Presidential jets, first family and propriety
Recent uproar and even debate over the first family’s entitlement to the presidential jets are good for probity and accountability of our national assets, though bad for the floundering image of President Muhammadu Buhari. Upon him now, more than ever is the burden of bequeathing a lasting legacy that matches his persona with conduct around his presidency.
The furore actually began when images of Buhari’s daughter, Hanan, disembarking the Presidential jet in Bauchi State hit the social media and sent it on overdrive. Hanan, a young graduate of photography from Ravensbourne University, London, was on a private assignment to take photos and make a catalog of Bauchi arts and culture as part of her pet project. The photos and video that followed set tongues wagging in heavy criticism of both the first family and the presidency over the propriety of such luxury at the public’s expense.
We don’t get it twisted: We are aware that privileges often accompany public offices and the presidency is never an exception. Lest we forget, the African societies traditionally prioritise the wellbeing of the royal family and the story has not completely changed in the modern system of governance. We are also conscious that we do not operate an elected monarchy. The enormousness and sensitivity of the office warrant privileges to protect and make the holders more comfortable, reduce distractions and enhance efficiency in the discharge of public duties.
However, the issue of official privileges is more complicated in the case of a sitting president, especially in a complex society like ours. Pervading insecurity and widespread disenchantment readily find a soft target in members of the first families and the power elite alike. Nothing can easily distract the president from the compromised safety of his family members. It is in this light that the household is always a partaker of some of the basic rights and appurtenances accorded to the president and other politically exposed persons in the country.
But of equal importance in modern governance is the boundary between such privileges and their outright abuse. To keep the divide vivid, states often define exactly what qualifies as privileges of public-officeholders. Who are the beneficiaries and on what ground? At what point does it extend to presidential aircraft? And by extension, what is moral in flagrant show of opulence in the country already ranked as the poverty capital of the world?
Clearly, ours is a society where abuse of office and privileges reign supreme. Either by the poor knowledge of the extant rules, or flagrant disregard of the same, or both, our political class steadily misappropriates basic rights. The malaise is as a deliberate ploy to spite the masses. How often do we see official cars with escorts and siren-blaring convoy pick children in schools, run chopping errands in marketplaces and attend parties among other mundane functions?
The presidential jet has not been spared of such disservice and show-off. In the days of defunct Nigeria Airways when commercial planes often served presidential purposes, it was not unusual to have a jet or entire first-class cabin assigned to the First Lady, her friends, and family. On an occasion, a flamboyant First Lady went agoraphobic sitting in a space almost half of the Airbus310 plane. Crewmembers had to upgrade the economy class passengers to fill more first-class seats! It is in this sense of gross abuse, sheer opportunism and vanity that many would always be skeptical of such national asset in the hands of first families.
Let’s study some lessons from even wealthier democracies in a global context: The U.S. presidential system of government that we mimic, though poorly, is more discerning in the matter of abuse and constitutionally sets limits to rights and privileges accrued to officeholders. The Air Force One, the call sign when the president is on board the presidential jet, is the symbol of the American presidency and its power. Therefore, it forbids frivolities and unofficial functions. If the American president must use the presidential jet outside of official functions, which include election campaigns, vacations, private visits or to accommodate friends on board, he must pay for every seat at an equivalent of either first or business class rate. Upon every return on Air Force One, a customs’ desk at the presidential lounge scrutinises all gifts and enforce duty charges on restricted items.
The lesson is that the presidential fleet is too sensitive an asset to be at the beck and call of anyone, and Buhari knows this. On the planes is the President’s seal of office; the symbol of authority and power. To have unelected persons mount and descend the asset undermines the majesty of the presidency and office of the commander-in-chief.
Having campaigned his way to the office on the high horse of humility, integrity, and prudence in 2015, Buhari ordered the depletion of the presidential fleet to save cost. He made a case for a compact and reliable aircraft for the President, the Vice-President and other government officials – i.e. Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representative – on special missions. And it made sense to many.
After all, what economic sense is parading 10 exotic airplanes that have made the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) about the largest airline in the country amid recession? The Vice President once started hopping on chartered helicopters to crisscross the country, just like other world leaders would do to cut cost. However, the dramatic change in fortunes of the presidential fleet and its surplus to requirement of Buhari’s children would shock many. It is indeed contrary to this administration’s earlier disposition, especially at a time the government is seeking to borrow $30 billion to fund projects and demanding more tax revenue to actually sink more Nigerians into poverty than the government hopes to raise.
It is bad enough that Hanan used the presidential jet to attend social function cum private business at the public’s expense. It is worse than the presidency and Mrs. Aisha Buhari, did put up puerile arguments in its defence. A good adviser and better discretion would have suggested a private jet charter, at less than a million naira, to help Hanan execute her project and save the presidency this embarrassment.
The impropriety of deploying public assets for personal gains and its defence run contrary to Buhari’s disciplinarian and austere posture that we used to know. In tensed economies like ours, it offends the commonsense of the masses to have children of the president fly extravagantly over our heads. In times like this, more discerning leaders had maintained a low profile to lead by example and leave the stage with a lasting impression. Buhari should not be any different.
Indeed, if anyone should be worried about legacy, it has to be Buhari. At 77 and in the twilight of both his presidency and political career, Buhari should be more concerned about how to set himself apart from his predecessors. As of today, the president is not any different. We have seen that there is no difference between the pre-2015 election Buhari and his predecessor’s presidency.
But to change the narrative, the president should demonstrate good examples of his virtues than hang them like medals. On his watch, our presidency should not degenerate to the point where president’s children would start jostling for presidential jets. The sad episode of Abacha’s dark days and the presidential plane crash that killed Ibrahim Abacha and 14 friends on their way to a party in 1996 are not lost on us.
To save us from ourselves, it will not be out of place for the National Assembly to promulgate laws that clearly define rights and privileges of the public officeholders, their beneficiaries and limits. It has to specify the usage of the presidential fleet and for what purpose. Its usage is at a huge cost. Besides the imported fuel, the number of hours flown determines its maintenance schedule and cost, which are not cheap. It is not by accident that N8.5 billion has been budgeted for the presidential fleet in the 2020 budget. If the jet scheduled for a total of 1000-hour flight has racked up 1500 because of private projects and due for maintenance earlier than planned, then the law should guide us on who should defray the extra cost.
The laws and its custodians should go a step further to embolden civil servants as gatekeepers of the state’s assets. A secretary to the state government and other key officials should be made more responsive to advise the president appropriately in cases of abuse. That was once the case, even under the military rule when there was indeed a civil service.
Hanan has curiously and blatantly said that she already looked forward to the next project. Pray, it is never on our presidential jet or at publics’ expense again. Behold, the president should ensure that his children live within their means and not attract public antagonism. After all, tenancy in the Aso Villa and its privileges are only temporary. That should, in the main, teach the first family members too that they need to number their days inside the statehouse so that they may apply their hearts unto wisdom at this time.
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