That the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar, has relentlessly led the tireless officers, airmen and airwomen of the Nigerian Air Force in the arduous task of preserving the nation’s territorial integrity, is to say the least in the mildest way. In this interview with PEMBI DAVID-STEPHEN, he speaks on the ongoing fight against insurgency, motivation of air force personnel and synergy among the three arms of the Nigerian military.
What do you consider your major achievements so far as the Chief of the Air Staff?
Whenever I look at what the Air Force has achieved over the past few years, it can best be described as a team effort. All the Chief of the Staff does is to give strategic directions but he cannot be everywhere all the time. I would rather tell you about the things we have done over the last two years, which by the way, are quite a lo
The major area one can see clearly is the conflict in the North-east. There is no doubt that we have made substantial progress, considering what we met when we came on ground in 2015.
The North east is more secure now, despite a few setbacks here and there, in-terms of suicide bombing, the abduction of oil workers and staff of the Maiduguri University. These were very tragic setbacks, but, as a whole, when you consider what the situation was when bombs exploded everywhere – in Nyanya, Banex Plaza, the church in Madalla, UN Headquarters, all in Abuja and similarly, in Kano, Yola, Jos and other places, things were happening simultaneously, but I think we must give kudos to the Federal Government for providing the enabling environment for the Air Force and, indeed, other arms of the services to put in their best to make Nigeria more secured.
Another major achievement is in the area of capacity building. We have just graduated 16 cadets, from our primary flying school in Kaduna. The last time cadets graduated in that school was about 32 years ago. So, for us to have done it this time is a huge step. They were able to complete their initial flying training within four months. That means some logistics issues must have been addressed, because the aircrafts have to be there for them to be able to conduct their training, logistics supports (in terms of spare parts), aviation oil, consumables and so on.
Another very important and major achievement, I think, is the weapons meet. The last time we had that was about 29 years ago. So, this year, our airplanes were able to compete in the weapons’ delivery exercise at the Makurdi Kaina Range for the first time in about 29 years.
Similarly, from December last year to June, July this year, we have winged 32 pilots (this means they have gone through the entire flying training to qualify them as operational pilots). They are now fully qualified to fly Air Force’s aircraft.
In terms of recruitment, for the first time in the history of the Air Force, we are having over 1900 recruits passing out from training. What we usually took annually in the past was 1000, but, this time, we are recruiting 4000, a number that is four times what we used to take. To appreciate what that means, we have to look at the infrastructure, which formerly could only accommodate 500 recruits at a time. That is why, every six months, 500 recruits had to come for training. This time, we can accommodate as much as 2500, although we have not taken 2500. The infrastructure has been expanded in a way that it can accommodate up to that. Not only are we training our recruits, we are also helping other agencies such as the EFCC, for which we trained about 350 personnel. In terms of that, we have made substantial progress.
As for welfare, we have tried as much as we can to improve the accommodation situation, because we believe that humans are the greatest resources any nation possesses, so we have provided office and residential accommodation as well as introduced the post-housing scheme for non-commissioned officers. This is the first time in the history of the Nigerian Air Force in 53 years that we are having such a scheme that seeks to accommodate non-commissioned officers in our post-service housing arrangement.
What is the NAF doing to synergise forces with other security organizations and how has the NAF utilised the geo-spatial intelligence it has obtained?
Well, fighting war is about synergy. No service can fight war alone. So, we have been synergizing, coordinating with the army and the naval forces and, I think, so far, we are making substantial progress again when compared to what the situation was in the past.
We fly our Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance platforms, we the pass the information to the land forces as we see on the ground, thus, improving their battlefield awareness, to be able to establish what is happening there. In their planning, then, they can use this information. It makes their work easier and more effective. We have been using intelligence, which is key in any major operation. The number of intelligence-gathering platforms in the Nigerian Air Force has increased from what it used to be before and we are making efforts to increase it further.
What exactly is the state of the Sambisa Forest presently?
Let me begin by saying the forest is about 60,000 square kilometres. Of course, generally, we have a clear view of what is happening, though it is a huge area to watch. Sometimes, the Boko Haram terrorists keep making attempts to come back in and, in most cases, we have addressed that threat and made sure that communities resident around that area are not threatened.
Similarly, our troops around and along these locations are not threatened. That is not to say that we have every picture of the forest, we are doing our best to ensure that terrorists do not occupy the forest again
What are the components of ‘winning minds and souls’ of the Nigerian Air Force intervention in the North East?
We understand that in any context of insurgency operation, the whole thing is about winning hearts and minds. While the insurgents try to win hearts and minds of the local population to join them, the government is equally trying to win hearts and minds in several ways. For us, in the military or the Air Force, we have come up with this winning the hearts and minds strategy, which is a part of the overall strategy that we are employing to deal with the Boko Haram threat. We have medical interventions, two hospitals (one in Bama, the other in Dalori IDPs camp).
Since August 6, 2015, we have been providing free medical services for the local community. Our hospitals in the camps for the IDPs have well-equipped laboratories, wards for women, children and men. In our hospitals in the IDP camps, we feed those admitted. For cases that are really bad and cannot be managed in the camps, the sick IDPs are usually flown with our helicopters from the IDP camps to our medical facility inside the Nigerian Air Force Base in Maiduguri. Recently, we conducted surgeries; we attended to over 200 patients, most of who are IDPs all at no cost them. Some of these patients were conveyed by Air Force helicopters from Bama and Banki to Maiduguri to our medical facility.
In addition to that, we also have our school feeding programme which is aimed at ensuring that we assist the government in getting the children back to school. We give them food on a daily, at least one meal a day.
We have gone out to other parts of the North-east in Yola to conduct medical outreach programmes for IDPs, in order to support communities. We have provided water, we have drilled boreholes in Bama, Maiduguri; we have provided storage facilities where this water can be stored and, also, provided toiletries in the IDP camps in Maiduguri and Dalori, as well as some shelter to support the IDPs in these locations. So, I believe that these programmes are gradually making it easier for the communities to understand that we are actually pursuing the same objective
Finally, we have also introduced the cancer screening centre, where we conducted cervical cancer screening, prostrate cancer screening for IDPs that are within the north east. I must note that at all the medical outfits, the medical consultations come at no cost to the people.
You have been sold aircraft by countries hitherto unwilling to sell planes to Nigeria. How do you plan to maintain them and what are your sustainability plans, especially since Nigeria also has a Defence Industry Corporation?
I am not sure I understand which countries you are referring to here, but what I can say here and now is that we have acquired Mi 35M helicopters. These are functional helicopters and we have deployed them to serve the force and are building capacity, in terms of maintenance and pilots, to ensure that they are able to make optimum use of the helicopter functions. Right now, they are in the North-east and we are hoping to get the additional platforms from the right interventions, as well. The ammunition and other spare parts required are also part of the package put together, including training of course.
We are looking inwards through research and development to see how we can build capacity to support this maintenance locally. It is not easy. You know, no country will surrender its technology to you, so you have to work hard. Through the Air Force Institute of Technology, which has some partnership, Memorandum of Understanding with Cranfield University in the United Kingdom to train our people and the Air Force Research and Development Centre in Kaduna, we are further building capacity for research. With all these in sight, I strongly believe that, in no time, we will be able to build sufficient capacity to be able to conduct certain levels of maintenance and, also, produce some aircraft spares.
You talked about DICON; we have a relationship with them also and we are partnering, synergising in the areas that we have competence in. All they do is tell us what they want to do and we decide how to come into the picture.
Would you say the NAF is Wiling, Able and Ready?
NAF has always been Willing, Able and Ready. Our pilots are doing incredible jobs, our technicians are doing an excellent job in the North-east. If you look at the environment, the temperatures are quite high (48 to 50OC), with high winds, dust and all that and they are able to keep the airplanes flying.
In the last two years, we have reactivated 12 aircraft that were not flying before and, today, they are operational. We still have efforts on ground to see how we can bring in additional two helicopters and another two fighter aircraft. So, I think they are going an incredible job and have demonstrated dedication to work and a diligence that is paying off.
What would you say, is the motivation of the NAF in the fight against insurgency?
Well, our motivation first and foremost, is to see a Nigeria that is secured, a Nigeria where every Nigerian can move about freely without any hindrance, a Nigeria where people can pursue their legitimate aspirations without any fear. That is the kind of Nigeria we saw when we were growing up, and now it is sad that we are having this very tragic issues coming up and down.
Therefore the motivation for those of us in service is that we are motivated out of patriotism, we are motivated out of the love we have for our people, to ensure that the average villager can move out to his village, farm and come back home without anybody threatening him or her.
That is the motivation and that really is the force behind what we are doing to make sure that we make life easier for those who are in the areas of conflict and that was why we introduced the humanitarian dimension of this.
How would you describe the level of success recorded so far?
I think we have done extremely well, in my opinion. When we came in 2015, the severability rate was about 35% of flyable aircraft, now we have a severability rate of between 62 and 70%, so you can see that, that is quite substantial. In terms of providing for the welfare and accommodation of personnel, from 45 % accommodation sufficiency, we now have 60% sufficiency and we are working to provide more schools for our personnel. Also, we are expanding our medical facilities so that everybody can feel comfortable that at least the system is concerned about him or her
. So far, we have done substantially very well, but as I have said before, the credit should actually go to the President and Commander in Chief for creating the enabling environment. You can have all the ideas that you want, if the enabling environment is not there, you cannot translate these ideas into practical things that can be seen on ground.
Reactivating 12 aircraft is a major feat for us, flying over 9000 hours in two years is a big achievement for us, and that was achievable due to first and foremost, the commitment and support of the President and Commander-in-Chief, President Muhammadu Buhari, because of the enabling environment he has created and the support of the National Assembly that has appropriated resources for us and of course, the support of other departments, ministries and government agencies such as the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Budgeting and the Accountant General, the Central Bank of Nigeria, all these are very important agencies of government that have played a very crucial role in ensuring that the Nigerian Air Force is there to fly and to defend Nigeria and the Nigerian people.
What would you like to be remembered by after leaving office?
Again not me, what I will say is, what we would like to be remembered by, as those that were charged with the leadership in the Nigerian Air Force. I think I will rather live it to the public or rather to the officers and men of the Nigerian Air Force to look back and see how much we have contributed in terms of adding value to the system of the Nigerian Air Force and also adding value to the society in ensuring that Nigeria is more secure and Nigerians are secured.