Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar
Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar

Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar: In the cockpit of NAF

It is impossible to say which branch of the armed forces show more daring or has more cojones in the battlefield. Is it the infantry soldier in close combat with an enemy or one he takes out with a neat shot to the forehead from a distance?

Is it the navy man who aims to torpedo an advancing enemy warship before he, crew and captain are sunk? Is it the lone airman in his gunship focusing on a goggled pilot like him rushing from the opposite direction with the same mission to kill?

To be sure, all of them have demonstrated acts of courage at the warfront and some such military campaigns they find themselves. In other words, there are legions of foot soldiers who have shown tremendous pluck as a phalanx of navy riding the waves and fighter pilots calling the shots from the air.

Still, there is something to be said for combatants who have such a long way to fall when they are hit and lose control of their machines in space.

For one, a wounded soldier has recourse to his mates and medical personnel marching or riding behind the advancing troops. A stunned navy man on the deck of a strafed warship can still be rowed to safety in smaller boats attached to the bigger vessel for such purpose. What of a lone pilot in his cockpit, thousands of feet up in the air hurtling down to earth at a dizzying speed?

It is not for nothing that many countries see them as the elite corps of their Armed Forces, more than average height most often in their spotless uniforms, looking ever so formidable in aviation glasses and sitting pretty in the cockpit. It is also not for nothing that the success of most modern wars – big and small, world wars or civil wars – have largely been determined by air power – that is by men and women who fly solo missions or in echelon formations to shoot down the enemy.

Though not by any means more relevant than the other armed forces, the air force plays more than just a complementary role in most country’s martial campaigns. From their vantage positions, and long before foot soldiers or the navy at sea, they sight enemies and, if need be, annihilate them, thereby saving their land and sea counterparts a load of trouble.

Sitting in the cockpit and piloting the affairs of this branch of the Nigerian Armed Forces today is Air Marshall Sadique Abubakar, Chief of Air Staff, appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari on 13 July 2015 at the same time with other service chiefs, Lt General Tukur Yusufu Buratai, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas, Chief of Naval Staff (CNS).

If the best and brightest students in your class – academically, athletically or both – end up as senior prefects, their colleagues give more than a passing nod. The school authorities, they agree, is spot-on in their choice. If the best science student in a class becomes a doctor or an engineer, you know it is also spot-on. He couldn’t have been anything else.

If the best student in aviation school becomes the best pilot with more loggings in flights and mastery of different air planes – military or commercial – you know he has earned his stripes. If that particular student rises to become the head of the country’s Air Force, then you know it is a well-earned rank, a well-deserved appointment.

If that same individual has occupied that position for more than the mandatory five-year tenure, then you know he is doing something particularly well and appreciated by his Commander-in-Chief. (It must be said that there is something the current chiefs of staff are doing right in the campaign against home-grown terrorism that the rest of us do not know but which the C-in-C is privy to. And that, possibly, accounts for why President Buhari has resisted all attempts by some Nigerians to sack his service chiefs.)

Air Marshall Abubakar’s rise to the top of NAF has followed a peculiar pattern of stellar performances right from secondary school through university to his career in the military. A student of distinction from St. Paul’s Primary School, Bauchi, from 1967 to 1973, he attended Government Secondary School in the same city shortly after and then graduated with a Second Class Upper in Political Science from the University of Ibadan, capping it with an MSc in Strategic Studies from the same institution not long after.

If he had wanted, the premier institution would have retained him as a teacher in the academia but Abubakar chose the military instead where he continued to distinguish himself in both theoretical and field work. 

From 1980 to December 1981, he was at the Primary Flying Training Wing (PFTW) where he graduated as the Best All-Round Student and the Best in Flying Cadet Course. Thereafter, he moved to Oxford Air Training School, England, for his Basic Flying Training, passing out with a tactical-type rating on the Mi-35P helicopter gunship and a Training Captain on the aircraft. He was a member of Junior Division Course 33; member, Command and Staff College Course 21, and participant, National War College, September 2006 – August 2007.

Born in Azare, Bauchi state 9 April, 1960, Air Marshall Abubakar is the quintessential airman who would have inspired others to follow in his footsteps. In battle fatigues, confident and well spoken, it is impossible not to admire him each time you see him on television – at a crucial meeting of service chiefs with the C-in-C, for instance; at some military base reviewing his troops, congratulating them for a job well done, encouraging them to do more or updating on the latest military hardware acquisitions by the Nigerian Air Force.  

What has been said about the man himself by his subordinates is his personal relationship with them, his esprit de corp. “A general,” one famous military maxim advises, “should not get too far ahead of his troops otherwise he’ll get shot in the ass.”

A high-handed, ill-tempered, unconcerned general/ officer is not likely to command as much respect and loyalty from his troops as one who is well disposed towards them. If there ever was any chance to take out that general/ officer – and by any means – they don’t hesitate, either by nicking him from behind at war or removing him through a coup, mutinies…

It is not on record anyone has ever taken a potshot at the CAS, although some members of Boko Haram may have tried and failed repeatedly to bring him down to earth. As for the men and women under his command, it is loyalty all the way.

Every year since his appointment, it has become habitual for Air Marshall Abubakar to meet with his fighting troops at the front to celebrate with them on special occasions. A family man with children, he sure knows how it feels not to be around loved ones during such festivals, to be at the warfront with every possibility of being killed.

Last June, for example, CAS Abubakar had one such informal engagement with troops of the Air Task Force Base, Air Force Base in Yola during the Eid-El-Fitri. Though he was unavoidably absent, Abubakar was ably represented by Air Commodore Anthony Ndace, Commander of 153 Base Services Group, Yola.

Speaking for the CAS, Ndace said the meeting was, among other reasons, “to help fill the vacuum created by their inability to celebrate with their families because of their deployment to the frontline” and to also “foster comradeship and give us the opportunity to commend ourselves for our efforts in the fight against insurgency.”

Through his spokesman, the CAS told his fighting force how the recent acquisition of some aircraft by NAF would help immensely in defeating insurgents and other forms of banditry across the country. “Let me reassure us all that procurement of additional platforms such as the super Tucano aircraft and other platforms,” Ndace said on his behalf, “would certainly be a game changer for our operations. We are committed to ensuring the total elimination of insurgency in our country; the internally displaced persons need to return to their homes and engage in meaningful activities.”

For an airman who has flown seven types of aircraft: Bulldog, Piper Warrior, Enstrom, Bell 206, BO-105, Mi-35P, and Mi-17, it all sits well with his subordinates. He has led by example and the records are there: He has a Commercial Pilot License in helicopters with Instrument Rating and a training captain accumulating over 2,500 operational and instructional flying hours.

Besides his aerial operations, Air Marshall Abubakar has also held a number of desk jobs in various capacities in different branches of NAF – from admin to training and procurement – Chief of Standards and Evaluation at NAF headquarters and Chief of Defence Communications and Air Officer Commanding, NAF Training Command. He served as Chief of Administration, NAF headquarters before his current position.

As the 20th CAS, Abubakar is responsible to the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces through the Air Council for command, direction, and general superintendence of NAF and the NAF Reserve. He progressed steadily through the ranks and was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal on 13 August 2015.

Before then, he had been Commander, NAF Station, Maiduguri; Commanding Officer 207 Wing; Acting Commanding Officer, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Air Wing; Directing Staff in the Junior and Senior Divisions of the Armed Forces Command and Staff College; Directing Staff, National Defence College; Group Operation Officer 97 Special Operation Group, 2007 – 2008; and Commander, 97 Special Operation Group, Port Harcourt, 2009 – 2011.

He has also been Air Component Commander, Operation Restore Hope; Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) Mobility Command, February 11 to June 6, 2012; SASO, Tactical Air Command, June 6– November 2012; Chief of Standards and Evaluation, NAF headquarters, November 8, 2012 – December 31, 2013; Air Officer Commanding, NAF Training Command; Chief of Defence Communications, Defence Headquarters, January 2014 – January 2015; and Chief of Administration, NAF headquarters. He loves nature, reading and travelling.

The narrative of NAF under his watch has continued to change positively, since 2015 with his focus on securing the country and making it more conducive for citizens to go about their daily activities without fear.

A source familiar with the operations of NAF insists that Air Marshal Abubakar “mounted the saddle with a vision of repositioning NAF into a highly professional and disciplined force through capacity building initiatives for effective, efficient and timely deployment of airpower in response to Nigeria’s national security challenges.”

Continuing, the source says that since then, “he has been recording remarkable achievements in the fight against terrorism and other forms of criminality in the country. This is largely facilitated by the acquisition of new platforms and the reactivation of existing ones.”

NAF is also witnessing enhanced professionalism through the expansion of its organisational structure and augmentation of its manpower strength, the source went on, adding that “tremendous progress is being made in the areas of human capacity development, enhancement of personnel welfare as well as Research and Development (R&D).”

All that has changed the narrative for good in the fight against the insurgents and other criminal activities in the country. In June this year, for instance, Abubakar inaugurated a Helipad at Katari village midway between Abuja and Kaduna “to strengthen the Nigerian Air Force response to security challenges in the area.”

Katari, as most Nigerians now know, enjoyed some infamy as a midway community where kidnappers, bandits and robbers surprised motorists plying the very busy Abuja – Kaduna highway. At the launch, Abubakar said: “It is paramount for our surveillance aircraft to utilize this platform with a view to have easy access to fuelling without necessarily extending their flight to either Kaduna or Abuja axis.”

The Chief of Air Staff was magnanimous enough to credit the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin, for mooting the idea to set up the Helipad midway between the two cities. “It is out of the wisdom of the Chief of Defence Staff that originated the idea of deploying NAF Special Forces to complement the initial deployment initiated by the Nigerian Army, Nigeria Police and Civil Defence as well as Defence Intelligence Operations…with the establishment of this formation, we are gradually moving to the threshold of total destruction of kidnapping cells and banditry within Kaduna state and environs.”

In tandem with other Armed Forces and other intelligence agencies, ‘’NAF has continued to provide close air support, air interdiction, in-Theatres liaison flights, medical and casualty evacuation as well as logistics re-supply of ammunition, water, food, and medicine,’’ Abubakar once noted.

Add to all of that how NAF has mediated peacefully in regional wars – Gambia, Mali, Sierra Leone – in the last couple of years, airlifted stranded Nigerian civilians from different parts of the world and you naturally want to thumbs for NAF under the leadership of Abubakar.  

In a bid to strengthen better civil-military relations, another credible source told us, “NAF has continued to conduct medical outreaches all over the country and has so far treated over 300,000 people in different parts of the country in the last four years.”

For reasons of space, we might not be able to chronicle the achievements of Air Marshall Abubakar for the period he’s been CAS. But what is clear is that NAF has attained a level of professionalism never before imagined.

In the past four years in one of his public speeches, he said “NAF has scaled up our Communications and Information Systems (CIS) support for the various Theatres of Operation thereby enhancing Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and improving the dissemination of intelligence.

‘’One of the major institutional frameworks established in this regard is the new Geospatial-Intelligence Data Centre (GIDC) at HQ NAF, which is equipped with high-tech computer hardware and software, to improve capacity for acquisition, exploitation, analysis, and interpretation of imagery and geospatial information to provide actionable intelligence for the armed forces and other security agencies,” insisting that “the newly established Strategic Air Operations Centre (SAOC) would equally enhance the coordination of air operations across the country.’’

Like other service chiefs, maybe soon enough or not, Abubakar will step down as Nigeria’s Chief of Air Staff. But that will not stop him from flying, at least anytime soon, from doing what he has always done for much of his life, something he has always loved to do.

To start with, he is a licensed commercial pilot. The advantage is that, post retirement, he can dust up his license and take to the skies just on a whim – for work or pleasure – certain that no control tower operator anywhere in Nigeria will deny him landing rights.