Miss Hanan Buhari has drawn curiosity and attention to Aso Rock’s real attitude about spending tax payers’ money, for traveling royal-style in a presidential jet for what appears to be a personal, private and trivial journey.
The cover is removed and the presidency is now exposed to Nigerians, who are asking if their money is as safe in the hands of President Mohammadu Buhari as they have been made to believe.
The presidential daughter, whose love for, and skills in, photography is national knowledge, hopped on a plane in the presidential fleet to Bauchi, where Emir Rilwanu Adamu was waiting with a frivolous durbar ceremony organised for her pleasure.
To start with, there has always been a significant hypocrisy under President Buhari’s watch.
At its outset, the current administration berated its predecessor for investing millions of dollars in a presidential fleet. Mr. Buhari promised Nigerians to sell the wasteful investment and use the proceeds for the improvement of Nigerian lives.
To date, just two helicopters out of a fleet of 10 machines have been shifted as a donation to the Nigerian Air Force. The fleet is largely intact. Not only has President Buhari continued to keep expensive planes running, we now know he has been using them for purposes contrary to policy, promise and reason.
This administration cannot sit on a high horse on the questions of financial management and ethical probity because it has not demonstrated it is any better than those before it.
President Buhari is as guilty of profligate spending as President Goodluck Jonathan in this instance. Even if it was legal to use the aircraft, it is immoral to pursue such a hedonistic trip to Bauchi.
A staggering N8.5bn is allocated in the 2020 budget for maintaining just the presidential fleet, where the education sector got a mere N48bn and social investment services would spend just N35bn for the whole year.
While the President frames himself as prudent and shrewd, tax payers have been made to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of naira on the love of the President’s daughter for photography.
There is no justification to stick tax payers with a bill on a few photographs for Miss Buhari’s portfolio and the Buhari family album.
A commercial flight, a private car or even Uber would have been frugal and reasonable – afterall, Bauchi is less than 400 kilometers away from Abuja. President Buhari’s reputation for serving the interest of the common man is questionable.
Defending the trip, the President’s spokesman, Mr. Garba Shehu, described it as perfectly normal. “The normal practice, in existence for a long time, is that the Presidential Air fleet is available to the President and the First Family and four others.”
To date, just two helicopters out of a fleet of 10 machines have been shifted as a donation to the Nigerian Air Force. The fleet is largely intact. Not only has President Buhari continued to keep expensive planes running, we now know he has been using them for purposes contrary to policy, promise and reason
It might make sense to this presidency to lavish some of the whopping N8.5bn budget on an unofficial trip, but to the ordinary Nigerian who is paying for it, it reeks of extravagance and ostentation. If the trip is normal, it describes the abnormality that has become normal in this country.
It should not be normal to allow any member of the President’s family to spend public funds on a hobby. The Nigerian presidency is neither royalty nor monarchy. The president is answerable to those who elected him and expect a judicious management of their tax naira.
This event will separate the ruling party, APC, and its glittering promises to win power from the wishes of the ordinary people. It represents a story of a people struggling to survive under a government made up of insensitive leaders who live lavishly and extravagantly behind the curtain.
Nigeria has to do what decent societies do. Civilised nations would not allow tax payers’ money to be fritt
ered in such a manner that Hanan Buhari just did while failing to apologise.
I will give some examples from the United States. In 2011, the former governor of New Jersey, Mr. Chris Cristie, reimbursed the state $3,300 for his use of a police helicopter to travel to his son’s baseball games and to meet with political fund-raisers.
And President Donald Trump’s former Secretary of Health, Tom Price, was forced to resign in 2017 because he had used government funds to travel on private aircraft instead of using commercial flights. Examples like these abound all around the civilised world.
Not all leaders even have the privilege of an official and dedicated air transport. Leased or commercial transport is used by Norway, Singapore, Israel, South Korea, The Netherlands and Sri Lanka.
In Singapore, everyone, including the prime minister, must travel by commercial flight. These countries without a presidential fleet are far richer than Nigeria. They are prosperous and well run.
So, what’s President Buhari’s claim to frugality? What’s all the noise about being simple about? He doesn’t travel commercial flights, doesn’t drive a Toyota Camry nor live in a modest house. When he is sick, he travels to Britain! What makes him the darling of the talakawas? He and his family are nothing like the common man.
As the richest nation on the planet, the United States does not have to be thrifty about its presidential fleet, but it has just two identical planes named Airforce One. The service is provided for security reasons, and only the President, Vice President, and First Lady are permitted to the military aircraft.
We have lessons to learn from America. The White House categorises the trips on Airforce One as either official or unofficial. According to the US Congressional Research Service, when a trip is for an official function, the government pays all costs, including per diem, car rentals, and other incidental expenses.
But when a trip is political or unofficial, those involved must pay for their own food and lodging and other related expenses, and they must also reimburse the government with the equivalent of the airfare which they would have paid had they used a commercial airline, including the president.
This administration cannot sit on a high horse on the questions of financial management and ethical probity because it has not demonstrated it is any better than those before it
Official or non-political travel is normally defined as anything to do with the carrying out presidential duties and responsibilities, while political travel involves the President and Vice President in their positions as leaders of their political party.
When travel involves both official and political functions, the White House uses a formula to calculate the percentage of the travel that is reimbursable.
For example, if the day is divided equally between an official and an unofficial event, then the President, Vice President, First Lady and accompanying staff or a political organisation, must reimburse the government 50 per cent of the amount that would have been owed to the government if the entire trip had been political.
President Buhari should have worked out a similar formula if he cannot separate family convenience from official duties, and pay Nigerians when he uses their money for his private pursuit.
The outcry generated by the story of Miss Buhari is justifiable. Nigerians are right to be outraged. Those who toil daily while begging for a national minimum monthly wage of just $83 dollars have a right to feel mistreated.
A nation that sits at the bottom of the Human Development Index has a reason to feel cheated. A country that has made a fortune from oil but still remains one of the least developed should be angry.
It is morally reprehensible for the Buhari administration to claim the travel is normal. Nigerians have been promised good governance and good management of resources. This event portrays a presidency that lives in royalty and ostentation, rather than austerity and thrift.
President Buhari should apologise to Nigeria for many things done wrong. First, the trip is not official and is not normal.
Secondly, the president is wasting public funds as much as his predecessor, while being pretentious. And most importantly, he has sanctimoniously failed to deliver on a promise to get rid of the presidential fleet.
To redress, the President must make a restitution by paying for the trip out of pocket. He should authorize his administration’s officials to calculate the cost of the flight and travel and reimburse the federal treasury.
These steps must be made public to set a high standard for public officials and next administrations.
This is the kind of behavior that will change Nigeria and carve President Buhari’s name in historic gold.