Nigeria is certainly not agog this weekend on account that the Nigerian Air Force, (NAF) has unveiled what it calls its first indigenous, operational Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) – Tsaigumi, contrary to the initial narrative that this is its such technology. (In 2013, a similar unveiling was carried out by President Jonathan. It would have thus been a serious crisis of institutional memory if the correctional move was not forthcoming). The dearth of gyrating on the streets in response to what both the president and the Air Force chief called a feat might only be because military affairs are, more or less, elite affairs or the majority might have been lost on fuel queues to be able to dance in celebration of a step higher in military teeth to sovereignty by the unveiling of the upgraded version of the one unveiled in 2013. But, even then the (social) media did join in the ‘banal nationalism’ and, in doing so with approving headlines, it was doing what every national media does, almost without exception: follow the flag.
Drones and Drone Warfare constitute an innovation but it is not that highly rated a component of the Revolution in Military Affairs, (RMA). Drones are not that sophisticated. The technology might have been perfected by now. Otherwise, the general reckoning with it as a noisy and clumsy pie remained. In fact, a US Air Force General has once called it a useless technology “in a contested environment”. Drone Warfare has not escaped human rights abuses of extreme concern. As a weapon for wars in global borderlands, it is also of geopolitical concern. The fear of Rogue drones is now part of the pack.
Notwithstanding these, Drone Warfare remain a major shift in the struggle to answer the age-old question of how to fight and overwhelm the enemy without dying. Some scholars of geopolitics would say that such robs warfare of the heroism of dying in defence of one’s country. True as that may be, it does not take away from drones the symbolic message it has passed on in relation to exercise of power through construction and reconstruction of space. Its privileging of the topological instead of the topographical in warfare recommends it to players such as the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) which has internal security challenges to confront as listed by Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, the Chief of Air Staff: policing operations, disaster management, convoy protection, maritime patrol, pipeline and power line monitoring, mapping and border patrol duties, the protection of wildlife, weather forecast and telecast, search and rescue, coastal monitoring and patrol of Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Nigeria is equally challenged by counter-insurgency operations which actually brought drones into the equation in contrast to the forms it was used in mid 19th century warfare. In the recent American counter-insurgency wars where drones became most used, the standard language was “reducing the battlespace to the body of the enemy” through the doctrine of militarized manhunt whose goal is to “detect, deter, disrupt, destroy networks before they can harm …”. Languages are never innocent but very few would argue that Nigeria has not been confronted with security challenges in which it would have needed drone capacity to detect, deter, disrupt and destroy potentially harmful aggregates. And to do so in such a manner that, to quote another US General, “if the predator gets shut down, the pilot goes home and … his wife… There is no POW issue here”. Not only does the pilot go home to do his duty to his wife, there are no body bags to worry about because the drones are piloted, in the American case, by bureaucrats rather than officers. That is why they call it the ‘Joystick War’.
For countries such as Nigeria which have no imperialist or neo-colonial ambition but the peacemaker’s ambition, capacity in drone making and deployment would appear a major requirement for national security. This is particularly so if the present stuff is quickly taken to the next level, now that there are drones that can spend two days in flight already, if not more.
The human rights issues that arose with Drone Warfare in recent counter-insurgency operations must never be forgotten, especially that wars rarely take place among conflict parties with military balance of power. But, what might the Air Force of a country with a huge population such as Nigeria do to secure such population from the predatory calculations of overt and covert players in the era of globalisation of threats? Above all, President Buhari did make a point in emphasising drone manufacturing as a source of earning revenue. It is not clear how soon the NAF or any African Air Force can give General Atomics, (the pioneer or leading drone maker) a run for its money but this is a point to bear in mind.
As Drone Warfare fits squarely into critical geopolitics rather than conventional or old style International Relations, it is assumed that the armed forces will pick interest in the development of that discipline across Nigerian universities towards achieving the epistemic critical mass upon which to rest its geopolitics of drones and, by implication, of national security. In other words, it is not enough for the brass hats at the National Defence College to consume books such as Predator Empire alone. It must go with robust seminars and critical sessions. Nigeria is like The Only Son in the novel of that title by John Munonye. This time, the only son must be brought up in such a way that leaves no room for disappointment. As peacemakers say, the past cannot be changed but the future can be planned. The journey of a thousand miles might as well begin with a UAV that can last only 10 hours up there!