“He did not talk much, but very observant. He was one of the best boys in my class. He was not lazy. He performed every task we gave them diligently. And with the way he conducted himself as a pupil, I am not surprised he is where he is today,” these were the words of one of Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar’s primary school teachers.
Early last year, a book I am writing on the Air Chief led me to this teacher. Her memory of his times as a pupil in her class seemed not have dimmed in any way. As the interview session went on, I discovered that she hardly recalled the ‘exploits’ of other pupils in the same class. When I asked her why, her answer was: “Baba is doing great things in the Air Force. Those great things effortlessly brought back my memories of his conducts in my class when I was his teacher in the primary school.”
Although I did dozens other interviews for the same book, and the interviewees —— governors, his military seniors, juniors and colleagues, minister, etc. — and everyone of honestly told the hard worker, go-getter and game change he has been since they knew him, none gave the Air Chief away that he was born to carry out the monumental turnaround he has done in the Nigerian Air Force and still doing.
This book, which is set to be released any moment from now, made me comb through the history of Nigerian Air Force vis-à-vis what is obtainable in the force now, and I can argue to any extent that he will go down in history as one of the greatest leaders of the force. In fact, many historians will write that since the force was established in 1962, it became what what it should be when Air Marshal Abubakar came on board in 2015.
Nigeria’s history will also remember him as one of the greatest revelations of the Muhammadu Buhari Administration. This has nothing to do with his physical appearance as it is very easy, to pick him out in a crowd. Nor has it to do with his flawless and enchanting delivery on national television, as he marshals the various activities of the Service, under his command. Nor would it be said that he just dropped from the moon. No. He was always part of the Air Force. Like other officers, he was busy, quietly playing crucial roles in the nation’s security architecture.
But that anonymity was broken by the call of duty. Perceptive students of leadership models would have noticed his unique disposition once he released his vision statement, upon his appointment as Chief of the Air Staff, by President Buhari, in July 2015.
The statement read: “To reposition the Nigerian Air Force 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.”
To him, achieving his high-minded vision would require a comprehensive package based on doing everything right: the right manpower in, quantity and quality; the right capacity building initiatives that placed training on an unprecedented pedestal; the right motivational environment by making welfare of Service personnel and their families a first charge item; the right equipment in terms of the right aircraft and ancillary support for aircraft maintenance. It is to his credit that the NAF has reactivated and keeps reactivating many aircraft.
These reactivations did not just happen in a vacuum. Rather, it is the result of a deliberate emphasis on and painstaking commitment to, research and development (R&D) whereby NAF personnel have not been simply challenged to put their training to practical effect; they now do their work within an operational milieu that recognizes them as critical stakeholders in national development.
To achieve this paradigm of local maintenance of the NAF equipment, the Air Chief inspired the personnel he is leading to greater heights of patriotism and achievement. In the process, he has also initiated the biggest civil-military collaboration in R&D, in the annals of Nigeria’s history.
Nigerians will be delighted to realize that, since 2015, the Nigerian Air Force reactivated most of the, hitherto, unserviceable aircraft in its fleet, with the active collaboration of Nigerian universities. This collaboration has far-reaching consequences for national development and captures the very essence of the Muhammadu Buhari doctrine of looking inwards, in finding solutions to the nation’s problems.
The most profound benefits include indigenous capacity building (within the NAF and the universities) and cost saving that runs into millions of dollars. Yet, nothing compares with the importance of this collaboration for national security as, reactivating the platforms, has contributed greatly towards the successes recorded in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency, since the advent of the present Administration in 2015.
To this, it is important to acknowledge that, in a very important sense, these achievements are the direct result of the unambiguous policy thrust, passion and support of President Buhari himself who, from the very beginning, made the counter-insurgency campaign, a cardinal programme of his administration. There could not be any greater evidence of this than the fact that, in less than five years, the Federal Government has acquired dozens of new platforms (aircraft) to boost training and the combat readiness of the NAF.
These are 12 Super Mushshak trainer aircraft, four Mi-35M helicopter gunships, two Agusta 101 helicopters (handed over from the Presidential Air Fleet in virtually new condition) as well as two Bell 412 helicopters, which have been retrofitted to perform light combat functions. This number is aside the additional 22 aircraft that have been ordered by the Federal Government, which include 12 Super Tucano attack aircraft, an additional Mi-35M helicopter gunship as well as five other helicopters – 4 A109P light attack helicopters and A139W utility helicopter – expected to be delivered from Italy. Others are three JF-17 Thunder Multi-role fighter aircraft and a special mission aircraft recently ordered to enhance surveillance of Nigeria’s maritime environment.
Consequently, before the end of the eight years of the Buhari Administration, it is expected that an unprecedented 40 brand new aircraft would have been added to the inventory of the Nigerian Air Force. As a matter of fact, this is a record, as this is the first time such number of aircraft would be acquired since the Shagari Administration in the early 80s. Aside from this, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) also handed over three EC-135 and two Dauphin helicopters to the Service, while the Nigeria Immigration Service ceded its erstwhile unserviceable Dornier DO-228 light transport aircraft to the NAF.
Very worthy to note is the fact that, whereas Air Marshal Abubakar’s record portrays him as a highly patriotic and disciplined officer, his emotional commitment to the Buhari doctrine explains, to a large extent, the fact that the Nigerian Air Force has been a strong factor in the successes recorded by the Administration.
When Air Marshal SB Abubakar’s career runs its full course, he will be leaving fulfilled that, during his era as the Chief of Air Staff, and inspired by the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian Air Force was able to record some very significant leaps. Top on the list of these leaps is in the area of diversity management, of gender inclusion which has seen the production of the first female fighter pilot in Nigeria. What this means is that Nigerians will no longer see female fighter pilots in Egypt or Israel as foreign fantasies: they are here with us, flesh and blood, the product of courage. Flying Officer Omolara Kafayat Sanni, who was the best in her student’s pilot course in Nigeria, is presently undergoing training in the United States.
Another leap is that for the first time, in several decades, the aircraft serviceability status of “operable aircraft” has reached in the proportion of 78-82 percent. This is an unmistakable evidence of the success of the current administration’s insistence on efficient management of resources at our disposal, not only to save costs but to keep the country’s Services in a state of combat readiness.
Another leap is in the area of doctrinal changes by the development of the NAF Special Forces capability, comparable to similar forces in other countries. These Special Forces and units have been instrumental in the timely and effective degradation of criminal gangs and protection of NAF bases and resources thereby guarding against embarrassing attacks, on NAF facilities, as was the case at Maiduguri in December 2013.
It should also be placed on record that, for the first time, the Nigerian Air Force has established reference hospitals in Port Harcourt and Bauchi while, from the initial sole cancer screening centre in Abuja, the NAF has cancer screening centres in four other NAF locations; namely Maiduguri, Makurdi, Kaduna and Bauchi. We are not to forget the reference hospital in Daura which the C-in-C commissioned himself.
Under Air Marshal Abubakar, the NAF has achieved multiple in-country periodic depot maintenance of three of its platforms-the C130H, the Alpha Jet and the L-39 aircraft, in three different locations in the country. For Air Marshal Abubakar, the inspiration for this comes from the desire first, to save cost but much more importantly, to scale up the proficiency levels of the NAF engineers and technicians by boosting their capacity to undertake these kinds of maintenance.
While this may not be a first, it is instructive that the NAF Weapons Meet of 2018 was the first time it was holding after over 30 years!
But definitely, there is no questioning whether the NAF International Air Power Seminar of 2018 was the first in the annals of Nigeria. It was. It attracted to Nigeria, the leadership of the Air Forces of other countries and provided a rich opportunity for cross-country sharing of global trends and best practices.
Finally, and this has been broached earlier; the unprecedented leap in research and development will stand out, for all times, as the signature achievement of the Air Marshal Abubakar era and an undeniable contribution to both the security architecture and sustainable development of Nigeria. It is a monumental project, spanning space and peoples of all interests and specializations; creating employment, nurturing skills and competences, enhancing combat readiness and generally placing our economy on stronger footing.
All these brought out the professionalism that NAF should naturally have. They have been rendering to the force the capacity it is using in contributing to the successes the Buhari administration has recorded in maintaining Nigeria’s sovereignty and war against insurgency and insecurity in general.
As he clocks 60, this is to commend him for all he has been doing to the development of NAF, Nigerian Military, Nigeria as a state and the humanity in general. May his endeavour and ‘exploits’ continue being successful.
Sade is a public affairs analyst wrote in from Abuja