From Molly Kilete, Abuja
The love of Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet for the military started when he was a child, but he never knew that children from poor parental background could join the armed forces. In this interview, he goes down memory to recall his sojourn in the military and why he chose that career path rather become veterinary doctor.
Most people have beautiful memories of why they chose the military as a career. So, tell us your story.
It is a very long story but honestly I have always admired the military. I used to look at it as an elite establishment and my idea was that people like us who came from poor backgrounds would not have the opportunity to join the military.
I was a 200 Level student in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, as student of Veterinary Medicine and one of my uncles bought the Nigerian Defence Academy form and took it to my father in Jos and said I should give it a trial. So I filled the form; we went for the examination at Rukuba Barracks, Jos. When the result came out, I passed the exam. I went back to Zaria and continued with my studies while for the result of the interview. I was shocked that out of the 10 names selected, my name was number 10. And I said this is God’s way of telling me that this is my path. I left Zaria and went to Kaduna to start training.
You mean, you didn’t have any regrets leaving the university for the military?
Leaving the university for a military training institution was a kind of nostalgic and at the same time it was an environment that I was going to miss because most of my fellow students. I had a lot of friends and when I told them that I was moving on, they were shocked and asked why I had to waste two years in the university, but they were all happy with me. I am happy that we still keep in touch from all over the world.
Was it your ambition to join the Air Force right from the commencement of your military training?
Well the truth is that my ambition at that time was actually to join the Army, but when at the end of the day I was offered the Nigeria Air Force, I said that’s fine.
Recall your days of military
Coming from a civil university to a military training institution was absolutely a total change of event completely. It was after we went through the training that I really appreciated anybody I see in uniform. The training is tedious, psychologically, mentally torturing and it is all aimed at preparing you for what you will be facing in the future. But it is also rewarding. It teaches you so much. So at the end of the day it turned out a win, win for me.
Some cadets get overwhelmed by the stress of the training and they abscond. What was your experience like?
There was never a time that I developed a desire to run away from the academy because of the rigorous training. We don’t run away from training; the joke I used to hear in NDA was that people from Plateau State hardly run from military training. So, even I had wanted to run, it was not an option and I didn’t want to be the first to run. In any case after leaving ABU in 200 level, abandoning my university education and going to NDA, where would I run to? I just had to make sure that I got it done with.
Training at the NDA was exciting and interesting because we did things together and that is why civilians say that military people are so close. That is part of the training. Taking responsibilities together, when one person commits an offense, everybody gets punished for it. That esprit de corps, is built right from that place, that bond is cemented from the start and it is deliberate. Everything in NDA and all military training institutions is done deliberately to bring you guys close together so that when you are in the battlefield, there is nothing like he is not my tribe, he is not from my church or religion and all of that. It doesn’t exist for us here, we are all one, we are all friends. And that is why you see that for most of us our closest friends are in the military.
How did you get into the Public Relations Corps of the NAF?
As a matter of fact I chose to be in the Public Relations Department. In those days and just some few weeks to graduation, you would be given a form to fill, to decide what you want to be. Then, flying wasn’t too often because the aircraft were not serviceable th. So, I knew that going through to flying will pin me down in one place without really knowing what I wanted to do. And I chose Public Relations because I like relating and interacting with people a lot. And I knew that I was also good in writing. It was a new field and I decided to give it a trial and here I am today.
When you got into the PR department did you dream of heading the unit?
Of course I wasn’t even thinking of becoming the director and things like that at the early stage, but at some point as we grow up and advance in service and realizing that it is the director that heads the entire department, of course we all aspire to be the director someday. It’s good to have ambition.
Please recall the first crisis you managed as a young PR officer.
There was a point in Kaduna as a young officer, when I was in training command and we had an issue where our personnel were alleged to have beaten up some bus drivers in Kaduna and that caused a demonstration around Kawo area of the metropolis. The onus was on me as the spokesperson of the command at the time. We issued a press release to tell the public that we were investigating the matter and assured that if our personnel were found wanting they would face the full wrath of the law. That move kind of calmed the situation. And the story was carried by virtually all the media houses and I saw my name as a young officer. The director at the time called me and commended my effort.
How have you been able to manage the media since then?
Luckily for me, because I started as a PR officer from the beginning when I joined the service, most of the editors and some managing directors of these media establishments are people that I have known for a long time. So, I can conveniently say that most of the people at the helm of affairs of these outfits are people that we grew up together in service. Of course they are professionals but relationship with them had been built over the years and I thank God that it has been fantastic because they have been very supportive. I don’t think any service had received this kind of cooperation that the current Nigeria Air Force leadership under Air Marshall Alao has received. I think they have been very kind to us and of course they have been very, very objective. They also understand the situation that we are in. We are in a war situation with an enemy that has no aim and objective. Like he goes about on a killing spree without looking left or right and we are happy that our media have come to also realise that we all have a common enemy. An enemy that has no tribal or religious or ethnic affiliation, he just wants to kill. And I am also happy that the media is seeing the efforts that Air Marshal Amao is putting, the professionalism he has even brought to the office of the Chief of Sir Staff and what he has been doing, the direction he has to give to our pilots and our other troops to ensure that they go all out to decimate the enemy and make sure the enemy doesn’t have that freedom of movement or opportunity to kill Nigerians again.
How do you feel about media subsector of the economy today?
It is obvious that the advent of social media has brought a lot of impact. I don’t want to say it has messed up the whole thing, but it has whittled down the very important roles of the print and electronic media. That is very important. And unfortunately, the social media has made everybody to become a “reporter” of some sort. So it’s difficult for you to know who is fake and who is real. Seriously, we just have to find a way to be able to sieve out some of these fake media people that are using the social media to misinform Nigerians, to continue crying wolf when there is none. They continue to make the situation look at if it is unsalvageable and putting fears in the minds of people. Causing people to begin to have conflicts here and there. That is the challenge I think we are having and that is what I think has changed. You know the traditional media and this social media that has become uncontrollable. It is a big problem not just for the PR practioners but the entire nation as a whole. It has become a problem seriously.
Looking back are you happy that you abandoned veterinary medicine for a career in NAF?
I think so. Thank God that I got two chances, to decide on which one to take. I thank God that I took the decision to switch from veterinary medicine to military. To a large extent, I am almost fulfilled. You know human beings can never be fulfilled unless you get to that top most level in a peaceful manner without causing any fear in anybody, without fighting because everybody aspires to get to the topmost level and that is that. But even at this point that I am, I thank God I have the opportunity of sitting on the table of the Director of Public Relations and I pray and hope that I am also mentoring those that are behind me to be able to aspire to where I am today and of course there is no shortcut but hardword.