President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Dame Patience Jonathan, disembark the plane at the Norman Manley International Airport during a trip to Jamaica. – Norman Grindley
Some of the details contained in the 2014 budget proposals of the Federal Government currently awaiting the approval of the National Assembly are as outrageous as they are disquieting. Those details have, as usual, exposed the government’s propensity for frivolities and plush living.
Global trends however suggest that public officials should scale down the cost of governance and roll back casual luxuries in public office. But President Goodluck Jonathan is again making a public statement of opulence in a country where the majority of the people live below the United Nations poverty threshold.
It is obvious that what the government has succeeded in doing with the budget, as usual, is to use it to promote the ostentatious and wasteful lifestyle of government officials, while further impoverishing the Nigerian citizenry. When the government is not budgeting N2.2 billion for a “befitting banqueting hall in Aso Rock Villa,” as was the case last year, it is proposing N34.5 million for the feeding of lions in the Aso Rock Zoo.
One particularly disgusting item in the 2014 budget is the provision of N1.6 billion as deposit for the purchase of a new aircraft for the presidential fleet that already boasts a record 10 planes and is ranked among the most luxurious worldwide.
The profligate presidential fleet is complemented with an extravagant motorcade and glamorous lifestyle. Only two domestic airlines have that many aircraft. Nigerians need to know how much money goes into the maintenance of this large fleet of non-commercial aircraft. In 2011, N18 billion was reportedly budgeted to maintain the presidential aircraft.
Replenishing the ever-increasing fleet of aircraft has become a Jonathan obsession that must be checked. The government claimed that it booked slots for the purchase of two new aircraft in 2010, and another two in 2011 and 2012, in line with the decision to drop some of the eight aircraft discovered to be too expensive to maintain due to old age. In 2010, when three planes were added to the fleet, Jonathan had advised us to be “constructive in our criticisms so that we do not inadvertently encumber the rebuilding of our nation.”
He had said then, “The President of Nigeria must be transported safely at all times. The cost may seem exorbitant now, but it would be impossible to put a price tag on good governance and an efficiently run country, a promise that this administration is determined to deliver.” These excuses don’t wash again.
Eleven planes in the presidential fleet are too many for a country like Nigeria. There are countries and leaders that have learnt to live within their means by decrying excessive consumption, yet provide good governance and efficiency.
Uruguay’s President, José Mujica, for instance, lives in a humble cottage, drives himself to work in a Volkswagen Beetle car and flies economy class. But his government provides free computers and education for every child. In Britain, which boasts aircraft manufacturing companies, the Prime Minister and the Queen of England travel on commercial flights because the government’s aircraft for the PM lack transcontinental capability.
Other civilised countries have learnt lessons in prudence. The President, Prime Minister and government officials in Singapore typically travel on regular scheduled commercial flights run by Singapore Airlines. Also, Hong Kong leaders travel on commercial aircraft. Each of these is a practical example of “good governance and efficiently run country.”
The example of the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, is instructive enough. When she was invited for a function in Nigeria last year, she wrote back that she could not afford the cost of transporting herself to the country. A jet in Nigeria’s burgeoning presidential fleet had to be dispatched to convey her here. She had earlier taken the unusual step — at least in the African context — of selling off the only presidential aircraft she inherited, alongside a fleet of 60 Mercedes limousines. This is a classic case of leadership by example, not by precept.
Three years ago, Jonathan said he knew our pain, because he had been there and pledged to “demonstrate the leadership, statesmanship, vision, capacity and sacrifice, to transform our nation” in his May 29, 2011 inaugural address. He said he would “give hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak and protection to the defenceless.”
He regaled Nigerians with his “no shoes” childhood story, which animated the hopes of ordinary people. But for all the fine talk, he has achieved little. Those days have long been replaced with a glamorous lifestyle. Pray, how will the acquisition of another aircraft translate to jobs, good roads, and 18 hours of steady electricity supply that Jonathan promised on New Year’s Day?
The World Bank puts Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product per capita at $2,883. It is an assault on logic that a country with such a paltry income and where about 70 per cent of its citizens survive on less than $2 per day could still manage to delve into the public till to fund such an obscene and reckless display of opulence. “I’m not the poorest president,” Mujica said. “The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live.” He is dead right.
But this is not altogether surprising. When a government fails to get its priorities right, the result is often not different from what is currently being experienced in Nigeria. This is a country where the government only succeeded in getting university teachers back to the classrooms after close to six months of a strike over the appalling conditions in that sector of the education system.
Doctors have also just ended a warning strike, promising to resume full scale if their demands for improved conditions of service are not fully met. It is a country where more than 11 million children, the largest in the whole world, roam the streets instead of being at school. Nigeria has the second highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.
Access to potable water here was put at 17 per cent three years ago by the United States State Department, while the British-based Economist Intelligence Unit rated the country last year as the worst place for a child to be born. The unemployment rate, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, stood at 23.9 per cent in May last year.
The list is almost inexhaustible. While avoidable diseases ravage both adults and children, Nigeria’s political office holders rank among the highest paid in the world, higher than those of the United States, Britain and other wealthy democracies. In the face of competing demands for scarce resources, the government still manages to flaunt wealth to the extent of making itself the laughing stock of the world and a liability to the citizens.
But it is not too late to stop this presidential insensitivity and irresponsibility. The National Assembly, though yet to purge itself of the notoriety of padding up budgets, owes Nigerians this one duty of not passing the 2014 Appropriation Bill the way it is.
There should be some painstaking efforts, at least this once, to ensure that Nigerians get the maximum benefits of the budget proposals by yanking off all the frivolous and self-serving contents.
Jonathan should free himself from the fantasy of presidential prestige and power. Since the Presidency seems to have consistently shown that it has lost touch with Nigerians and cannot decide on behalf of the citizenry, there should be some constitutional means of directing it back to the path of sanity.
In the event of the parliament also failing Nigerians, the populace should be able to make its voice heard by insisting that whatever is left of the oil wealth is put to better use for the benefit of the greater number of the people.