from Africa in Transition, Africa Program, and Nigeria on the Brink

Secrecy and Conspiracy Theories Surround Nigerian Plane Crashes

Nigerian army officers raise their guns during the gun salute at the burial of victims of a military airplane crash carrying Nigeria's army chief, Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, and ten other officers, in Abuja, Nigeria on May 22, 2021.
Nigerian army officers raise their guns during the gun salute at the burial of victims of a military airplane crash carrying Nigeria's army chief, Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, and ten other officers, in Abuja, Nigeria on May 22, 2021. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Nolan Quinn contributed to this post.

The plane crash May 21 killing Chief of Army Staff General Ibrahim Attahiru and all passengers and crew aboard is the fourth air tragedy in the past five months involving Nigeria Air Force aircraft. Initially, few details on the most recent crash were released, allowing conspiracy theories and falsely claimed videos of the crash to emerge on social media. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party caucus in the National Assembly called for a thorough investigation of the crash that killed Attahiru, while the Christian Association of Nigeria asked President Buhari to declare military plane crashes a national emergency. General Attahiru was buried on May 22, following Muslim customs.

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While tragic, the cause of this latest crash appears to be straightforward. The general was flying to Kaduna to attend the Passing Out Parade on May 22 at the Nigerian Defense Academy. The plane was to have landed at a Nigerian Air Force facility but was diverted to the civilian Kaduna International Airport, where it crashed because of weather.

A huge country with a weak transportation infrastructure and serious banditry issues, Nigeria is particularly dependent on aviation. Plane crashes seem to cluster; serious crashes occurred in October 2005, December 2005, September 2006, and October 2006. The May 21 crash was preceded by a crash in February 2021. In response to the recent accidents, a committee has been established to conduct a safety audit of all Nigerian Air Force operational and engineering units.

With the Nigerian government’s penchant for secrecy about bad news, details about plane crashes are slow to come, giving space for conspiracy theories. This time, it is to be hoped that the quick release of the details of the crash will forestall the rumor mill.

General Attahiru was made chief of army staff—in effect the most powerful military position—by President Muhammadu Buhari as part of his January 2021 shake-up of the military’s top brass in the face of the rapid deterioration of security around the country. Attahiru's death is a setback for the Buhari government’s flagging efforts to curb insecurity in Nigeria.

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