The Nigerian army is building an air force and the Nigerian air force is building an army. The latter already has two dedicated Special Forces Units and has plan for more. But why is there so much interservice rivalry between both services of the armed forces?

The trend became noticeable when the Nigerian army lost the initiative in the campaign against Boko Haram, suffering a number of embarrassing defeats. The capture and beheading of two Nigerian fighter pilots by Boko Haram after they were shot down by anti-aircraft and the lacklustre rescue operation did not help.

The Nigerian armys lays some of the blame on the lack of close air support and expresses its dissatisfaction with Air Force response times continue. It didn’t take long for the army to request an independent aviation unit.

Countering this request were the Air commanders who strongly reluctant to give up some control of the air war.

This interservice rivalry has spilled into the battlefield on several occasions. In one incident, the Army received credible intelligence that Boko Haram terrorists were planning a major attack on troops of the 233 Battalion stationed at the forwarding base in Sassawa, 35 kilometers East of Damaturu. Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) affiliated to the Army and villagers had informed the troops after discovering that Boko Haram members were congregating in the area.

Following the receipt of the information, Army Intelligence officers notified the Nigerian Air Force and requested for air cover. Curiously, however, the request was not acted upon until the terrorists struck, killing Lieutenant Shuaibu, eight soldiers and seriously injuring 3 others.

The situation report showed that the Army only managed to send a few gun trucks to fortify the base after learning of the impending attack. This followed the failure of the Nigerian Air Force to provide air cover to the troops. Incidents like this took relations between both services to new lows. The army decided it wanted an independent air arm to provide credible air support to ground troops. A move that infuriated the Air Force.

The establishment of the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) was announced by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai in 2016. The Nigerian Army Aviation became operation in early 2018, with calls for extra budgetary allocations, to the disapproval of the Air Force.

On its part the Nigerian Air Force has been building its own army. In 2016 the Nigerian Air Force announced it had established another Special Forces command to help the Nigerian army on its operations in the North-East.

The Chief of Air Marshal, did not give details of the establishment of the new command, he said it was part of the planned restructuring of NAF’s operational command to conform with contemporary demands on national security. He said :

The Air Force is not only fighting in the air, and therefore, whatever it is that we need to have to fulfill our mandate in the face of the present challenges is what we are working toward putting on the ground.

In late 2017 the The Nigeria Air Force announced it has trained more than 500 personnel of its special forces in asymmetric warfare in the past six months.

The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar in a statement said

“the current NAF leadership has made deliberate efforts at repositioning the NAF into a highly professional fighting force’’.

“Several air and ground related capacity building initiatives have been conducted in recent times to enable the NAF have depth, flexibility and capability to operate either alone or in conjunction with other sister services.’’

In January 2017 the Nigerian government deployed 200 Air Force Special Forces troops from the 117 Air Combat Training Group (ACTG), and other air assets to enforce an ECOWAS Mandate in the Gambia, much to the chagrin of the army. This was the first time the Nigerian military had carried out peacekeeping operations without the army. The NAF Special Forces Regiment now gets deployed on peacekeeping operations. An army mission.

In September 2017, the Nigerian Air Force graduated additional 150 personnel of the Regiment Specialty, who had just undergone an 8-week intensive Special Forces training conducted by an Israeli company.

The COAS, Air Marshal Abubakar, who was the Guest of Honour at the Combined Graduation Ceremony, stated that the objective of the Special Forces Course and the other courses was to bridge the identified gap between force projection and force protection. He further said that the exploits of the NAF in projecting air power in the various conflict areas in Nigeria, and even beyond the shores of the country, was not in doubt.

The army on its part announced it is inching closer towards its goal of deploying attack helicopters for the first time. It currently fields a few helicopters but is looking to acquire new attack helicopters to equip its newly formed Army Aviation Corps.

The Army Chief, Tukur Buratai said the new stand-alone counter-terrorism air unit will be tasked specifically with providing aerial support to ground forces fighting the Boko Haram insurgency in the north and north-east of the country rather than rely on the NAF, thereby guaranteeing long-term national security. In his words :

“We have compiled a list of platforms from Russian, American and Chinese origin, including certain simulators and UAVs,” the general said.

“Emphasis was however made on the Russian made Mi-17 due to its ruggedness, operability and multi-role capability. As a result, different contractors submitted their proposals for supply, which are still being considered.

“Recently, the NA also considered the South African made Rooivalk attack helicopters after witnessing a demonstration in South Africa on the capability of the platforms and its employability.”

This turf war between the two services that continues to grow as each service is building up forces with little apparent regard for the battlefield needs of the other.

In April 2018,

The Nigerian Army announced it is working with some of its indigenous and foreign partners in the defence industry to produce prototype helicopters for its operations.

“The Nigerian army is already working on its own prototype helicopter.

“This is one issue –prototype helicopter that we are very much concerned about and we hope to have it on the ground very soon,’’ Mr. Buratai said.

He said the army had been working in the past few years to get value for the research it had embarked upon to produce some of its aircrafts locally, adding that “this is our target.’

In the area of close air support, the Army has fought long and hard for the creation of an independent air arm, and is currently clamouring for funding for the procurement of new attack helicopters and drones, to give the ground commander the responsive air support it does not feel the Air Force will provide.

On the other hand, the Air Force has forged military partnerships with the British and Israeli’s in the area of training. The NAF currently has two Special Forces ground components that have seen deployments to the frontlines in the northeast.

The NAF has some of the best ISR and information gathering assets on the continent. Acting quickly on information gathered , providing point defence of air assets and launching rescue operations for downed pilots have long been a mission the army has been unwilling or unable to carry out. In response to this, the Air Force created its own infantry like airbase defense units. During the Boko Haram attack on the NAF Base in Makurdi, the NAF witnessed a great unwillingness by the army to assume the airbase defense role for the Tactical Air Command, even though it was their primary source of air support.

The Air Force requirement to provide airlift and Close Air Support for the Army, both intertheater and intratheater, has historically received a low priority in the Air Force. As a result, the Army has attempted to increase its organic lift capability through procurement transport helicopters. Because these aircraft support Army requirements, they have not been able to successfully compete for budget dollars with weapon systems that support more purely Air Force missions.


The long history of conflict between the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Air Force is being caused by organizational structure factors, human factors, and competition for limited resources. The structural factors include the basic organizational mismatches between the two as well as the unresolved overlap and conflict between their roles and missions.

The human factors include the differing perspectives of the people who make up each service and some common psychological traps that they fall into. Competition for limited resources is directly related to service competition for a larger share of the defense budget, which is never large enough to satisfy all the legitimate requirements of all the services.


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