By Senator Iroegbu
Flight Lieutenant Kafayat Sanni and her peers of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), are living their dreams as Nigeria’s first female fighter pilots; even as she readies to go and kick asses of some Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) terrorists in the North East.
The essence of this epochal assignment should not be lost on us; because this mission is a policy milestone that took years of sacrifice, especially on the part of their predecessors, whose unfulfilled professional goals were galvanised to break the hitherto ironclad gender barrier against female officers in the Nigerian military. She and her pioneering colleagues will forever be remembered with nostalgia that once upon a time in the nation’s history, Nigerian military female Pilots delivered a payloads of hellfire missiles against the insurgents who have degraded women as a sex object to be kidnapped and held in captivity. But with these female pilots joining the battlefield, is it not time to turn the tables on the insurgents?
Why do we think and expect so?
It is often written that whatever a man can do, a woman can even do better. Nevertheless, this axiom remained elusive in the combat history of the Nigerian Armed Forces until President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 authorised for the training of female officers on combat missions through admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). Expectedly, this helped to produce a set of 20 female cadets nicknamed ‘Jonathan Queens’ who were admitted into Nigeria’s premier military training institution.
Unfortunately, this huge career leap for female officers and personnel was almost ruined in 2017 when President Muhammadu Buhari in a policy reversal reportedly gave a nod to end the admission of female cadets into the combatant course of the NDA. Buhari and Nigerian military authorities, allegedly came under pressure from some vested interests in the Northern part of Nigeria who were opposed to the idea of female combatants, and ratified in the National Defence Policy 2017 (Revised); Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service Officers 2017. Consequently, the recommendation 19 of that revised policy was to phase out the training of female combatants in the NDA.
Even though some military sources cited the unacceptable danger and casualties of the female combatants, especially the ground forces, may incur at the hands of the insurgents in the Northeast as the reason for halting the programme, it was however, a major career blow.
Fortunately, there were other routes through which this all important mission for gender equality in the military could be achieved as there were various types of commissions in the Armed Forces namely: Regular Combatant Commission, Short Service Combatant Commission, Direct Regular Commission, Direct Short Service and Executive Commission. It was these veritable loopholes that have enabled the NAF to encourage the training and eventual winging of female pilot combatants that have passed with flying colours.
Therefore, as Sanni and other combat female Pilots have embarked on this national assignment against the terrorists in the North East and any other part of the country as the need arises, they have indeed pioneered a patriotic professional revolution for gender parity in the Armed Forces of Nigeria for generations to come. This is all thanks to the former President Jonathan as well as the gender sensitivity of the incumbent Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar.
Since assumption of office, the Air Chief Abubakar, has made it a point of legacy mission to upgrade the professionalism and career of female officers in the Nigerian Air Force including churning out of well trained, able and capable combat pilots. To this end, his mission is being accomplished as well as commendably remarkable.
In line with this policy trend, Abubakar had on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, winged another female combat pilot as part of his mission to improve the operational capacity of the Air Force, adding that the 12 pilots winged had their flying training both in Nigeria and abroad having completed the nine months comprehensive flying training programme.
“I am happy that we have among the 12 winged was the second ever female helicopter pilot”, he added, before disclosing that another 26 student pilots are currently undergoing or scheduled to begin basic flying training abroad, out of which two are female officers.
“Upon completion of their training, one would become the second ever female fixed-wing fighter pilot in the NAF, while the other would graduate as the first ever female Qualified Flight Instructor (QFI) in the 56 years history of the Service. We have equally increased capacity for in-country flying training. At the moment, there are also 39 student pilots undergoing various stages of training in NAF flying schools”, he stressed.
It will be apt to recall that the NAF on October 15, 2019, made history by decorating Flying Officer Kafayat Sanni, as the first female combat helicopter pilot as well as Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, and others also known as the “NAF Female Pilots of War’. They are among the six outstanding female fighter pilots who are at the moment, proving their worth in the destruction of a strongholds of the Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorists in the North East part of the country.
According to reports by PRNigeria and Global Sentinel, some of them are actively involved in degrading the enclaves of terrorists and bandits, especially in North-Eastern Nigeria. While flying Officer Genevieve Nwaogwugwu, Flight Lieutenant Chika Ani, and Flying Officer Olubunmi Ijelu are Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) pilots, Flying Officer Sanni and Flying Officer Arotile are fighter pilots currently serving to restore peace in the region ravaged by insurgency. Flight Lieutenant Blessing Liman is a respected Pilot in the Presidential Air Wing.
Commending this feat, the NAF Director of Public Relations and Information (DOPRI), Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, saluted all the women for what he described as their unique resilience, industry, productivity and commitment to humanity.
According to Daramola, the well trained and adequately equipped Women-of-War are proving their combat bravery and professional gallantry in complementing the efforts of troops in counter-insurgency campaigns and other crisis zones in the country.
He also revealed that the newly winged female helicopter pilot, Flying Officer Chinelo Nwokoye, “is expected to join other female pilots who are currently deployed in different theatres of operation in the country to contribute her quota in the defence of her fatherland”.
Accordingly, with female fighter pilots swelling their ranks with skills, finesse and new perspectives, it would be safe to say that the Nigerian women in General and NAF female officers in particular, have come of age.
This was also acknowledged by the Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP), Air Vice Marshal James Gwani, who noted that the winging of the 12 pilots including the female combat officers, was another milestone achievement by the current NAF administration.
This, he said, would further boost the aircrew disposition of the Service and contribute to fulfilling the constitutional roles of the NAF especially in the series of ongoing air operations across the country. There is no doubt about this because as the saying goes: “the female can even do better”.
•Iroegbu is a media practitioner, security and public affairs analyst. He can be reached on email@example.com.