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2022 budget and profligacy of presidential jets

By Guardian Nigeria
02 November 2021   |   4:10 am
In a country facing one of its worst fiscal crises ever, it beats imagination that the president and his handlers would find the temerity to award humongous votes to feed their imperial hubris.

[FILES] President Muhammadu Buhari presenting the 2022 budget to the joint session of the National Assembly in Abuja.

In a country facing one of its worst fiscal crises ever, it beats imagination that the president and his handlers would find the temerity to award humongous votes to feed their imperial hubris. The prodigal offerings to presidential air fleet, exotic cars and overseas travels in the 2022 budget that leans heavily on another rounds of borrowings, signpost the insensitivity and moral perfidy in the ruling class. The wastage and its attendant crime of honour are at odds with Buhari’s 2015 toga of integrity and prudence.

The 2022 Appropriation Bill presented by President Muhammadu Buhari to the National Assembly lately reveals the grim fiscal realities facing the country, with no hope of undoing its widespread hardship. Most shocking is that the spending plan still retains the same old pattern of lavish awards to the yawning appetite of the presidency.

A breakdown of the budget proposal shows that the Federal Government plans to spend N12.5 billion in maintenance of the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) like it was awarded in 2021. Next year alone, according to reports, the president plans to spend N2.3 billion on local and foreign trips. Another N1.6 billion has been budgeted for vehicles and spares. The government also planned N210 million for what it described as the “purchase of Phase 7 Avionics for AW139 helicopters”. Similarly, the renovation of the Aso Villa got N5.23 billion. A second runway is being prioritised for the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, at the cost of N20 billion, while the controversial national carrier proposal gets N550 million additional vote.

But what is the rationale for the N12.5 billion vote on a presidential fleet at a time of dwindling income and a struggling national economy? Having campaigned his way to office on the high horse of humility, integrity and prudence in 2015, Buhari ordered that the presidential fleet be depleted to save cost. After all, what economic sense is in parading 10 exotic airplanes that made the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) the then largest airline in a country battling recession? 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. At least two aircraft were immediately put up for sale.

Regrettably, pruning the fleet size has not translated to cutting heavy cost of operation; it rather ballooned it. The presidential fleet has received more upward maintenance reviews in the last five years. From N4.37 billion in 2017, its vote rose to N7.26 billion in 2018. The 2019 budget provided N7.3 billion as fleet maintenance cost, and had jumped to N8.5 billion in 2020. By the end of 2022, according to Buhari’s proposal, N25 billion would have been sunk into the presidential luxury fleet in two years. It suggests a presidency that has perpetually kept the national assets busy; particularly on presidential jets that gulp public funds faster than its engines burn kerosene.

The abuse of privilege and its impropriety are coming at a time when the country, especially the ruling class, should be prudent with public funds and show better discretion in their show-offs. Nigeria presently faces an uncertain future. The country is broke. The 2022 budget and its borrowing plan said as much. High unemployment and inflation-induced starvation are worse under Buhari than ever before. The country is literally borrowing to feed, pushing the doomsday forward. Already, the N16.39 trillion budget has a deficit of N6.26 trillion, which will warrant more borrowing in 2022. The Debt Management Office (DMO) lately estimated a debt hangover of N35.5 trillion as at the end of June 2021, with the Federal Government accounting for 81.94 per cent as at December 2020. These are the grim realities of a bleak future. One would, therefore, expect the ruling class to be sober, not ludicrous, pretending all is well.

Clearly, maintaining a private jet and keeping a healthy fleet is extraordinarily expensive. But the question is: among the countries Buhari turns to for loans, how many of them parade presidential fleets of exotic jets? And how many of their presidents fly overseas for medical tourism while the jets idle away, rack up packing charges and maintenance fees? How many of those Commanders-in-Chief made presidential fleets readily accessible to members of the first family, embarking on some phantom jamboree that adds zero value to the nation? Given the enormity of needs and wants in a country battling health, education and infrastructure crises, why such a large budgetary allocation to the presidential fleet?

The National Assembly owes Nigerians the responsibility to challenge the profligate awards of the Executive to align with the realities. There is no moral justification for the presidency to spend so much public money at seeking medical attention abroad. The presidential vanity should not be feeding fat where Nigerians are turning up with kwashiorkor. The legislature should have a full disclosure on the status of the presidential fleet and reduce the same to manageable size. By extension, the House should 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.

The same scrutiny should apply to other awards like the second runway for the NAIA and national carrier. The controversial national airline has consistently racked up votes in budgets of 2019, 2020, 2021 and now 2022. Where is the so-called airline? What exactly is going on? In a time of pandemic and at the twilight of Buhari’s administration, in whose interest is a new national carrier? In a market that has remained stagnant and where operators are struggling to get-by the grueling hardship of exchange rate, why is the Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, according sole priority to a white elephant? The minister should be accountable in public interest.

Glaring in the entire narrative is Buhari’s failure to keep promises he made freely to keep a prudent and accountable administration. What has gone wrong with honour, moral exemplarity and leadership by example? Is that why the ruling party is having a bad day and falling apart in matters of honour and credibility? Indeed, the president should be worried about legacy. Nigeria deserves a better standard and he should live up to one.