From Molly Kilete, Abuja
the Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet’s love for the military began when he was a child, but he never knew that children from poor backgrounds could join the armed forces. In this interview, he descends from memory to recall his time in the military and why he chose this career path over becoming a veterinary doctor.
Most people have fond memories of why they chose the military as a career. So tell us your story.
It’s a very long story but honestly I’ve always admired the military. I used to think of 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 army.
I was a level 200 student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria as a veterinary student and one of my uncles bought the form from the Nigerian Defense Academy and took it to my dad to Jos and said I should try it. So I filled out the form; we went to take the exam at Rukuba Barracks, Jos. When the result came out, I passed the exam. I returned to Zaria and continued my studies while waiting for the result of the interview. I was shocked that out of the 10 names selected, my name was number 10. And I said that’s how God tells me that’s my path. I left Zaria and went to Kaduna to start training.
You mean, do you have any regrets about leaving college for the military?
Leaving college for a military training institution was a kind of nostalgia and at the same time it was an environment I was going to miss as most of my fellow students. I had lots of friends and when I told them I was moving on, they were shocked and asked me why I lost two years in college, 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 from the start of your military training?
Well the truth is my ambition at the time was actually to join the army but when at the end of the day I was offered the Nigerian Air Force I said that it went.
Remember your military days
Going from a civilian university to a military training institution was absolutely a complete change of event. It was after going through the training that I really liked everyone I see in uniform. The training is tedious, psychologically, mentally torturous and all aimed at preparing you for what you will face in the future. But it’s also rewarding. It teaches you so much. So at the end of the day, that turned out to be a win, a win for me.
Some cadets are overwhelmed by the stress of training and they run away. What was your experience like?
There was never a time when I developed a desire to run away from the academy because of the rigorous training. We are not running away from training; the joke I used to hear in NDA was that people in Plateau State barely shunned military training. So, even if I had wanted to run, it was not an option and I didn’t want to be the first to run. Either way, after leaving ABU at level 200, dropping out of college, and going to NDA, where would I run? I just had to make sure I had done with it.
Training at the NDA was exciting and interesting because we did things together and that’s why civilians say the military are so close. It’s part of the training. By taking our responsibilities together, when one person commits an offense, everyone is punished for it. That esprit de corps builds from there, that bond is cemented from the start and it’s deliberate. Everything in the NDA and all military training institutions is done deliberately to bring you closer together so that when you’re on the battlefield there’s nothing like he’s not from my tribe, he’s not was not from my church or my religion and all that. It doesn’t exist for us here, we are all one, we are all friends. And that’s why you see that for most of us, our closest friends are in the military.
How did you get into the NAF’s Public Relations Corps?
In fact, I chose to be in the public relations department. At that time and a few weeks before graduation, you received a form to fill out to decide what you wanted to be. Then flying was not too often because the plane was not in working order. So I knew going through the flight would get me stuck in one place not really knowing what I wanted to do. And I chose public relations because I really like to relate and interact with people. And I knew I was also good at writing. It was a new domain and I decided to give it a try and here I am today.
When you entered the public relations department, did you dream of leading the unit?
Of course, I wasn’t even thinking about becoming the manager and things like that at first, but at some point as we grow and move forward in the department and realize that it’s the manager who runs the whole department , of course we all aspire to be the director one day. It’s good to have ambition.
Think back to the first crisis you handled as a young public relations manager.
There was a time in Kaduna as a young officer when I was in training command and we had an issue where our staff allegedly beat up bus drivers in Kaduna and that caused a protest in the neighborhood of Kawo of the metropolis. The responsibility fell to me as the spokesperson for 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 staff were found to be at fault, they would face the wrath of the law. This gesture has somehow calmed the situation. And the story was carried by virtually every media house and I saw my name as a young officer. The manager at the time called me and congratulated me on my efforts.
How have you managed to manage the media since?
Luckily for me, because I started out as a public relations officer early on when I joined the service, most of the editors and some managing directors at these media establishments are people I’ve known for a long time. So, I can conveniently say that most of the people running the business of these outfits are people we grew up with serving together. Of course, they are professionals, but the relationship with them has been built over the years and I thank God that it has been fantastic because they have been very supportive of me. I don’t think any service has received the kind of cooperation that the current leadership of the Nigerian Air Force under Air Marshall Alao has received. I think they were very nice to us and of course they were very, very objective. They also understand the situation we find ourselves in. We are in a situation of war with an enemy who has neither aim nor objective. As if he was indulging in a killing without looking left or right and we are glad that our media has also realized that we all have a common enemy. An enemy who has no tribal, religious or ethnic affiliation, he just wants to kill. And I’m also happy that the media sees the effort put in by Air Marshal Amao, the professionalism that he even brought to the office of the Chief of Staff and what he did, the leadership that he has to give our pilots and our other troops to make sure they are going to do everything to decimate the enemy and make sure the enemy don’t have that freedom of movement or the ability to kill Nigerians again .
What do you think of the media sub-sector of the economy today?
It is obvious that the advent of social media has had a great impact. I don’t mean to say that it ruined everything, but it diminished the very important role of the print and electronic media. Its very important. And unfortunately, social media has turned everyone into a “journalist” of some kind. So it is difficult for you to know which is fake and which is real. Seriously, we just have to find a way that we can weed out some of this fake media that uses social media to misinform Nigerians, to keep crying wolf when there is none. They continue to make the situation look if it is unrecoverable and to strike fear in people’s minds. Getting people to start having conflicts here and there. That’s the challenge I think we face and that’s what I think has changed. You know the traditional media and this social network that has become uncontrollable. This is a big problem not only for PR practitioners, but for the whole nation as a whole. It has become a serious problem.
Looking back, are you happy to have left veterinary medicine for a career at the NAF?
I think so. Thank goodness I had two chances to decide which one to take. I thank God for making the decision to switch from veterinary medicine to military medicine. To a large extent, I’m almost overjoyed. You know that human beings can never be fulfilled unless they reach that highest level in a peaceful way without causing fear to anyone, without fighting because everyone aspires to reach the highest level and that’s is all. But even at this stage that I am, I thank God for the opportunity to sit at the PR director’s table and I pray and hope that I also mentor those behind me to to be able to aspire to where I am today and of course there is no shortcut but a harsh word.