October 1937, Shittu Alao attended the First Baptist Day School, Jos, from where he proceeded to the Provincial Secondary School, Kuru, graduating in December 1954. Upon finishing secondary school, he joined the Nigerian Army as a member of the 13th Course, Regular Officers Special Training School, Accra, Ghana.
A very hefty man, Alao was an infantry officer but because Nigeria was just recruiting and training airmen and none had attained the rank to be appointed Chief of Air Staff, four army officers had to be drafted to the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) to organize and head the place including Colonel Shittu Alao, Colonel Udoakaha Esuene, Col. George T. Korubo and Col. Ikwe. They underwent flying training but only Alao and Ikwe qualified for flying.
Prior that time, German officers commanded NAF. Alao was subsequently sent to Germany for a one-year indoctrination course on all aspects of air force training. After his training by which he became a military pilot. After he returned to Nigeria, Colonel Alao was appointed Senior Air Operations Officer at Headquarters NAF (HQ NAF). And on August 5, 1967, he took over the command of the NAF from Brigadier Kurubo as the fourth Commander of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) and the second indigenous officer to hold the post. Korubo, who was Chief of Air Staff from January 1966 to August 1967, had joined the Biafran Army as the first Biafran Air Force Commander designate. He returned to the Nigerian Army though but he had lost the position for good.
Alao’s time of command was a difficult time as it coincided with the time Nigeria was enmeshed in a fierce civil war. He gave a good account of himself as he was able to raise the morale and confidence of his men by which they were able to give efficient air support to the land troops during the war.
A brave warrior in the tradition of Ogbomoso military caste, he led from the front often joining to conduct air raids against the secessionists’ strongholds. But he was a butt of joke of his colleagues, who often mocked him as a Chief of Air Staff that could not fly! He didn’t like this and so decided to pick up the gauntlet even though he had not garnered requisite experience as an aircraft pilot. Thus, his heroism led to his death at the age of 32.
On that fateful day, he flew an L-29 aircraft out of Ikeja to visit the Nigerian troops in Enugu. He was alone in the aircraft. He successfully arrived in Benin, but unfortunately, he failed to refuel at Benin whereas he ought to. He continued the journey nonetheless during which he ran into foul weather. A desperate and emergency situation arose making him choose to fly back to Benin as he had also run low on fuel. He descended low to find a landing place; seeing a cassava farm, he brought the plane down but he smashed it against a tree, dying in the wreckage at Uzebba in the suburbs of Benin. It was on October 15, 1969. There were rumours that he was shot by Biafrans after he landed but this was not so, according to impeccable military sources. It could be said he died due to inexperience in flying planes. He was buried with full military honours two days later in Lagos.
Nigeria honoured its late Chief of Air Staff by naming Keffi Barracks housing 177 Guard Battalion Barracks, Keffi Nasarawa state, as Shittu Alao Barracks. Also, last year, Ogbomoso Valiant Club put a bust of the late combatant soldier in a Heroes Arcade it erected in Ogbomoso at the site of Unknown Soldier’s statue at Oja’gbo, along with four others. Also, his son, Lawal, becoming an Air Vice Marshall in the Nigerian Air FOrce is a great honour done his memory.
Enters AVM Lawal Shittu Alao
Lawal Shittu Alao was three years old when his father died in that ill-fated aircraft at Uzebba, near Benin. When he came of age the lure of the military overwhelmed him and decided to enlist in the Nigerian Air Force while still studying Business Administration at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, as a member of University Cadet Course 2 on 1 June 1984 and was commissioned as a regular combatant officer to the rank of pilot officer on 11 September 1985 with specialization in Supply and Logistics. He rose meritoriously through the ranks and was promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal on 11 September 2013.
Air Vice Marshal Lawal Shittu Alao was the Chief of Administration at the Headquarters Nigerian Air Force, Abuja, before taking over as the 22nd Commandant of the Armed Forces Command and Staff College (AFCSC), Jaji in Kaduna state. Alao is a member of the Nigerian Institute of Management and also a member of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply of the United Kingdom. He was last September awarded the Fellowship of the Association of Industrial Security and Safety operations of Nigeria (AISSON) in recognition of his paramount role in promoting security, safety culture and consciousness in Nigeria.
VHe later became the Air Officer Commanding Logistics Command, Lagos, and was one of the highest ranked officers in Nigeria Air force at the time of his retirement recently.