By Olatokunbo Adesanya
The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) was established in 1964 by an act of Parliament, primarily to achieve a full complement of the military defence system of Nigeria, both in the air and on the ground, among other functions. At its infancy, the NAF was forced into battle, due to the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970, at a time many believed the new Service was least prepared. At about three years old, the NAF was ill- equipped and most of its personnel, including the pilots, could at best be described as being trained but inexperienced. Nevertheless, the NAF was able to prove its mettle, as its pioneers made significant contributions that ultimately resulted in victory in favour of Nigeria.
The period succeeding the Civil War, however, provided the much-needed opportunity to expand the NAF. More personnel were recruited and trained, more modern aircraft were acquired and additional maintenance infrastructure were built while some existing infrastructure were upgraded. As a result, the NAF soon became the of the African continent. The height of the glory of the NAF could arguably be said to be in 1988, when the then Head of State of Ghana, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings was invited to the NAF Day celebrations of that year, the climax of which was an air weapons meet. Flight Lieutenant Rawlings poured encomiums on the NAF after witnessing the array of NAF fighter pilots on display and the dexterity of the NAF pilots, who successfully hit targets at the air weapons range in Makurdi almost in an effortless manner. Regrettably, the NAF witnessed a steady decline in fortunes thereafter.
Many reasons, mostly political, have been adduced for the decline in the fortunes of the NAF at that time. One thing was certain though; it became much more difficult to maintain NAF aircraft owing to the embargo placed on Nigeria’s military, which was then in charge of governance. Most of the NAF’s aircraft, especially the fighters, became grounded and it proved extremely expensive to maintain the few aircraft that were serviceable. Notwithstanding the difficulties, the NAF was able to actively participate in the subsequent ECOMOG operations and actually proved to be critical to the successes recorded in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Despite its feats during the ECOMOG operations, it was obvious that the NAF was yet to return to its days of glory.
With the return of Nigeria to democratic governance in 1999, attempts at gradually restoring the old glory of the NAF commenced. However, the attempts encountered quite a number of challenges; some would say lack of sufficient government commitment, technological limitations.Lack of focused leadership in some cases and insufficient resources due to several other competing demands contributed to the slow progress. Amongst other things, the loss of capacity by NAF personnel over the years became glaring. The flaws in the NAF did not fully manifest, as there were no serious security challenges to test its efficacy. The story, however, changed with the outbreak of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Nigeria and a real test for the NAF emerged. There is no doubt that the NAF tried its best in tackling the menace of the terrorists at the beginning of the counterinsurgency operations in the North East, in addition to combating militancy in the Niger Delta. It was all the same obvious that the NAF was struggling and operating under difficult circumstances, as several limitations became apparent. Then, the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration came on board.
After settling down, President Buhari made the right choice in selecting Air Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar, a thorough bred professional pilot, with several combat and instructional flying hours, as the 20th Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). In the course of his career, Air Marshal Abubakar had proved to be an intelligent and visionary leader that had received many letters of commendation and awards for his gallantry, prudent management of resources and good leadership. In addition, he had held several key staff and command appointments in the NAF and was in a somewhat unique position to easily identify the core or fundamental challenges impeding the progress of the NAF. Thereafter, he wasted no time in correctly evaluating the state of the NAF and coming up with his vision, which is “to reposition the NAF into a highly professional and disciplined force through capacity building initiatives for effective, efficient and timely employment of air power in response to Nigeria’s national security imperatives’.
In order to focus on the attainment of his vision, Air Marshal Abubakar outlined key drivers, which have largely influenced activities in the NAF since his assumption of duty. The CAS also recognized the human being as the most important asset and therefore channelled a lot of efforts towards meeting the welfare needs of the personnel. The resultant effect has been a total transformation, resulting in the new face of the NAF.
In the area of capacity building, the NAF has embarked on an extensive training of its personnel. Air Marshal Abubakar strongly believes that a man can only give what he has. Accordingly, only the right training can enable a personnel to be effective in the performance of his tasks, which would in turn impact positively on operational efficiency. For instance, 231 NAF pilots have received either the primary, basic or tactical training on different aircraft types in the past 2 years or thereabout, at local and overseas training institutions. A common feature in the NAF today is young pilots of the rank of flight lieutenant and below, females inclusive, who are not just captains on their respective aircraft types but also instructor pilots in some cases. Members of the technical crew are also not left behind as 1,864 engineering officers and technicians have received different levels of training at local and overseas training institutions.
The NAF is already reaping from its investment in the training of technical crews as exemplified in NAF Alpha Jet aircraft maintenance crew. The Alpha Jet technicians were able to repair six engines locally, after attending a short course in Canada, and in the process saved the nation about $2.4 million. It is gratifying to note that focused training has not been limited to pilots and technicians but equally extended to other operational, technical and administrative personnel, 5216 of whom have been trained within the same period. The NAF now has a much more competent professional force.
Another area where the NAF has been transformed is residential accommodation for its personnel. About two years ago, the accommodation situation was so deplorable, especially in units in the North East such that more than an airman stayed in a room in some cases, for instance. Generally, the entire residential accommodation sufficiency was about 45 per cent.
The CAS immediately commenced the construction of residential buildings for both officers and airmen/airwomen at NAF bases all over the country. The outcome is that accommodation sufficiency rose to over 63 per cent in the NAF as at early June 2017, and still growing. The NAF has introduced a post-service housing scheme for airmen and airwomen, the first of its kind since inception.
The availability of requisite, functional and serviceable maintenance infrastructure in the form of spacious and well-equipped hangars, ground support equipment, test benches and tools facilitates the maintenance of aircraft. However, over the years, there was a gradual deterioration in the state of the maintenance infrastructure. For instance, the roofs of some hangars leaked whenever it rained, test benches were mostly unserviceable, ground support equipment, especially for the older aircraft, were old and unreliable while some were even obsolete. The current NAF leadership has taken giant strides to address the decay in the maintenance infrastructure through a gradual process of reactivation and replacements as necessary.
The rating of every air force worldwide is closely linked to the number of serviceable aircraft that are available for the conduct of its air operations. In the case of the NAF, as at May 2015, only 31 per cent of its operable aircraft was serviceable. The NAF leadership therefore initiated steps at addressing the deficiency by reactivating several grounded aircraft and making a case to the Federal Government for the acquisition of more modern platforms. The overall result of these efforts is an improvement in the percentage of serviceable aircraft in the NAF to an average of 60 per cent of NAF operable aircraft. More aircraft are being reactivated and the process of acquiring more modern aircraft is still ongoing. It is noteworthy that the NAF was only able to organize another air weapons meet on the same, if not a greater scale than that of 1988, during its anniversary in April this year. Clearly, the NAF is now better positioned to project air power in an effective, efficient and timely manner towards meeting the nation’s security imperatives.
As part of its strategy to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace in the conflict areas, the NAF has instituted several humanitarian intervention schemes, especially in the North East. The NAF built and equipped emergency hospitals at the Dalori and Bama Camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and accordingly deployed its medical personnel to man the hospitals. In addition, several medical outreach programmes are being conducted by the NAF at various IDP camps in the North East. During such outreach programmes, IDPs have received free treatment, including surgical interventions where necessary, for a wide range of illnesses including cancer and eye diseases. A nutritional programme has also been introduced to provide supplementary feeding to 1000 school children in the IDP camps daily for the next 6-8 months. The foregoing is in addition to the NAF personnel’s voluntary donations to IDPs on a quarterly basis, as instituted by the CAS.
There are quite a host of other steps that have been taken by the NAF towards repositioning for more effective service delivery. These include the establishment of Special Operations Command to deal with the contemporary security challenge of asymmetric warfare. The NAF has also made giant leaps in the area of Research and Development with a view to reducing technological dependence on foreign firms thereby saving costs and improving operational efficiency. In addition, the NAF has hugely invested in secondary school education, especially for the girl-child, being mindful of the fact that education is of strategic importance to the security architecture of every nation. Besides, the NAF has taken steps to improve its media relations towards being more accountable to the Nigerian citizenry through prompt and accurate dissemination of information as well as engagement of ordinary Nigerians to obtain feedback on NAF activities.
One thing that must be noted is that, without the support of the Federal Government towards the development of the military and the creation of a conducive environment, the vision of Air Marshal Abubakar could never have been realized. President Buhari has demonstrated sufficient commitment to seeing a better air force and the National Assembly has been gracious enough to appropriate the needed resources to execute the various developmental programmes. Furthermore, the Central Bank of Nigeria has been efficient in ensuring the remittances of funds overseas to the NAF’s various overseas technical partners, in a transparent manner. The CAS, on his part, has stayed the course in ensuring the judicious use of appropriated funds. The credit for the new face of the NAF must therefore go to the unflinching support of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, President Buhari and other relevant government officials, in addition to the visionary and focused leadership of the CAS, Air Marshal Abubakar. The face of the new NAF is one that better assures of its readiness to ensure the security of Nigeria and Nigerians while enjoying the support of the general populace.
Air Commodore Adesanya, is the NAF Director of Public Relations and Information.