Public discussions around the use of a presidential jet by one of the daughters of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), Hanan, early this week were misdirected, in my opinion. Rather than concentrate on legalism, Nigerians should have considered the ethics of the issue at hand.
They should have looked at the multiplier effect it will possibly have on the philosophy of those who have access to public resources across the country.
To my mind, this widespread failure signifies something even more worrisome than the frequent malfeasances of our country’s leaders: Nigerians’ seeming lack of a sense of propriety. Every man is fallible in some way or the other, so it is fallacious to expect to have saints leading the country, no matter what they say. However, the people of a country, regardless of their position, should have a sense of what is appropriate or not. Such moral codes should be the guide of leaders who have the responsibility of working in the best interest of the citizens.
Here is an instance for consideration: Just before the end of last year, Daily Mail, a British newspaper, published a story with this long headline: “The cattle class Prime Minister: ‘Low profile’ Boris Johnson and girlfriend Carrie Symonds save the taxpayer tens of thousands by flying economy on £1,300 British Airways tickets to their Caribbean New Year break.”
The story informed readers about how the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, sat quietly at the back of the British Airways aircraft in the entire duration of a flight to the admiration of other passengers. Their destination was the North American country of St Lucia. The report estimated that the BA flight could have something in the region of 2,646 pounds sterling for the couple as against 100,000 pounds sterling that using a Royal Air Force private jet would have cost! The report revealed another interesting point as follows: “It is understood the couple were not offered an upgrade on the flight due to strict anti-bribery and corruption rules in place at airlines…”
Here is a society governed by ethics but even more than that, a consciousness of the cost of public expenditure on the citizenry. Yet, it is a country with far better human development indexes than Nigeria could dream of in decades. The United Kingdom, whose Prime Minister chose to take a 1,323 pounds long-haul commercial flight, is the country said to employ and provide humane working conditions for at least 12 immigrant Nigerian doctors every week. Those doctors daily leave this country in droves out of frustration. Yet, Nigeria, which bears the worst possible indices on a lot of fronts, is spending a whopping N8.51bn to maintain the presidential fleet in 2020. This is 1/5 of the total sum of N46.48bn proposed for capital expenditure for the health sector in the 2020 budget. It is the total proposed amount for the execution of projects in the 20 teaching hospitals, 22 federal medical centres and 13 specialist centres run by the Federal Ministry of Health! There is a chance that someone would argue that the United Kingdom is a more advanced democracy and that is a fact. However, the UK or any other country for the matter can only develop with the diligent observance of some ethos which guide public behaviours.
While Nigerians on each side of the political divide have literarily torn one another to pieces over this matter in the past couple of days, the question to ask is how much of these discussions are in national interest and capable of changing the country for good.
And the first important consideration is this: even if it was not illegal for Ms Buhari to have flown in a Presidential jet for this urgent business she had in Bauchi, as the President’s aide, Garba Shehu, made us to know, was it ethical? The answer is no, and I will explain.
Buhari was elected because the people trusted him to change Nigeria. And in changing Nigeria, the President himself identified the judicious use of public funds as an important component. Concerning the aircraft in the Presidential fleet, he had specifically promised to take a look at what they cost Nigeria and cut down on the waste. There were moves by the regime to sell off two of the aircraft of the presidential fleet during its first term but the discipline to expect on this front should include how and who uses the airplanes and for what purpose.
The President has indeed taken a few steps to match words with action on the promise to cut public expenditure. At the end of last month, Minister of Information, Culture & Tourism, Lai Mohammed, told newsmen that the Buhari regime had placed travel restrictions on all his ministers. He said ministers could no longer undertake foreign trips more than eight times in a year and that the number of accompanying aides had been reduced. In addition to this, he informed that allowances earned by ministers during this trip would no longer be calculated on an hourly basis.
If the argument were to be legalistic, these ministers would be totally entitled to everything they hitherto earned on foreign trips. However, there is a current reality, which makes it expedient for sacrifices that would free more money for collective public good. It is in the same breath that even if there is a lacuna as to the legal implications of children or other family members of the President flying in the presidential jet, the morality of the war to sanitise public expenditure coupled with the disheartening level of poverty in the country imposes caution on Buhari and his family.
And that takes us to the quality of advice that the President gets. If those who work closely with him share his conviction about a better Nigeria, they would have foreseen the optics that this flight by Hanan would convey and advised against it. And when the deed was done and Nigeria reacted the way they did, the larger picture of the President’s commitments should have guided the response rather than from the offensive deviance from the presidency.
One other risk that we run with indiscretions like the one under discussion is that public officers across board could take a cue from the event and start to abuse public resources. Imagine a situation where every public office holder insists that their families must benefit from the entitlement of their offices since it is not illegal. This was a major wisdom behind the monetisation policy of the Obasanjo government and now, Buhari and his close associates have the huge responsibility of leading a revolution for ethical governance.
A major difference between the strongest countries of the world and struggling societies like ours is in the moral and ethical standards that guide public life. If Nigeria truly desires to be great, there must be some irreducible ethical standards to which everyone, governor and the governed, must surrender. And needless to say, this move must start with the leader.
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