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On cost of maintaining the president in the UK

By Rotimi Fasan

TODAY, the 5th day of July, 2017 makes it exactly 60 days, two full months to the day since President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on his latest medical trip to the United Kingdom. It is remarkable that since the President started making the rounds of medical visits to the UK last year, Nigerians have no clue as to the exact nature of his ailment. This has left much room for all kinds of unsavoury speculations and rumour mongering, the latest being the claim by Ayodele Fayose and Femi Fani-Kayode that the president’s condition has gone from bad to worse and that the president might indeed be on life support.

While one is inclined to disregard the report by the cantankerous duo as both irresponsible and grossly exaggerated, there is otherwise too little known about the president’s health status to justify any dismissive response. Given the eventually outcome of former President Umar Yar’Adua’s long stay in hospital in spite of assurances by his minders that all was well, it would be foolish to ignore doubts about official accounts of the president’s health. For all you care, Fayose, Fani-Kayode and others like them, may be doing us all a world of good even if that was not their intention.

Having gone on for many months without any meaningful or respectful official response to their questions on the president’s health, Nigerians have shifted attention to the cost to the tax payer of maintaining the president in a foreign hospital. In fact, Nigerians have hinged their demand on full disclosure of the president’s health status on the fact that the cost of keeping him in hospital is being borne by them. They reserve the right, they are clearly saying, to know what ails the president if they must pick up the bill of restoring him to good health. This seems a fair and reasonable demand to all but those in the immediate circle of the president. Yet that demand to know or make sense of the whole saga of the president’s health took a new twist with the response of Garba Shehu, a senior spokesperson of the president’s, to the demand by Nigerians that the presidential jet be returned to Nigeria after safely delivering the president in the UK.

The cost of maintaining the jet with its full complement of presidential crew, including Airforce personnel, is what led to the social media debate that prompted the response from Garba Shehu. Nigerians couldn’t understand why the jet that conveyed Buhari to London has to remain in the UK even after it had completed its task. It amounted, in their view, to a colossal waste of funds that this should continue to be so and they rightly asked questions. This again is not too much to ask by a people picking the president’s medical bill. As one of two key spokespersons of the president’s, the other being Femi Adesina, Mallam Garba Shehu would appear to be speaking the mind of the president. But considering how little and how far from the president’s inner circle his spokespersons appear to be (for instance they know too little of the president’s activities since he took ill except what they are told by ‘the cabal’), Mallam Shehu might well be speaking without authorisation. Which means his response should be taken with caution.

But what exactly did he say about the retention of the presidential aircraft in London and what are we to make of this? According to him, the aircraft is being kept at tax payers’ cost (no more than a princely 1000 pounds a day) in the UK in order to accord the president the full honours of his office. As Commander-in-Chief, the president, for Shehu, must retain the paraphernalia of his office in a manner that accords with the dignity, prestige and high status of that office. He must have easy and immediate access to a means of conveyance while abroad. Anything else would amount to abandonment of the president in a foreign land.  Mallam Shehu, in his explanation, wanted Nigerians to understand that President Buhari would not be the first person to do this.

In offering his explanation, Mallam Shehu spoke with a military mindset and from the perspective of a military strategist even though he is himself a civilian. He gave the impression that the president was abroad as a military commander, a general that must be flanked by his men. This all sounds so sweet and patriotic. But do we need to tell Mallam Shehu that for the time he remains ill the president has, in a sense, been rendered hors de combat much like a soldier injured in battle? Nobody disputes the fact that the president would need people (and he appears to have quite a few with him) to attend to him while he regains his health but what would be the sense of keeping his aircraft on a foreign tarmac for all the time he is abroad? For what reason really- an emergency that may require the president being rushed back home?

There is something odd about Mallam Shehu’s explanation, especially as he seems in one breath to praise the Buhari administration for saving, and stemming the profligate tendencies of the Jonathan administration, while at the same time asserting the right of the present administration to spend what was saved from the past. Admitting that the Buhari government made savings from the past, does that give it the right to engage in wasteful spending? How can Mallam Shehu justify such profligacy at a time the country tries desperately to keep the naira afloat by an artificial injection of foreign currency into the economy? Is Nigeria that rich to afford the kind of prestige Shehu dreams up for the office of the president? What is the sense of this additional wastage of forex by a presidency already guilty of wasting much fund on the maintenance of a presidential fleet of 11 aircraft in a country without a functional airline, private or otherwise?

Isn’t it ironic that the same President Muhammadu Buhari who shortly before his inauguration was praised for flying not just commercial but in the economy class (?)- is it not remarkable that it’s the name of that same man that is now being invoked to justify a frittering away of the country’s foreign reserve in the guise of a nebulous and meaningless sense of national pride? Who in the world cares about a butterfly that pretends to be a bird, a desperately impoverished country that pretends to the wealth of the United States of America or any of the prosperous nations of Europe or America? What type of example of probity or transparency does this government pretend to when it engages in this kind of profligacy?

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