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Buhari, Cut Cost, Discard Presidential Fleet - PUNCH

THE recent controversy stirred by the cost of maintaining the fleet of presidential aircraft is quite disturbing, especially coming at a time when the country is going through some very serious financial difficulties. At times like this, all the attention and energy of the government should be channelled towards steering the ship of state through the current turbulence into clear and still waters.

According to a statement from a presidential aide, “only” N2.3 billion has been released since the inauguration of the present administration for the upkeep of the Presidential Air Fleet, instead of the rumoured N6 billion. Garba Shehu, who is the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, said the amount covered “personnel costs, overheads and capital expenditure out of the sum of N5,190, 381,386 appropriated for PAF in the 2015 budget.” That is a patently disingenuous argument coming from a government that promised to rebuild a battered country. Further explanations showed that the fleet is made up of 10 aircraft, which should actually be the main cause for concern here.




What is the Presidency doing with 10 aircraft in a country where states cannot afford to meet their monthly obligations of paying workers’ salaries? This is a country where state governors, citing hard times, declared that their monthly income could no longer sustain the payment of the N18,000 minimum wage. It should also not be forgotten that President Muhammadu Buhari declared at different fora recently that the country was broke, a result of the mismanagement of the economy by the spendthrifts that had been running the government before now.

While painting a gloomy picture of the Nigerian state recently, the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, declared that about 110 million Nigerians still lived below poverty line, despite policies pursued by previous administrations in the country to reduce poverty. “When you look at the economic and social policies, and you look at the level of illiteracy in parts of the country, some are extremely bad and some with cases of about 80 per cent or 90 per cent of children out of school, and other cases of unimaginable decayed infrastructure,” he told visiting members of the Alumni Association of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies.

Agreed that there was no iota of truth in the claim that N6 billion of taxpayers’ money was lavished on this “pet project,” yet, there is also no justification whatsoever for the President running a fleet of 10 aircraft and allowing N2.3 billion to go into its maintenance in just five months. At that rate, the maintenance of presidential aircraft would gulp about N5 billion per annum.

There is no doubt that the PAF is an inheritance of Nigeria’s profligate past, when oil, Nigeria’s main revenue earner, sold for over $100 per barrel. But things have since changed. The current realities suggest an adjustment. With oil prices now hovering around $40pb, down from an all-time high of $147pb in 2008, the government that has openly told the world that Nigeria is broke has no business flirting with ostentation.

This was the message from a former president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, when she assumed office in 2012. Determined to lead by example, not by precept, she sold off the only presidential jet and a fleet of 60 Mercedes Benz limousines bequeathed to her, saying, “I can use private airlines. I am already used to hitchhiking.” And when she was invited by Patience Jonathan to deliver a keynote address at the Global Power Women Network Africa, Banda gladly accepted the invitation on the condition that she would be flown to and fro Abuja on one of the numerous jets in Nigeria’s presidential fleet. Needless to say, while her request was granted, the lesson was lost on the prodigals in Abuja. But then, the incident raised larger questions about our values.

Ordinarily, this show of affluence should come more naturally from the rich and developed economies. But it is instructive that such countries are even thriftier in their use of taxpayers’ money. In the United Kingdom, for instance, it is common for both the Queen and Prime Minister to travel in chartered and sometimes scheduled flights, despite having additional support from a fleet of Augusta A109 helicopters, BAE-125 mid-sized business jets and BAE-146 from regional airliners.

The favoured airline for regular flights is the British Airways. But for her visit to Germany in June, the Queen travelled in an aircraft owned by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. In July 2010, when the Prime Minister travelled to the United States in a commercial flight, he reportedly saved his country $300,000. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia boasts just two aircraft for its king, a Boeing 747-300 and Boeing 747-400. In the case of Tunisia, there are also two aircraft, which the authorities are contemplating selling off, according to reports.

As a President that promised change during his electioneering, there is no better way for Buhari to start than by selling some of the airplanes. Nigeria does not need them. He has already demonstrated his aversion for obscene opulence by rejecting plans to buy five new armoured Mercedes Benz S-600 (V222) cars worth about N400 million for the State House. He had also turned down an offer to ride in a Rolls Royce during a private visit to London shortly before he was inaugurated in May.

It is only a government that has suffered a serious disconnect with the people that will continue on this unholy path of profligacy at a time when the revenues accruing to the country have recorded shortfalls of more than 60 per cent. It is outright delusional to demand from Nigerians a Spartan existence when the government itself continues with its lavish ways.

Copyright PUNCH.
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