Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that it was a memorable reunion for the wives of Nigerian Air Force personnel, when their husbands who were part of a military advance party, recently returned safely after their intervention in The Gambia
At the 401 Aircraft Maintenance Depot (ACMD), Airport Road, Ikeja, Lagos, the atmosphere was riddled with a lot of mixed emotions for both the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) personnel on ground and the civilians.
However, the civilians were mostly women who were members of the Nigerian Air Force Wives Association (NAFOWA) and the wives of airmen. The occasion was the return of the heroic troops who had gone to The Gambia to oust the outgone President Yayha Jammeh and enforce democratic proceedings in then troubled country.
Who could blame them? But for providence, there would have been war in The Gambia and it would have been a bloody one- with casualties on both the civilian side and the military.
If the war had occurred, the euphoric reception organised at the 401 Air Lift Group by the NAF would have been a sombre one. Rather, on a certain Thursday, the reverse was the case as a cacophony of sounds and melodious music belted out to welcome the peace keeping team.
The welcome was for the advance party of 97 personnel out of 200 contingent of the Nigerian Air Force, who were sent to restore peace in The Gambia, as part of the Economic Community of West African States Military Intervention in The Gambia (ECOMIG).
The troops were sent to The Gambia following the refusal of Jammeh to leave power after losing an election to Adama Barrow. The outgone president did all in his power including seizing the military might to getting the National Assembly to intervene in order to remain in power.
A happy reunion
For the wives, under the umbrella of the Nigerian Air Force Officers Wives Association, and their counterpart, wives of the other ranks (airmen) there is no better way to appreciate their husbands (both officers and airmen) for their jobs than to build a stable and viable home in their absence, by making modest contributions in strengthening the home front.
So each occasion that they get to be reunited with their husbands after an operation, they often receive it with thanks, given that their husbands have signed up to protect the territorial integrity of the nation at whatever cost.
So on that fateful Tuesday, the women stormed the grounds of 401 hangar in their numbers. Asides NAFOWA members who wore their white, orange and blue uniforms, the wives of the airmen wore traditional outfits representing the three major tribes in Nigeria- Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba.
Whilst the Igbos were belting out songs in their native language, the dancers were busy shaking their bodies to the rhythm of the drum and same applied to other tribes- Yoruba and Hausa. They were all singing and performing at the same time, thus creating a cacophony of melodies in an otherwise silent military environment.
The military personnel who were on ground simply endured the combination of all three music and dances, as they understood the joy in the heart of their wives over the return of their loved ones from what would have otherwise been a dangerous operation.
Speaking on anonymity, one of the wives said that they appreciate the sacrifice of their husbands at the warfront fulfilling their constitutional responsibility of policing our skies, adding that they the wives have also sworn to make the job easier for them by keeping the home front safe.
She said, “Each time our husbands are sent to the warfront, we worry. This is because they might or might not come back to us. That is why we are happy that peace was restored to The Gambia but not at the cost of our husband’s lives.”
The brief for The Gambia
The Nigerian contingent of Economic Community of West African States Military Intervention in Gambia, was a standby force tasked by ECOWAS Heads of State to enforce the December 1, 2016 election mandate in the The Gambia.
As is obtainable before any mission, either internal or external, the NAF personnel deployed for the mission at The Gambia are briefed before their departure. Same procedure occurred on January 17, 2017, when the ECOMIG troops were about to jet off.
Addressing the contingent before departure, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar, had urged the troops to maintain discipline and be professional in their conduct.
Reminding them to be good ambassadors of Nigeria, the CAS had stated that no act of indiscipline by the contingent would be tolerated. He had said, “You have been given the task which is very well defined, and we have put together all the air assets that we think are necessary to ensure that we are able to successfully conduct this operation and that is what we have on ground here.
“What we have here are men that are highly trained, highly skilled they know their job and they know their task, and as a professional service the commander of the air assets will work together with other commanders and they will come up with what is required in terms of plans, to be able to execute their tasks and come back home.”
With this brief, the contingent of 200 men and air assets comprising fighter jets, transport aircraft, Light Utility Helicopter as well as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft set off to Dakar, Senegal, from where it was expected to operate and gain access into The Gambia.
According to the brief, the troops were to forestall hostilities or breakdown of law and order that may result from the current political impasse in The Gambia. Led by Contingent Commander, Air Commodore Tajudeen Yusuf, the troops were airlifted from 117 Air Combat Training Group Kainji to Dakar in Senegal, in the NAF 918 C-130, a logistics aircraft, and the troops included the Special Forces, Combat Support Group, medical officers, technicians and the crew.
And save for this massive manpower, both air and at sea and the show of force, deployed by the federal government and the security forces of other nations, the ousted former President of the Republic of Gambia, Jammeh, was said to have been ready for war.
This disclosure was made by the Nigerian Air Force after 97 of its 200 contingent sent to restore peace in The Gambia, arrived at the NAF Air Lift Group in Ikeja, Lagos. While receiving the contingent led by Air Commodore Yusuf, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, said the Air Force would have applied commensurate force if Jammeh hadn’t opted to back down.
It was gathered that although the ousted president was battle ready, as he had availed himself with the best of the country’s military weapons, the show of mightier force by the airpower of NAF influenced his decision to stand down.
According to the contingent, which arrived in a NAF 918 C-130 aircraft and two alpha jets, they had first shown off their military strength by continually flying over Jammeh’s residence from their base in Senegal. With the different NAF air lifts and aircrafts flying over, as well as that of other countries, the Gambian military were said to have downed their weapons for fear of retribution, given the small strength of their military power.
Having opted not to fight, they allowed the ground and air forces of ECOWAS forces to access the State House, as well as Jammeh’s personal residence.
Thus, when they finally accessed the State House and his personal residence, they saw that he was really prepared for war in a bid not to leave office.
The commander’s report
In an interview with the Contingent Commander, Air Commodore Yusuf, he regaled THISDAY with his experience at The Gambia, adding that the Airforce recorded no casualty.
He said, “We conducted the operation with deterrence and diplomacy. When we gained access to the State House, from what we saw, Jammeh was prepared for war. But for the airpower that we showed, as we were the first country to show up at The Gambia, he would not have stepped down. For now, we have won the battle but it’s left for the political leaders to win the peace and stabilise the country.”
On the troops left behind he said, “The forces we left there are to basically stabilise The Gambia and integrate their forces in the security arrangement.
They will continue to be there until stability is achieved and the ECOWAS leaders decide that all security forces of other nations stand down.”
The CAS commendation
While addressing the advance troops on their return, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), who was represented by the Chief of Policy and Plans, Air Vice Marshal James Gbum, said the remaining personnel were left behind to ensure stability and reintegration of The Gambian military forces.
He said, “Prior to your departure, the CAS addressed and emplored you to represent Nigeria well. Thus, the discipline and professional conduct you all maintained was highly commendable and worthy of mention. Also, your cooperation with sister services and other military forces of other ECOWAS countries is also commendable.
“We are glad that democratic order has been maintained in The Gambia and stability achieved through your efforts. You have proven to be good ambassadors of NAF and made Nigeria proud. Note that the ability of NAF to provide airpower at home and project same seamlessly in other countries is an achievement buoyed by the support of President Muhammadu Buhari.”
On whether the Air Force would have applied force if Jammeh had not stepped down he said, “Yes, we would have applied force to restore peace. We went with our fighting forces and not the training forces.
The birth of NAF’s peace keeping operations
Over the years, the Nigerian Air Force has shown its military strength in peace keeping operations either in West Africa or the continent at large and distinguished itself based on its airpower. Same might was displayed at The Gambia and it yielded results. But it did not all start today.
The idea of establishing an air force for Nigeria was first mooted in 1961 following the nation’s participation in peace-keeping operations in Congo and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). During these peace-keeping operations, foreign air forces aircraft were employed to airlift the Nigerian Army Regiment to and from the theatres of operation.
It was from that idea that the Nigerian Government at the time, recognised the urgent need to establish its own air force actively supported by modern facilities to provide full complement of forces to enhance the nation’s military posture.
Thus, early in 1962, the government of the day agreed in principle and character that the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) be established. And so began the journey of a million miles for the Nigeria Air Force in protecting not just our territorial skies in internal operations but also for different peace keeping missions to countries that are embroiled in war situations.
L-R: Contingent Commander, Air Commodore Tajudeen Yusuf; Chief of Policy and Plans, Air Vice Marshal James Gbum; AOC Logistics Command, Air Vice Marshal Ibrahim Yahaya and Air Vice Marshal IO Amao, after the advance Air Force troops returned from The Gambia