Director of Public Relations and Information, Nigerian Air Force, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, said the accidental air strikes on civilians are not intentional. Gabkwet also noted that troops are laying down their lives to secure the country, in this interview with the African Independent Television AIT programme Security Watch Africa, monitored by Linus Aleke.
The Nigerian Army and Air Force have enjoyed close synergy in recent times, what is responsible for this robust cooperation?
It is a very delightful thing to see the services synergize and I am particularly very glad that Nigerians are beginning to realize that their Armed Forces are working together whether on the battlefield or out of the battlefield. This is because joint operation and synergy are very critical factors in every operation and we are excited that the new service chiefs have come a long way, from their days as boy soldiers, to this point when they occupy the most vintage and exalted positions in their various services. What we have now is three times better than what we saw in the past, and with that, I can confidently say that we are in for better days.
How prepared is the new Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal Hassan Abubakar, and how is he coping with his new assignment?
For Air Vice Marshal Hassan Abubakar, I will say that his leadership of the Air Force at this material time could be attributed to share providence or an act of God. Because when you look at his curriculum vitae, you will see that right from the onset, the Service has prepared him for this leadership task. He has had experience as a special force officer. Apart from that he had training as an admin officer, which gives him the idea of putting square pegs in square holes to achieve set goals. He also went through training in aircraft engineering. He had also taken courses in aircraft safety and all of these things put together, as well as taking up strategic appointments had prepared him for leadership. First, he was Director of Policy, and then Director of Operations. All of these responsibilities gave him the impetus to get ready for the task ahead and so far we are seeing results. He had set the ball rolling and he had made sure that pilots, especially, those who are there on the battlefield have all the things they require to make sure that we get to the bottom of the problems that we are having. Of course, you recalled that we lost an aircraft about a week ago. We saw the proactive steps he took to make sure these pilots get the attention that they require. He brought them down to Abuja, gave them the best medical care, went to Makurdi to address their colleagues, boost their confidence, and make sure that we don’t derail from our statutory objectives, as well as make sure that we continue to hit these criminals until they succumbed and come to the negotiating table.
How prepared and good is the Nigerian Air Force today, in terms of manpower and equipment to face the emerging security threats across the federation?
I think we are very prepared when you look at where we are coming from. In the last eight years, the Nigerian Air Force has not had it this good. The federal government has invested a lot in the Nigerian Air Force. Remember we took delivery of the long-awaited A-29 Super Tucano and several other platforms. Before the end of this year, we are expecting no fewer than 51 other platforms, to add to our armoury. I mean, that is massive for any country that is a massive investment in our security. There is also a drive to ensure that we get enough manpower, and recruitment is been opened for all Nigerians. The Air Force itself is expanding, from four commands to six commands right now. Of course, all of these things are signs that the Nigerian Air Force is growing and is capable of working together with other services to make sure that we nip this situation we have in the bud, for people to have that freedom to move around, children to go back to their schools, farmers to go back to their farms and people to return to the life they were used to while growing up. We would not have had a better set of service chiefs than what we have today in the Armed Forces of Nigeria.
What is the command philosophy of the current Chief of the Air Staff?
Before I even go into his command philosophy, what are the challenges, in our security environment, and what are the things that had brought us to this state? Of course, we are also aware that these challenges are well captured in the National Defence Policy 2017. After looking at this, the next thing he did was to look at the state of our fleet, and at 78 per cent serviceability, he is optimistic that the service is good to go. Now, he started to chat about a way forward for the Nigerian Air Force and that was why he came up with a philosophy that said that he intends to transform the Nigerian Air Force into an agile and resilient force that can effectively meet the air power demand of national security. He also came up with five key drivers, the first one has to do with force structure optimisation. We have realised that we have spread ourselves and opened so many units, but they are not as effective as they should be. So, what we need to do is to optimise our deployment to have more manpower in one place so that we can effectively address each situation. Deliberate training is also one of the key drivers he had also brought out. Why, because training must aim at something, we can no longer do general training. It must be aimed at a particular problem at hand. Logistics support and strong maintenance culture are other drivers. Also, he is a trained aircraft engineer, so these are the things that point to the changes and transformations that are ahead. The welfare of personnel is another thing, but aside from the welfare of personnel, the thing he brought out again is infrastructure renewal. This is going to be one of the real areas he would focus attention on to make sure that houses for personnel, schools for their children, and all other basic things like water, and electricity are functional. I want to believe that it is just a matter of time before we begin to see tangible results around.
Nigerians are curious to know what had become of the Super Tucano that was projected to be a game changer in the fight against terrorism and banditry, Is the Super Tucano just a set of beautiful machines or something
Well, I can tell you that the A-29 Super Tucanos have been one of our best bites, and they have been performing well, out there in the field. Daily, in the North-East, North-West, South-South, and all over this country, the Tucanos are there. And of course, Tucanos are not the only aircraft that we have. All the platforms that we have are working day and night to deny criminal elements freedom of action. You saw the strike in the South-South against oil thieves and economic saboteurs. You heard about the strike in Jibia local government area, that took out about 22 terrorists, and of course, about two or three weeks ago, you saw the precision strike against over 200 terrorists in the Mandara Mountains. I mean, the videos are out there for people to see. So, these are not flukes and these are signs that the military is denying criminal elements freedom of action. But the truth is this, can the military end the war against terrorism and insurgency, absolutely, no. They can take care of barely 30 per cent of problems. But what are the underlining things there, and whose responsibility is it to address these issues? I think that is where Nigerians should concentrate not the military. But as far as the military is concerned, we are up to the task, we are working hard to deliver on our mandate.
Nigerians are also curious to know why NAF fighter jets are crashing so often
Honestly, I don’t think that we have had too many plane crashes. If you look at the statistics, the average is barely 0.87 aircraft in the last seven years. Look, let us be honest with ourselves, once you have an Air Force that is active like the Nigerian Air Force, US Air Force, South African Air Force, and Egyptian Air Force, the likelihood of an accident is always going to be there. It could be human error, or the weather, one of my senior colleagues said that it could even be the act of God, it could be mechanical even. So, these things happen, the reason why you don’t hear some of these air mishaps around our neighbours is simple. How many air crafts do these countries have, perhaps that is why people just really get agitated when they hear about these crashes? It is not as if we are happy when it happens, but it is difficult sometimes to avoid accidents, so long as we are active Air Force, as long as we are one of the best Air Forces in the world, that is the truth.
We also discovered that the pilots of these crashes are skilfully escaping the crashes alive, how are they able to do this?
In the last incident, the two pilots came out alive, what it means is that the training that they have been receiving is taken effect on them, unfortunately, some others never had that opportunity. We just want Nigerians to be patient with us. I have also observed that the moment people found out that the pilots survived the crash, the focus on the crash quickly die down, which is good. It means we are concerned about human lives, but when we have accidents, we should understand that sometimes this will happen, it is a tough job. We must respect these young men that are doing some of these things. It is a job that we hardly find time for our families, selves, and friends. We fly day and night while others are asleep, so citizens must show appreciation to the members of the Armed Forces. We must understand that the troops are laying down their lives for the future of our country.
In the past there were reported cases of bombing wrong targets that led to the death of innocent civilians, what have you done to improve these particular shortcomings?
Accidental strikes on civilian lives are not intentional and it is something that we regret. We are, however, glad that the Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal Hassan Abubakar, is looking at it very critically. This is so because he is a safety expert, we can be rest assured that he is going to take time and critically look at all of these issues and lessons learnt are imbibed on our pilots. Most of these strikes are intelligence-driven, and when you look at the kind of security situation that we have, insurgency, and terrorism, where the enemies live amongst and around the people. It is difficult at times to pinpoint where they are and sometimes, when they have an idea that these strikes are going to happen, they begin to mix up with innocent citizens. But we are happy now that there has been great improvement in targeting and we are working with our foreign partner to ensure that these lessons learnt would be imbibed on our pilots to ensure that we avoid or minimize to a very large extent, unintentional targets on civilians and things of that nature.
Nigerians believe that the Defence sector is gulping the highest chunk of our national budget, are we spending enough on our military when compared to other countries?
Honestly, I don’t think that we have started spending, because if you consider the fact that without security you and I cannot be sitting down here, then, we would understand that there is nothing too much for security. The moment the environment is secured, then all economic activities would begin to flourish. So, if we don’t have security, what are we going to do, just imagine the people in Maiduguri and all those places? We are glad that peace is returning to those places and economic activities are picking up but the first and most important thing is security. Once that is done, all other activities will flourish, and security must be a priority. That is why countries in Europe are spending heavily on security. Let us not even go to US, China, or Russia, these are big-time spenders, but we are very grateful because the government had done its best but more needs to be done.