FACED with an economy in a tailspin and a citizenry impatient for a turnaround in their fortunes, a reluctant President Muhammadu Buhari has been forced to put up for sale two out of the 10 aircraft in the Presidential Air Fleet. On Monday, the Presidency also handed over two helicopters in the fleet to the Nigerian Air Force to aid its operations in the North-East. According to one of his aides, Garba Shehu, the decision was influenced both by the President’s election campaign promises and the need to cut down on waste.
Ordinarily, a sensible step to take, it however does not still address some pertinent questions, especially those regarding why it took this long for a decision to be taken on the fulfillment of a simple, straight-forward campaign promise and why only two out of a fleet of 10 are being put up for sale.
By taking 17 months to set his plan in motion, the President lost the opportunity to convince Nigerians that he is indeed different from his predecessors, who spent the country’s vast fortunes to acquire this personal comfort for themselves. Just the way he rejected plans to acquire five new armoured Mercedes Benz S-600 (V222) cars for him, because of what doing so symbolised, he could as well have done away with the aircraft as soon as he assumed office and his action would have been loudly applauded.
But, by delaying his move for this long, he has failed in one of his stated objectives, which is to cut costs. Already, billions of Nigeria’s hard earned money that should have been committed to other areas of need has been wasted on the maintenance of the aircraft and the upkeep of the crew. Although it is not exactly clear how much must have gone into the maintenance of the aircraft, yet an unnecessary controversy that occurred in November last year can shed some light on that.
Following a publication alleging that over N6 billion had gone into maintaining the fleet between the May 29 inauguration date of the administration and November last year, Shehu was at pains trying to explain that N2.3 billion was the amount released for the maintenance of the PAF, and not N6 billion as was alleged. Between then and now, a period of almost one year, it is expected that much more could have gone into the maintenance costs; but that is money that could have been saved or put to better use had the Presidency acted promptly.
As the question was asked then about 10 aircraft, it will also be asked about the six: what is the Federal Government doing with six aircraft at a time when the country’s economy is in straitened circumstances? Although two of the aircraft have been given to the Air Force, that is not convincing enough. It could be safely argued that, as long as the aircraft remain with another government establishment, it is as good as belonging to the PAF, which could make use of them whenever it feels like doing so.
More importantly, the government has no business keeping more than two aircraft in its pool when the convention is that many presidents now travel with commercial flights. In a recent instance, the South African President, Jacob Zuma, travelled on a South African Airways flight to and from New York, where he attended the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly. While expressing his “satisfaction about the excellent service and restful journey,” a South African congressman reportedly said, “President Zuma must continue to use South African Airways for his international flights, as doing so would cut unnecessary costs.”
Also, in 2012, Francoise Hollande announced, upon taking over from Nicolas Sarkozy as the president, his intention to use train for his official journeys in France and to European Union summits in Brussels, Belgium. It is important to note that Hollande was taking that decision based on the need to save money. If the president of the sixth largest economy in the world with a Gross Domestic Product of over $2 trillion can seek a cheaper means of travelling, what is the Nigerian president, with a GDP of $300 billion, doing with a fleet of aircraft?
In 2010, a former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, saved his country a whopping £300,000 when he travelled on a commercial flight, business class, while on a state visit to the United States. For a man who was preaching fiscal austerity, there was no better way to walk the walk than what he did. A CNN report on the trip said the amount saved might not have been much for a country like Britain, with GDP of $2.84 trillion, but it sent out a message on the fiscal policy direction of the government.
As for some of the experts saying that the aircraft should form the nucleus of a prospective national carrier, the point should be made that, much as the country would welcome such an idea, it does not necessarily have to be floated or funded by the government. At a time when the government is being called upon to divest from business because government-run businesses are not run in a profitable manner, the last thing that anyone should urge the government to do is to get directly involved in a national carrier.
So, if the government wants Nigerians to sacrifice and be patient with its policies designed to pull the country out of the woods, the people should be able to see sincerity in government actions. There should be genuine efforts to cut costs in every aspect of governance. One of the ways to start it is by putting up most of the aircraft for sale.