BY KINGSLEY OMONOBI, Abuja
IN the 1990s following the military’s intransigence in relinquishing power to democratically elected administrations, the Nigeria Airforce which was considered one of the most potent arm of the military through which jackboot power would continue to be foisted on the people was targeted by the foreign European powers for dissection and destabilisation.
This dissection aimed at making the Airforce a toothless barking dog, became so effective that up until 2005 after the attainment of democracy, the Airforce had not recovered from the impact. There were no planes flying and there were no trained pilots to fly the few planes that were being rehabilitated following the lifting of those bans.
Pilots who were trained several years ago and had attained such senior ranks like Group Captains and above who ordinarily had surpassed flying ages, had to be recalled to refresh their skills and alertness to fly the planes.
Since then, successive NAF administrations, supported by civilian administrations, have upgraded the status of the Airforce to the extent that new fighter aircraft have been added to the NAF inventory. Presently, these efforts at rebuilding the service has begun to yield fruit with the delivery of a Squadron of new F-7Ns’, Maritime’s ATR-42 MPA, Patrol and Rescue Augusta-109 helicopters while the reactivation of a number of C-130s, G222, and Do-228 have greater boosted flying.
Unfortunately, this success has now thrown up a new challenge for the Airforce, that of pilots, instructor pilots and ground crew engineers. It has become more visible as these platforms are being inducted/re-inducted into the service. This inadequacy in the number and experience of aircrew required to mann these platforms, is in spite of efforts to train a high number of aircrew, particularly pilots overseas, which were initiated in the past.
Shortage of pilots
Air Marshal Mohammed Dikko Umar, current Chief of Air Staff is however poised to deal with the new challenge as he has swung into action taking the challenges of shortage of pilots head on. In fact, the appointment of Umar, a pilot of international repute with over 8, 175 flying hours and a holder of the American Airline Transport Pilot License, as the 17th Chief of the Air Staff, is seen not only in NAF but the armed forces circle as a square peg in a square hole.
On assumption of office, Umar who was the former Air Officer Commanding Training Command of the Airforce, choose first to attack the welfare and accommodation needs of officers and personnel of the Airforce which has over the years given the service goose pimples.
At the last count, particularly in Abuja , Umar has directed the construction of six buildings comprising 16 and 18 blocks of 2bedroom and 3bedroom flats for officers, airmen and airwomen and their families who have been either squatting with colleagues or languishing in makeshift accommodation.
He has directed the completion of housing projects of the Ministry of Defence being constructed at NAF bases across the country that had been abandoned over the years because at the end of the day, it would be to the benefit of the Nigeria Airforce.
Apart from the issue of accommodation, Umar has brought a fatherly touch to the vexed issues of promotion and retirements which had threatened to tear the Force apart with a display of maturity and detribalisation during the last exercise which is still the talk of the force today, as he not only righted many perceived wrongs but also brought back the feeling of oneness and a sense of belonging back to the force.
Many officers had resigned their fate waiting for the dreaded ‘retirement letter’ not because they were not qualitfied but because of their state of origin or those with no godfathers feared their promotion would impact negatively on favoured candidates. But they all very happy the way Umar handled the exercise.
One officer stated with a note of surprisie that Umar came with no animosity because he saw his appointment to the exalted position as the CAS strictly as the handiwork of God hence his decisions on the promotions were taken with fairness and merit.
Even those who thought they had wronged him at one point or the other in the cause of the job were surprised that there was no recourse to the past.
Hence so many officers particularly from the East and the South who had lost hope of ever making it because many would have been caught by age on rank while many were on their last attempt, with frustration already a permanent feature on their faces, bounced back to life when the signal showing that Air Marshal Umar approved their promotion.
MoU for training Now with the challenge of pilots threatening the very existence of the NAF, Umar is willing to break new grounds by entering into MoU with both local and international training bodies to correct the massive shortfall in record time. Plans are afoot to source for already trained or experienced pilots to apply to enter the Airforce as going for wholly new breed and training them would defeat the purpose.
Already, about 11 new pilots have been churned out for the Airforce pilots’ training programme.
A very important aspect of the roles expected of the leadership of the military in present democratic Nigeria is the need for officers and men to respect constitutional provisions of the land.
This is one important area Air Marshal Umar has not be faulted he assumed office. He has continued to sing the song of non interference in the political developments in the country through unconstitutional means.
“The armed forces must remain focused in its constitutional requirements of keeping off politics, and do everything to prevent any possibility of military intervention in the polity,” he says.
“The control of the military by elected representatives allows a nation to base its values and purposes, its institutions and practices, on the popular will of the people rather than on the choices of military leaders, whose outlook by definition focuses on the need for internal order and external security”
“The fundamental requirement of the Nigerian Armed Forces is to develop an unshakeable system of political neutrality within the military establishment, as well as prevent or forestall on a permanent basis any possibility of military intervention in politics”, he adds.
Educating personnel on ‘Civilian Control of the Military in a Democracy’, he said “civil control of the military is based on a set of ideas, institutions and behaviours which limit the potential for military intervention in political affairs and provides a system that endows civilian officials with authority and mechanism to exercise supremacy over the military”.
Towards this end, over a dozen aircraft of different types including those for basic training, advance training and fighter training at Kano , Kaduna and Markudi are currently being repaired or have been completely rehabilitated.