1st November, 2013
Nigerian public officials indulge in wanton luxury in the midst of grinding poverty
Given what many have described as his penchant for setting up different sorts of probe committees and not acting on their reports, many Nigerians were quick to dismiss the three-man administrative panel set up to investigate the N255 million armoured car scandal involving aviation minister, Stella Oduah, by President Goodluck Jonathan last Wednesday as a mere ploy to buy time.
Amidst this controversy, not a few Nigerians are worried that Nigerian political office holders live in luxury even when their compatriots live in penury. According to World Bank figures, about 70 million Nigerian adults are poor while the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, says 61.2 per cent of Nigerians lived on less than a dollar in a day in 2010. The absolute poverty rate was put at 70 per cent in 2010. The World Bank also noted in its 2013 report on Nigeria that, “while the officially reported growth rates of GDP well exceed population growth in the country, the pace of poverty reduction does not. This implies that the number of poor Nigerians living below the poverty line has grown measurably.”
It also noted that Nigeria’s progress toward other Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, has been disappointing, with the country ranked 153 out of 186 countries in 2013 in the United Nations Human Development Index. Last year, for instance, the NBS raised an alarm over an increase in the country’s poverty rate.
The Statistician-General of Nigeria, Yemi Kale, presented a study report indicating that poverty had risen from 54 per cent among Nigeria’s population in 2004 to 69 per cent in 2010. This translates to about 112 million Nigerians, a huge figure when compared with Nigeria’s estimated population of 163 million in 2010. Kale further said estimates show Nigerians may have gotten poorer in 2011. In 2013, the Statistician-General put the rate of unemployment in Nigeria at 23.9 per cent even though it is believed to be higher. The United Nations has also said that, with 60,000 Nigerian children infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, last year, the country has the highest number of children with the virus in the world. With such widespread poverty, disease and unemployment, the country needs every kobo it can muster to tackle the challenges and bring about a turnaround in the living index of its people.
The fact is that members of the executive branch across various levels of Nigeria government, in the midst of such grinding poverty, have, over the years, carved out an oasis of luxury that can only be imagined by their counterparts even in more developed economies. The sybaritic lifestyle of Nigerian public officials can, for example, be gleaned in the amount allocated for food consumption, purchase of vehicles, provisions for items like expansion, renovation and construction of new buildings, purchase of furniture and the like in the annual budgets of state and federal governments.
Also, the number of exotic cars in the vehicle pool of the executive at every level of government in Nigeria easily dwarfs the number available to their colleagues in more advanced economies where citizens enjoy a higher level of lifestyle. Nigeria’s luxury-loving leaders will definitely snicker at the lifestyle of Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica, who drives around in a weather-beaten 1970s Volkswagen car, and also lives on a small, ramshackle flower farm with his wife.
Oduah’s love for exotic cars is one shared by other members of the executive across all levels of government in Nigeria. For example, the convoy of a typical Nigerian state governor usually consists of at least 10 vehicles, made up of the latest models of SUV and cars. Governors also maintain fleets of exotic cars in their liaison offices in Lagos and Abuja. While they may not maintain the same level of convoy, this magazine’s investigation revealed that local government chairmen across the country are not left behind in the love for glittering SUVs, even when some of them cannot tar as much as 10 kilometres of road in their areas in a year.
Ward councilors have been reported to have ganged up to impeach their local government chairmen because of refusal to accede to their requests for top-of-the-range automobiles in the past. Indeed, at the federal level, milking the cash-rich agencies and parastatals for a sybaritic lifestyle, like Oduah has reportedly done, is a regular practice among ministers. “The number of such cash-rich agencies is what makes some ministries to be considered juicy and others dry and most Nigerians, including those outside of the government, know this,” a government source told this magazine last week.
With the monetisation policy introduced by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, allowances for purchase of cars, accommodation and so on are included in the salaries of ministers and other top civil servants entitled to such perks. The monetisation policy supposedly put an end to the situation in which late Chief Bola Ige inherited 17 official vehicles and drivers when he was appointed Minister of Power in the first tenure of President Obasanjo.
In total abandonment of this policy in recent years, ministers, in connivance with civil servants, have devised ways of buying exotic cars and SUVs, either from the allocations to the ministries or getting the agencies under them to buy it for them. Thus, it is normal to see ministers attend events with a string of SUVs.
The Nigerian President has also been globally recognised as having one of the largest pools of vehicles. Though it may vary depending on the occasion, it has been estimated that the President travels in a motorcade of 30 cars and 10 escort motorcycles, along with police cars and six Mercedes S-550 containing secret service personnel surrounding the President’s car. The President of Nigeria and other high profile government officials use a black armoured Mercedes Benz S-Class 2012 adorned with the National and official party flags in a fleet that also includes armoured luxury cars like the BMW 730Ld and Range Rover.
While Nigeria’s current GDP per capita is estimated at US$2,883, that of Canada is estimated at US$43,5934, a clear indication that the North American country is not in the league of Nigeria in terms of economic and other indices of development. Yet, the Canadian prime minister’s motorcade of about five cars is pauperish compared to that of his Nigerian counterpart. The Prime Minister of India, a country with current GDP per capita of US$ 4,060, travels in a convoy made up of two black, B7-level armoured 2009 BMW 7 Series high security saloons, escorted by five armoured black BMW X5s used as security cars and some Tata Safari cars.
This aside, the Nigerian presidency also operates what has been acknowledged as one of the biggest air fleets in the world. Nigeria’s Presidential Air Fleet, PAF, which, as noted in one newspaper article last week, is bigger than the fleets of three of the nation’s domestic airlines, includes two Falcon 7X jets, two Falcon 900 jets, a Gulfstream 550, one Boeing 737 BBJ (Nigerian Air Force 001), and a Gulfstream IVSP, a Gulfstream V, a Cessna Citation 2 aircraft, and a Hawker Siddley 125-800 jet. The fleet is said to be worth about $400 million.
In contrast, countries with higher GDP than Nigeria have fewer aircraft in their presidential fleets. The South African presidential air fleet consists of a Boeing 737 (BBJ) used by the President, in addition two Falcon 50 and a Falcon 900B Fleet, 550/1 Citation II, and a Global Express XRS usually hired to escort the President on long flights as back-up aircraft. The Falcon 900 is normally used by the Deputy President and high-ranking cabinet ministers.
Apart from a fleet of Agusta A109 helicopters, BAE-125 mid-sized business jets and BAE-146 regional airliners operated by the Royal Air Force and available for their use, the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and senior members of the British Government also regularly use the British Airways’ scheduled commercial services, especially for transcontinental trips.
The government of Algeria operates an Airbus A340-500 while the air transport of the Argentinean President is made up of a Boeing 757/200, a Fokker F-28-4000 Fellowship, a Fokker F-28-2000C Fellowship, one Learjet 60 and three helicopters.
The Royal Australian Air Force operates a fleet of two 737 Boeing Business Jets and three Challenger 604s for use by Australian officials, including that country’s Governor-General, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and leaders of political parties not in government.
Analysts estimate the cost of running Nigeria’s large fleet, with its current staff strength of 47 Nigeria Air Force officers, 173 airmen/airwomen and 96 technical and administrative civilians, at over N10 billion per year.
With the high number in the fleet, Nigeria’s Presidential planes are unarguably the most abused in the world. Apart from the planes regularly deployed for conveyance of private individuals on the directive of the presidency, the wives of Nigerian presidents, from the early 1980s when the PAF was formally established, have always regarded unfettered access to the planes as a right they share with their husbands. Nigeria’s current First Lady, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, regularly commandeers planes in the PAF for her private trips within and outside the country, usually in company of her friends.
Early this year, a jet from the PAF was deployed to fetch Malawi’s President, Joyce Banda, to Nigeria to deliver the keynote address at the Global Power Women Network Africa summit in Abuja at the invitation of Mrs. Jonathan. The same jet took her back home after the event. Ironically, Banda had sold her cash-strapped country’s only presidential jet for $15 million immediately she assumed office in 2012, to save funds needed to tackle more crucial problems confronting her country. In the same vein, she sold off a fleet of 35 Mercedes Benz limousines reserved for the president and the cabinet, and cut her own salary by 30 per cent, among other austerity measures.
Apart from the abuses planes in Nigeria’s presidential fleet are subjected to, top government officials and the presidency also regularly commandeer aircraft in the fleet of the military for their private jaunts. An Augusta Navy helicopter commandeered to ferry guests during the burial of a top official in the presidency crashed after its 15th trip, killing four persons, including a state governor and a former National Security Adviser, early this year in Bayelsa State.
In contrast, the President of the United States would dare not to use planes in his fleet for private trips. Indeed, Michelle Obama, the US First Lady, came under strident criticism last year, following a vacation trip to Spain in company of her friends. Officials of the US presidency had to come out to strongly rebut claims that Mrs. Obama travelled with 40 of her friends in a presidential plane. Mrs. Obama’s friends got to Spain on their own, not on government aircraft, and paid for their own meals and hotel rooms, they assured the American public.
In November 2012, General William Ward, a US Army four-star General, was demoted for making trips that were not strictly official on military aircraft together with his wife. He was also asked to reimburse the Army the sum of $82,000 for inappropriate receipt of official travel funds.
In the past two years, the Presidency and Mohammed Bala, the Minister of Federal Capital Territory, have literally been in the eye of a storm over the billions of naira allocations for construction of buildings deemed by most Nigerians as not only unnecessary, but a rapacious waste of funds. Bala, late last year, announced that the FCT would be building a new N2.2 billion banquet hall in the Aso Rock presidential villa comprising a 150-seater facility with conveniences, walkways and allied utilities. This is in spite of the fact that there is an existing, underutilised banquet hall which has been gulping millions of naira spent annually on repairs, change and installation of facilities. The FCT Minister said the new banquet hall is necessary because the existing one is far from the residence of the President: “We noticed that it is inconvenient, it is not in tandem with what is outside the country, even smaller countries have better banquet halls near the Presidential residence.”
But investigations showed that the distance of the existing hall to the residence of the President is not as far as claimed. Anyway, the President and other high government officials are always chauffeured to the hall for events. The announcement was met with fierce criticism, with many calling for its suspension, accusing the government of displaying insensitivity when the nation is bedeviled by unemployment and poverty.
But for Bala, no amount is too much to pander to the exotic lifestyle of the executive, even when majority of those he is supposed to be presiding over are living in slums scattered around the satellite towns of the FCT. Hence, it took the stout opposition of Smart Adeyemi-led Senate Committee on FCT to stop Bala from varying the original N7 billion contract for construction of new residence for the Vice-President by additional N9 billion late last year. The FCT Minister said the N9 billion variation will be used to include additional facilities in the building.
The Kogi State senator had argued while rejecting the memo asking for the inclusion of the variation in the FCT budget, that getting an official residence within the initial scope of the original N7 billion was even outrageous: “The National Assembly is not going to appropriate additional N9 billion for the project, especially at a period in this country where people cannot eat three square meals. The N9 billion is far more than the original cost of the project. In Nigeria, there are many people suffering. So we have to look at budgeting in relation to the needs of the people.”
Recently, the four presiding officers of the National Assembly have rejected official houses being built for them, after N3 billion had been spent on the structures by the FCT. The four officers – Senate President, David Mark; House of Representatives Speaker, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal; Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu and Deputy Speaker, Emeka Ihedioha, reportedly cited insecurity and delay in the provision of infrastructure at the Maitama Extension area of Abuja (renamed Goodlock Jonathan District), where the houses are being built. Ironically, Bala, during a budget defence in 2011, had cited the problem of insecurity at the Apo Legislative Quarters, Abuja, where the lawmakers previously had their residences, as reason for embarking on the construction of the new buildings.
Not allowing funds to constitute a hindrance to sating the appetite of Nigerian fat cats, the FCT administration has already cleared a new site located in the Three Arms Zone, where the VP and the President have their residences, for building of new houses for the National Assembly presiding officers. The President has already given anticipatory approval and the contractor has been asked to commence work on the project.
In the same vein, the Presidency has come under intense criticisms, with more Nigerians and the media taking interest in scrutinising the annual budget and in the process, discovering the humongous amounts allocated for feeding. In the 2013 budget for instance, the N783.89 million was allocated for foodstuffs and refreshment in the presidential villa. The President also came under criticism late 2011 after he submitted the 2012 Appropriation bill to the National Assembly, following what many saw as unnecessary and frivolous allocation proposalsw to spend N477 million for “foodstuffs and catering materials supplies” for the President’s office, and another N293 million for refreshment and meals for his office and home.
The feeding budget of N947 million in the budget was reduced to N857 million, which many Nigerians say did not go far enough. The Presidency had defended the huge allocations for food and refreshments with claims that, apart from the regular feeding of the occupiers of State House, their families and staff, presidential banquets and entertainments during other such events are also funded from the funds. But while the Nigerian President feeds from the taxpayers, investigations revealed that in the United States of America, while state dinners, barbecues for Congress and holiday receptions for the diplomatic corps are paid for by taxpayers, President Barack Obama, like other presidents before him, is billed for all food consumed by his family and his personal guests.
At the end of each month, the US president receives a bill for his food and incidental expenses, which include dry cleaning bills, toothpaste, and other toiletries, according to the National Geographic. Ironically, Nigerian leaders, in contrast to other climes, demand such as entitlements.