What We Saw In Sambisa Forest – Fighter Pilots
Little is known about the young Nigerian Air Force pilots who played various roles in the decimation of Boko Haram insurgents and the capture of the dreaded Sambisa Forest. Many of them have been at war front for years, with not a few losing their lives in the process. Assistant Editor Seun Akioye reports his encounter with some of the fighter pilots on their involvement in the battle against Boko Haram terrorists in the Northeast.
Flight Lieutenant (Captain) Sam Haastrup jumped down smartly from the cockpit of a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Alpha-Jet, took off his helmet and hung it by the side of the aircraft. He was calm. It was a daily routine and a way of life. “It’s what I do for a living”, Flight-Lt. said.
He looked at the reporter and said: “I am a fighter pilot with the Nigerian Air Force, 103 Strike Group, Yola. I have been in this campaign for the past three years and that is what I am doing for a living right now. I am doing the job as much as possible and I am trying to pay back for the colleagues that we have lost in this war. I pray that the Lord will continue to be with their families.”
Haastrup stood at the expansive airstrip of the NAF Headquarters, 105 Composite Group, Maiduguri, headquarters of the Air Component of Operation Lafiya Dole. All around, young pilots were busy with their aircraft, the Alpha-Jets, the F7-Ni, the Augusta helicopters, ATR 42 surveillance aircraft and the massive transport plane C-130.
The 105 Composite Group has not always been impregnable. On December 3, 2013, a legion of Boko Haram militants invaded the base, wreaking untold havoc on men and equipment.
Not a few soldiers died and three fighter jets were destroyed by the terrorists. The incident, described as “one of the saddest occurrences in the NAF” by a senior officer, was a wake-up call to the Air Force which has since formed a fierce group of fighters dubbed “Special Forces” to defend Air bases and provide the much-needed ground security.
A cat with nine lives
Hasstrup is a ‘cat with nine lives’. In three years of participating in Operation Lafiya Dole, he has been shot at many times by Boko Haram fighters. He scaped the fate which befell Wing Commander Chinda Hedima on September 12, 2014. Hedima, whose Alpha Jet NAF/466 was gunned down at Kauri, was captured by Boko Haram fighters and subjected to the most inhuman atrocities after which he was beheaded. Hedima’s companion, Group Captain Abdulrasheed Braimoh, is still “missing in action”.
For years, the identities of its most treasured fighters were kept as NAF’s best-kept secret, obviously for security reasons. The Air Component of the war against insurgency has been to use air power to soften the ground for troops to operate. The method includes: Air Interdiction and Close Air Support. None of the missions is a pleasure flight and Hasstrup attested to that fact.
Haastrup has an enviable military background. He attended military schools, obtained a degree in Chemistry from the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) and a Masters’ degree in Environmental Chemistry. He went to the United States (U.S.) to train as a fighter pilot and returned in 2012. Since 2013, he has been in the Northeast.
Hasstrup has been in the thick of the fight against Boko Haram, conducting several air interdictions against the insurgents. He has had many close shaves, shot at many times.
“Yes, at the beginning of this campaign in 2013 and 2014, I was shot more than once but still managed to fly back to a safe landing location. But with time, tactics on how to avoid being shot evolved. So far, I am alive to tell my story. I only pray that God will keep the families of our colleagues who have passed on in this campaign,” he said.
But despite his many close shaves, Haastrup views the insurgents as “a group of nuisance requiring unnecessary attention.” Anytime he goes on his plane, he “feels normal” as he goes on a mission of life and death.
The insurgents are no fools, as they quickly gather their hostages, using them as human shield to prevent an attack from the fighter jets. It was always frustrating for the pilots whose training forbids the killing of civilians.
Haastrup said: “I have no fear of any kind. Even though I understand it’s normal to have a little fear because that gives you a reason to stay alive. But my worry is that the insurgents having to use innocent Nigerians as human shield when they see aircraft coming. So, my concern is not to hit innocent citizens. However, we ensure that we are in a fight with only the insurgents before we open fire. We don’t ever engage without proper clearance that we are fighting only the insurgents.”
One of the most memorable missions of Haastrup was also his very first. He had received all the details about Boko Haram convoy marching towards the troops’ location, his jet was scrambled and he went in a fight with them.
“It was an armed reconnaissance. I came across a convoy of vehicles belonging to the insurgents and I had to do the necessary to stop them from advancing to hurt innocent Nigerians.”
Flying Officer (Lieutenant) Goni: A pilot fighting for his people
A first-time acquaintance with Flying Officer Ibrahim Goni will mistake him for a school pupil. Goni has yet to pack all of his 26 years into his face, which looks like that of a high school football captain than a fighter pilot he really is. Even with the assistance of his pilot suit, Goni’s features are deceitful. But hidden under his brown uniform is one of the bravest hearts in the military.
“Owing to the fact that I came from the Northeast, I know how much the people have suffered. So, whenever I am on any mission, I go with the mind that I want to see Borno people smiling the way they were smiling before,” Goni said, wiping his face with his right hand.
The young pilot’s dream was not to fly in Alpha-Jets, put his life on the line to battle dangerous and unforgiving terrorists as a child. He only wanted to be a pilot. But two years into his career as a fighter pilot, he has come to see his work as a crusade for his fatherland.
Goni knew the risks of flying over Sambisa forest. During his missions, he knew the consequences of being shot down. “Of course the terrorists shoot back at us but you know we have minimums to observe and limitations on the aircraft. So, there are certain range and altitude that we cannot pass below, to keep ourselves safe. Flying is good, but safety first.”
When Goni graduated four years ago with a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, he was sent to the U.S. to train as a fighter pilot by the NAF. Back home, he was seconded to the Alpha Jets and for some time, had to learn the ropes as a pilot observer. His first mission was memorable as well as intriguing.
He said: “To become a fighter pilot, you have to undergo a series of training and my first mission, I was like an observer behind and it was pretty cool. There are some scenes you only see in films and I used to think they were film tricks but they are real. So, you say to yourself these things are really happening and this is what you will do one day alone. You know, some of these situations, you just tune your mind towards what you want to achieve. After a couple of flights, I started going for air interdiction myself,” Goni said.
He has flown to Sambisa against Boko Haram on many occasions, seeing many ‘unspeakable things’ which remain highly classified. Shortly before the fall of Sambisa, Goni was one of the NAF pilots who took part in Air Interdictions and close air support missions.
“Because of the rules of engagement and the human rights laws, that day in Camp Zairo, we saw a couple of women and children moving around. But we had to make contact with the ISR guys up there to confirm that these guys are the bad guys before we engage them.
“We had good clearance that they were the bad guys. The clearance was to ensure that we don’t hit children and women because it is against the rules. We went for the bad guys not the children,” he said.
Goni refers to Boko Haram terrorists as “the bad guys”because of the devastation and pains they had caused. It was his duty to restore the joy and lessen the pains by taking out the bad guys. When he spoke about “picking out the bad guys”, it sounded like picking vegetables and choosing which to throw into the pot of boiling water first.
Many Nigerians have queried why the NAF could not just bomb Sambisa Forest, killing completely every living thing inside it. Goni smiled.
He said: “You have to consider a lot of things. In Sambisa, there are captives and the insurgents have a lot of hostages that we don’t want to hit. If it is to go and raid Sambisa Forest, I think it is something that could be done in a twinkle of an eye. But there are people there that we don’t want to kill.
“Another thing is about human rights and there are rules of engagement we adhere to. As a professional force, you have to adhere to those rules of engagement whenever you are on a mission,” he said.
Fewer bad guys, better society
Goni has not lost his admiration for fighting. Behind his zeal to hop on his Alpha-Jet and take off to the sky is a patriotic philosophy. That is what goes on in his mind as he prepares for another deadly mission, where he may win or lose.
“What goes on in my mind is that I am going to fight the bad guys. We call them bad guys because they have wreaked a lot of havoc and inflicted pains on our people. So, when I am fighting, I say ‘this is my own quota’ of eliminating these bad guys because the fewer the bad guys, the better our society. So, it is always a good thing for my going on a mission, it gives me that hope that I am here fighting for my people and Nigeria as a whole.”
Squadron Leader Olusola Adeniyi: A pilot making history
Olusola Adeniyi, a Squadron Leader (Major) recently made history not on account of his good looks but because he was the first pilot to land in Sambisa after it fell to government troops in December, last year.
He said: “Landing in Sambisa Forest shortly after the fall of Camp Zairo would linger for a very long time in my memory. It was an infamous place where all I could do for a very long time was to fly over. Eventually, I got the opportunity to land there. I took a senior military officer into Sambisa Forest where he met with the troops and addressed them and appreciated them for the work. I felt very proud to fly the first helicopter to land in that area and the personality that I took there,” Adeniyi said.
The Augusta 109 light helicopter has been Adeniyi’s ‘home’ for many years. He is a pilot, instructor and captain on one of the most versatile utility aircraft in the arsenal of the Air Force. The helicopter was designed for light troop transportation within the theater of battle, casualty evacuations and logistics supply of military equipment. But it can also be armed by the door to attack small targets, making it suitable for many occasions.
For a long time, Adeniyi was deployed in Operation Sharan Daji which was designed to battle the menace of cattle rustlers and armed bandits in the Northwest. It was Adeniyi’s job to transport troops into hard-to-reach locations and intermittently supply them with logistics.
But he has also been involved in Operation Lafiya Dole, the biggest military operation in Nigeria since the civil war. When there is need for highly classified missions of national importance, Adeniyi and his Augusta helicopter are called into action.
What I saw inside Sambisa
Being the first to land in Sambisa Forest after the takeover by the military, Adeniyi was in a vintage position to observe first hand, how Boko Haram operated from its enclave. But he would not disclose many of the things he saw. He admitted the sight wasn’t pretty.
“When we landed, the sight there wasn’t the best – mostly deserted; the small communities around that area had been ravaged and burnt. The after-effect of what the insurgency had done to Nigeria and particularly the Northeast, to me in particular, is very painful, but I am glad about the progress we have made and that people can return to their homes. Hopefully, normalcy will return to those areas,” he said.
The eyes, ears in the sky
The ATR 42-500 aircraft sat lazily on the airstrip of the 105 Composite Group in Maiduguri. Whether you look at it from afar or from close-up, it is never a pretty airplane. Everything about the aircraft seems ugly, even the colours. It is huge and round with small tires and doors.
But the aircraft is not for beauty. It was designed as the monster in the sky and the ear and eyes of the military in the cloud. The ATR 42-500 is so fundamentally important to the conduct of Operation Lafiya Dole that without it, it might have taken more time and more lives to win the war against the insurgents.
The masters of this game are Flying Officers (Lieutenants) Ahmed Safianu Saley and Emmanuel Balogun. Their job is to conduct one of the most important duties of any battle: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).
Saley and Balogun’s assignment is so important. No fighter jet – no matter how skillful and talented the pilot is – will take to the sky without a precise ISR. It details the location of the enemy, the ammunition, the possible number of civilians and how to avoid them.
“We are like the eyes. I have seen quite a lot of things in Sambisa and most of them are classified. I can tell you we see our ground troops and we give them the accurate location of the enemy. So, they will not be caught unawares. Some of the challenges in ISR are trying to differentiate the good guys from the bad ones. So, we have to be very careful; we are not a ragtag troop. We are well-trained. You have to think and sieve the information,” Saley said.
Tall, with freshly formed face and well-trimmed moustache, Saley is very forthcoming. He is funny and enthusiastic, But he is also deeply suspicious, secretive and many times ‘uncooperative’.
Balogun lacks the enthusiasm of his co-pilot, he looks like a man who has a job to do and he is willing to do it, whether he enjoys it or not. A man with a deep sense of responsibility, he is as secretive as his partner, maybe a little more impatient with nosey reporters.
Saleh said: “I have been a pilot for close to three years now. It’s a dream come true; to serve the nation is a pride of every patriotic Nigerian to come out and save the Nigeria people. So, I am really proud of my job.
“I trained in the U.S., then returned to Nigeria and enlisted in the NAF. I went for my training on the ATR 42 aircraft in Holland, and I am here serving. My job description is basically surveillance and intelligence. We provide surveillance for the ground troops; we go over there; we provide maritime patrol as well and support the ground troops in the Northeast.”
It is Balogun’s third year as a pilot. He also attended many flying courses in Holland and the Czech Republic. To him, being a pilot is a dream come true and he is feeling fulfilled.
“It’s a dream come true. I always wanted to serve my fatherland; I happen to have a military background. My dad was in the military. I am feeling fulfill”, he said.
The two young men had no illusions about the importance of their job. A mistake from these can be counter-productive to the ground troops and result in casualty of unimaginable proportion. A job well-done will end in the decimation of the enemy and victory over the ‘bad guys’”.
But their duties do not include the power to engage the enemy but to guide the troops to safety in engaging the enemy. “In Sambisa, we find the enemy’s location and direct the ground troops there and also the fighter jets. We are not to engage,” they said.
The ATR 42-500 could remain in the sky for many hours. But Balogun declined to reveal the length of any of the missions. He said it depends on the type of mission. “Let’s just say we can be there for many hours,” he said without betraying any emotions.
The two pilots have been deployed in other operations aside Lafiya Dole.
“I have been in Operation Delta Safe, Zaman Lafia and Lafiya Dole,” Saley said.
They found the Lafiya Dole the most challenging and memorable. The duo, due to the nature of their jobs, played critical roles in the fight to capture Sambisa Forest.
They, however, declined to give details of their operations in Sambisa’.
“Sorry, we cannot discuss what we saw in our operations with you. They are classified,” they chorused. Saley laughed but Balogun did not.
So, are these two promising pilots single and searching?
Balogun: “I rather would have you not asked that question.”
When asked if the question was difficult to answer, he replied: “I would rather not answer.”
But, Saley was more forthcoming, he laughed and joked and gave the reporter a pat on the back, saying: “I am not married, but I have my eyes on someone, on a special lady, I know the lady will say I am using one stone to kill a bird but so shall it be.”