Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar: Sustaining Commitment in the War Against Terrorism in Nigeria

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We have seen what it used to be in the past and have also seen the progress made by the Air Force recently, especially in securing Air assets; Research and Welfare, amongst others;  what is it that your leadership is doing differently to achieve these results?

The first thing we did when we came on board was to evaluate the activities of the Air force. We asked ourselves the critical questions and considered our position on logistics support. What is the situation of those who are involved in prosecuting the war? We are talking about Pilots, Aircraft engineers,   base defense forces. We asked ourselves, how are we catering for their welfare needs; because human beings are the most important assets that we have. You can have everything, but if a human being is not there, it will be difficult to achieve results. So, after conducting an evaluation with the gamut of activities that the Airforce is involved in, to ensure that Nigeria is secured, we came back to the drawing board. We said, there are quite a number of gaps in terms of logistics support.  We are talking about kits, training, flying instruments, amongst others. Training for us was a very big deal, because, if you do not train them, you cannot blame them. That was why when I came up with my vision, I said, that in the next two years, we would ensure that we have a highly professional and disciplined Airforce. We intend to achieve this through capacity building initiatives. So, that we can be efficient in employing Air power to dealing with our National security issues. We started by asking ourselves, what is professionalism. We had to ensure that the man flying the Airplane understands the Airplane that he is flying and understand his limitations and that of the Airplane. Therefore, we had to introduce a lot of training for our men. Some went to Egypt and were attached to the Egyptian Air force for a period of time. The second batch are going very soon. Some went to the United States, and others went to Russia. We are also training locally. When we came on board, we realized that we did not have the required facilities for training locally. We categorized the training to include: Ab initio training; advanced training; technical training amongst others. With that, we started building the Capacity of the Personnel. We now realized that even when you build the capacity, you must ensure that you have the right structure. The Airforce as at 2015, was not properly structured, because, we were called in to do the duties that we were not meant to do. We have over 150 personnel that are fighting side-by-side with the Army in the Theater of war. They are not on flying duties, but on land. They failed to understand that the our men are not trained to fight on the ground. It is an entirely strange terrain for them, because, they have been trained to fight on Air. With this development, we came up with a new command, called Special Operation Command, which hosts the Special Forces Command of the Airforce. They are like the Army of the Airforce. If there is anything to do with internal security, low-intensity operations and you want the Airforce to participate, then the Special Forces Command will now supply the forces, because they are a regiment personnel, having undergone the necessary training. They understand how to fit into the system on the ground. This has helped us in many ways, not only to add value to the war against insurgency but also to ensure that some of our technicians that we used to send out for IS operations, would be retained for more important activities. They now concentrate on maintenance of Aircraft as against what used to happen in the past. We desire that in the long term, we would have permanently dealt with the situation where people who do not have business with land battles are deployed to do so. We are still looking at the structure and modifying it and we believe that with time, we should look at the training command in the Airforce, with a view to reducing the responsibility given to one command. We are looking at dividing the command into two, where you have the Air Training Command and the Land training command.  We also looked at the issue of Manpower. We had to look at our recruitment. In the past, we used to recruit about 1000 every year, but now we are recruiting 4000 in the last two years. By the end of this year, we are hoping that we would have recruited 6000 additional airmen and airwomen to take care of the new units. They would also be used to handle the new concept of base defense. What we used to have in the past was the concept, where you have two people in one guard post and they are in charge of the area and they look at it for 24 hours. We said, no, it does not work that way. There is no way, you will put an individual in a post for 24 hours that he or she will be effective. In the new concept, the Maximum period of work is 8 hours, and the person gives way for another person to relieve him. What this means is that we had to recruit 3 times the number. We have however gone ahead to recruit 4 times the number. The number we had to employ was derived from a very thorough planning process. We have about 2000 personnel who would be graduating while another 2000 would be going in for their own training. Apart from the recruits, we also have the officers. What we have been getting from the Nigerian Defence College is not adequate. So, we are looking at professionals who have gone to the University and came out with very good results. We have enlisted some of them, and the first batch have been deployed to our units, the next batch will be out shortly. Afterward, another 200 will commence their own training. With the number that we have and what is coming from the Nigerian Defence College, we believe that the manpower disposition should be fairly adequate after some time. In terms of Pilot training, we have expanded the Pilot training facility that we have in Kaduna. Before the current leadership came in, there was no training going on at the Pilot training center in Kaduna. Right now, we have training going on and we have already trained over 30 Pilots and they are back to Nigeria with their wings. The last Batch was winged recently. We also have two men that just came in from the United States. We have about 18 that are training in Kaduna and 8 that are training in Kano. We also have 10 in Ilorin; and 14 training in South Africa and another 6 in the United States. You may ask, why this number, it is because we are inducting new airplanes and we need the right personnel to operate them. If we do not make this plans, you will have a situation where one pilot is flying 10 to 12 hours and you will agree with me that he is not likely to be effective. We are also training engineers, technician, and administrators. Apart from the training, one equally important area is the reactivation of the Airplanes. We have reactivated 11 Airplanes that were not flying before the President came on board. We hope to get the 12th Aircraft, God willing very soon. These aircraft have been grounded for many years. We got back the engines from the United States and we fitted it and did a major overhaul of the Aircraft. In addition to that, we have 2 helicopters that we are reactivating in Port Harcourt, one with the support of Aero Contractors and the second one is being handled by the Airforce with support from some technical partners. We also have 2 basic trainers in Kano that is being reactivated. When you put all the numbers together, you are talking about 16 Aircraft that were totally grounded which is now back flying. Now the C130s are equally very important and we are also working on them. A very interesting feature about this Aircraft is that most of the pilots are young officers. When I joined the Airforce, no one flies the C130 except you are an Air Commodore or a Colonel. Today, we have lieutenants, some of them are instructor pilots, teaching others how to fly the c130. If you look at the size of the boys flying the plane and the plane itself, you begin to wonder if one is safe flying with them. I flew up to the rank of the Air Vice Marshal. Today, you hardly see anyone beyond the rank of a Major flying. Most of them are very good pilots and they are below the age of 30. Some of them are flying fighter aircraft, while some others are commanding units. With all the reactivations and training that have happened, we were able to hold the weapons competition, which was last held in 1989. Finally we looked at the Welfare. There is no way a person will function properly if you do not address his concerns. We have some of our men, who fly for over 5 hours, most of them do so over the Sambisa forest to keep an eye on the insurgents to be sure they are not regrouping. All they do is take pictures of any threat, call back and a fighter jet is deployed to neutralize the target. We had to also take care of residential accommodations. I once visited a unit where we had 12 personnel in a two bedroom apartment. Out of the 12 there was one married Airman. Imagine that tomorrow, you ask this same man to go and fight Boko Haram, when he had spent the better part of the night trying to sleep. There is no way such a person can be effective. The case was not different in Maiduguri. The first trip I took as the Chief of Air staff was to Maiduguri. I went to take a look at where the men were staying and when I got there, a very small room was housing 8 persons. Most of them using 6 inch matrasses, without blankets, bed sheets or pillows. Imagine this condition and in the morning, they go out with their rifles to go and fight Boko Haram. You can be sure that they wouldn’t have achieved any result. So, immediately, we have built accommodations for them. We believe that when you provide the necessary things that are needed for basic comfort, you have no reason to fail. We have also seen that these efforts have resulted in the reactivations that we have seen. It is not as if, we now have people from elsewhere that are leading the transformation of the force, it is the same people, only that the conditions have changed in their favor and they are happy to do their job. The problems are not entirely over, but i believe that with sustained investments in these areas, we would surmount the challenge in the nearest future. We have also introduced Skills acquisition program for the dependents of these personnel. As you know when the personnel go to the battle front, they leave their wives and other dependents in the base. So, what we are trying to do is to empower them with certain skills so that they can begin to earn money and support the income of the family. These skills will also keep both the children and the mother busy, so they do not distract the man in the war front. Over Nine hundred boys and girls have been empowered through these scheme. We do not just train, we also provide them with starter packs for whatever skills they acquire. Right now we are trying to engage some of them that were trained in Lagos recently in the area of shoemaking. They came up with very beautiful shoes and we are trying to engage them to make boots for the Air force. We have also introduced Agricultural program for the Youths of the barracks. Those that would like to go into Agriculture. The idea is to stimulate their interest in Agriculture. We have also introduced the Post Housing scheme for Air Men. Before now it used to be for Officers alone, but we have said that would change, because, you can imagine after an Air man puts in about 35 years in service and afterwards, he does not have anywhere to retire to.  We have already built 60 housing units in Abuja and we have handed the keys over to the Airmen. We are  also working with various state governments to provide us with lands for the post housing, for those who wish to retire to their various states.

 

There have been remarkable achievements in the war against insurgency, which is as a result of the combined efforts of the Air force and other Military institutions in the country; despite these successes, we have seen repeated cases of bombing in some areas in the Northeast. What in your view should be done by stakeholders in this war towards achieving sustainable peace in the Northeast?

 

As you may be aware, Nigeria is not alone in the fight against terrorism. It has become a global menace. We have histories of insurgencies that dates back to hundreds of years. I often say to people, that, many countries have fought these kinds of war and some are still fighting till this day. In dealing with Insurgency, there are several approaches, which are not military based. Though the military plays a very crucial role in the war, there are certain other roles that are outside the military circles. In terms of dealing with counterinsurgency, the military component isn’t more than 20%, while 80% has to do with social and economic dimension. Which has to do with development, governance, eradication of poverty, amongst others. I believe the different levels of government are doing their own bit in the war, to create the enabling environment for peace to return. However, when you consider where we are coming from as a country, you will appreciate the progress made, thus far. Particularly in 2014, these guys were moving in large numbers, attacking bases, and killing people. They were literally on a rampage. The situation has changed now, they are not able to move as they used to do in the past. They cannot come as an organized force to attack any part of the country anymore. What we have most times now is the suicide bombing. I have said time and again, that there is no way a fighter Aircraft or an ISR Aircraft can detect an 11-year old boy or girl with a bomb strapped to the back going to attack any target. So, it requires high-level intelligence gathering. We need to ask certain questions like, where are these girls recruited; who is putting together these bombs and the suicide vest; what is the source of the explosive materials; where are they getting them from. What we have done is to put up a humanitarian program which is aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people. The larger community has a bigger responsibility of assisting security agencies in information gathering. I am aware that there are a lot of efforts from other security agencies, towards ensuring robust intelligence gathering. We have destroyed Bomb factories in Sambisa forest, but we use intelligence given to us to get where these things are happening. Collectively as a military, we are re-strategizing and collating data to see how we can minimize suicide bombing. It is just a sign of desperation from the insurgents. Only recently we sent a medical team to Banki as part of our program to the communities, because of the absence of good health care in some of the regions. We have two level 2 hospitals, one in Bama and the other in Maiduguri. These facilities are properly equipped to deal with some major health challenges.

Amnesty International has consistently reported cases of human rights violation by the military, especially in the northeastern part of the country; what is the force doing collectively with other military agencies to clarify its position as regards, these allegations?

 

Our attention has not been drawn to any specific human right violation, that concerns the Nigerian Airforce. However, we have taken a number of measures to ensure that our people understand that it is counterproductive for you to kill an innocent man. The whole essence of being out there and the sacrifices we make day and night is to ensure the security of lives and properties. We have decided to look at our curriculum of training for the recruits. There is a module that deals extensively with the rights of an Airman in armed conflicts. We packaged a detailed information of the expectations in a module which is delivered during the training. Right from when you join the force it is part of the basic information that we provide for our men – they are to know that the uniform is not a tool for oppression. We are here to chase down the bad guys and secure our country.  I have said it a number of times that if you see any airman misbehaving, give us the evidence and watch what happens. We would set up a committee, even if Amnesty International want to be part of it, they are welcomed to join the committee, we do not have anything to hide. We have trained our people, so we are confident that they know the right thing to do. The law of natural justice provides that there should be evidence before you punish anyone. We have established a human rights desk at the Headquarters here and all you need to do is, if you feel your rights have been violated, pickup your phone and call and leave it to us. We have also periodically organized seminars for our airmen, and one of such seminars is scheduled to hold sometime again in the near future. The seminar provides a platform for some of the humanitarian organizations to come and present papers on the expectations from airmen during the conflict. If you look at the curriculum of the Nigerian Defense College, it also captures something on the Humanitarian law. So we are very familiar with how to engage in war times. On many occasions, our air planes have gone to drop bombs and they realize that there are women and children around the area and they turned around and came back with the bomb. Even the unfortunate incidence of Ran is quite regrettable and we are doing everything to minimize the pains of the incidence.

 

The Airforce like you rightly pointed out is a highly professional organization. What is your leadership doing to sustain professionalism and check partisan affiliations amongst airmen?

 

I have said it time and again, that the Nigerian Airforce is a highly professional force. We are apolitical. Our loyalty is to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and to the President and Commander in Chief of the Nigerian armed forces, who has powers under the constitutions. We are not interested in politics. We are here to create a good environment for political institutions to grow. Our interest is to create an enabling environment for prosperity and to also ensure that the territorial integrity of the country is not undermined. We have made it abundantly clear to our men. When people begin to talk about Military incursion in politics in the 21st century, one begins to wonder their psychological status. Imagine that we have led the way in checkmating military incursions in other countries around the continent, how much more our own country. Recently, our Air force was the first to land in Senegal to deal with the issue in Gambia. We were the only fighter Airplane that landed there to deal with the issue and support ECOWAS and our government. So, how can we now want to sabotage our country? Our role is clearly defined by the Constitution. We are interested in Research and Development; we are interested in building capacity to deal with issues and have a stable country, that we will be proud of. Anything outside this is not our focus. We are monitoring the situation and we will respond accordingly.

Why Africa must tell her own story…

It’s an excellent idea to have an organization that helps tell the African story, because, if we do not do this, no one will do it for us. Beyond the gains recorded by the Military in Nigeria, there are equally very important achievements that should be highlighted. We also have so many Nigerians that should be celebrated.  For us in the Nigerian Air force, we clearly defined what we wanted to achieve, within the period that we hope to serve. The well-defined path made it much easier for us to see and access ourselves.  I think that of all the gains recorded by this administration, the most important thing that has happened is the creation of an enabling environment for business to thrive. Without the enabling environment, nothing meaningful would have happened. The Airforce is a very technical force that requires input from other stakeholders. We have to buy spare parts, and also carry out inspections for the aircraft using the third party. It might interest you to note that some aircraft undergo inspection every 25 hours. We have flown slightly above 9000 hours in the last two years. You may not understand what this means, but anyone who is involved with aviation will understand what it means to have recorded this flight time in two years. We also have the consumable component,  which must be available when required and in the quantity required. You have to also consider that the Northeast which is the theater of war is at the tail end of the distribution channel for petroleum products, so we must always consider how to get aviation fuel. We had to build two strategic reserves to ensure a round the clock availability of aviation fuel.