“The heights achieved and maintained by great men are not reached through sudden flight, but through the toil of climbing upward in the night while their companions sleep.” This quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow accurately characterizes Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo CFR, the immediate past Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS). He is a remarkable individual, blessed with natural talent, and a well-trained military leader hailing from Kano, who made a lasting impact on the Nigerian Navy during his tenure.
High-ranking military officers often exude an unapproachable aura, likely due to their combat experiences and exposure to warfare. However, when you get to know them closely, you realize they are incredibly endearing individuals and loyal friends.
Vice Admiral Gambo belongs to the league of military giants whose mere presence commands admiration. He is highly inclusive, intelligent, compassionate, and humble. As a testament to his exceptional qualities, he was honored with the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR) as part of the National Honors Awards.
Gambo’s appointment, along with other Service Chiefs, by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 21, 2021, clearly aligned with the President’s intent to appoint the most capable individuals to lead the country’s security forces during a time of heightened insecurity. Upon assuming the role of Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Gambo expressed a clear vision and mission, promising to strengthen the Nigerian Navy for contemporary challenges. His noteworthy efforts to reposition the Navy for improved service performance within a short period earned him the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR) recognition.
During his initial meeting with key staff officers and commanders, Gambo set forth his vision for the future, aligning it with the overall organizational goals of the Nigerian Navy. He directed operations commanders to sustain aggressive clearance operations, making it unfavorable for militants and pirates to operate within Nigerian waters. Recognizing that governance is a continuous process, he understood the importance of building upon existing policies rather than starting from scratch.
To establish a blueprint that gained the trust and commitment of his subordinates, Gambo consistently used clear and collective language. Staying true to his words, he successfully fought piracy and crude oil theft during his over 24-month tenure as CNS. His resolute stance on securing Nigeria’s waterways and eliminating criminal activities set him apart as an outstanding leader.
A noteworthy incident occurred on October 10, 2022, when officers of the Nigerian Navy, under Vice Admiral Gambo’s leadership, destroyed an illegal oil bunkering vessel in Delta State. The vessel was apprehended for carrying stolen crude oil in the Niger Delta creek. Additionally, under his watch, the Nigerian Navy personnel demolished numerous illegal refineries.
It is undeniable that through the collective efforts of his predecessors and his personal commitment to the Nigerian Navy’s corporate goals, cost-saving measures and the promotion of indigenous initiatives yielded fruitful results in the Navy’s infrastructure. This was evident in the December 2021 launch of an indigenously built naval boat, one of three constructed by the Nigerian Navy dockyard staff in Lagos. These boats contribute to the fleet’s capacity for protecting the Nigerian maritime territory against piracy, sea robbery, illegal bunkering, and other maritime crimes.
In line with his vision to collaborate with international naval and maritime stakeholders, Vice Admiral Gambo led the Navy’s management in signing a contract with a Turkish company, Messrs Dearsan Shipyard Limited, in November 2021. This contract was for the purchase of two brand new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV). The construction of these vessels officially commenced with a keel-laying ceremony in September 2022. The OPVs, measuring 76.9m in length with a displacement of 1,100 tons, will each be operated by 47 personnel and have a range of 2500 nautical miles at an economical speed. While lacking a hangar, the ships feature a flight deck capable of accommodating a single helicopter.
Under Vice Admiral Gambo’s leadership, the Nigerian Navy asserted its dominant position in the region by maintaining a robust presence in the nation’s maritime environment. This led to a significant reduction in criminal activities, as acknowledged by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in their Global Piracy Report of July 14, 2021. The report highlighted the lowest recorded instances of piracy and armed attacks against ships in 27 years. The Defence Web maritime security report of October 15, 2021, further confirmed the decline in reported cases of piracy and armed attacks in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG), crediting the Nigerian Navy’s efforts.
During his tenure, Vice Admiral Gambo secured approval from President Muhammadu Buhari to procure two High Endurance Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) capable of conducting maritime interdiction operations, surveillance, special forces operations, naval fire support, search and rescue missions, anti-piracy operations, anti-smuggling operations, anti-drug trafficking operations, and disaster relief operations.
Notably, Gambo’s leadership significantly boosted the fleet recapitalization program of the Nigerian Navy. Nigeria’s maritime area of interest extends beyond its immediate surroundings, encompassing the entire Gulf of Guinea (GoG) with a coastline of about 2,874 nautical miles.
In December 2021, under the dynamic leadership of Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, the Nigerian Navy achieved a historic milestone as former President Buhari commissioned a range of vessels and helicopters to augment the country’s formidable naval assets. These new platforms enhanced the Navy’s operational capacity and expanded its activities in Nigerian waters and the GoG. The commissioning of the Falcon Eye state-of-the-art Maritime Domain Awareness Surveillance System by former Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo in July 2021 further bolstered the Nigerian Navy’s surveillance capabilities. The system incorporates various sensors along Nigeria’s extensive coastline.
Born on April 22, 1966, in Nassarawa Local Government Area of Kano State, Gambo joined the Nigerian Navy on September 24, 1984, as a member of Regular Course 36 of the Nigerian Defence Academy. He was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant on September 24, 1988. With a specialization in Underwater Warfare and sub-specialization in Intelligence, Vice Admiral Gambo possesses a Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) in Transport Management and a Master’s Degree in Transport Management (Logistics Option) from Ladoke Akintola University. He is a member of the Nigerian Institute of Management, a Fellow of the Certified Institute of Shipping, a Fellow of the Institute of Corporate Administration of Nigeria, and a fellow of the National Defence College South Africa, among other accolades.
Odita Sunday-Udemaguna, a Defence Correspondent for over two decades, philanthropist, and author, contributed to this rewrite.