Before we sell the presidential jets…

THERE is wide gap between populism and political reality. The first is usually very handy on the campaign train when politicians freely banter hopes and paint pictures of the new heaven. The latter is all about the real open book that cannot be falsified.

Because the campaign train is laced with elements of mischief and deceit, politicians are free to paint pictures of castles in the wind; when the reality dawns, however, the story changes. A scapegoat is found to carry the burden the failure to convert fantasy to reality. By and large, the people remain in the same old vicious circle of false hope.

During the last presidential campaign, President Muhammadu Buhari branded the presidential jets in the Nigerian Presidential Air Fleet as mere wastes, which he would not hesitate to sell once elected to office. As soon as the president emerged, he looked like having forgotten the promise. He embarked on fleet-footed trips across the world and the planes were handful. A while ago, he was reminded of that promise and efforts to actualise the sale got afoot.

On October 4, the government advertised its intention to sell two of the presidential jets. Senior Special Adviser to the President, Mallam Garba Shehu, who confirmed the development, also stated that two aircraft including a Falcon 7x executive jet and a Hawker 4000 have been authorised for sale.

That should be good news to advocates of cut in the cost of governance who cut across the different sectors of the polity. That is also a patriotic call but the problem inherent in the quest to cut waste is that we either look the wrong direction or cut the wrong ropes.

If we sell the aircraft, we will save the amount used in paying the pilots and the crew. We will save funds used in maintenance and fueling and maybe some coins. That should be good as far as the funds will not leave our coffers.

The real issue, however, is not in selling assets or the aircraft, but in what becomes of the proceeds. The question for me is not whether you raise a substantial sum from the sale but whether we can, five years after the sale, pinpoint the gain of that sale.

I just hope that presidential handlers have weighed the options they are recommending and the attendant results. Yes, no one can defend the inherent waste in government’s running costs but it looks to me that all the time, government operatives cover our eyes with wool as we seek the sources of these wastes.

We have dwelt so much on the perceived jumbo packages of members of the National Assembly on running costs. No one is asking for the real running cost of directors in the agencies, permanent secretaries and Directors-General. No one knows the running cost of a minister and the chief executives as well as their counterparts in the states. No one knows the exact amount a local government chairman, a governor or president gets as security votes. These are the real avenues for waste.

But nothing says we shouldn’t start from the small fries and then the real question is what we do with the proceeds. A lot of those who opposed the sale of national assets in the recent debate hinged their argument on the whereabouts of the proceeds of previous sales. We were all witnesses to the sale of licenses and spectrum to telecommunications companies and a kobo of it cannot be said to have been used for the development of communications infrastructure.

The Bureau of Public Enterprises had sold several companies in recent years and no one can account for the proceeds afterwards. The Federal Government equally sole power assets some years ago till today no one can point to what the country gained from those sales.

Make no mistakes; we cannot say that officials of the previous administrations simply embezzled the funds. The funds were simply credited to the Federation Account in accordance with the law.  What happened afterwards? The sharing formula was applied, states and local governments got their slice and then the trace fades off.

If President Muhammadu Buhari is intent on making impact, therefore, he shouldn’t start by just selling the assets. He should prepare necessary amendments to the laws that would enable him manage the proceeds in clear cut manner. If he sells and simply drops the proceeds in the Foreign Reserves or the seemingly bottomless Federation Account, he could be helping to fund importation of rice and unwanted items. And the scenario would be predictable. Governors would enjoy fat pay at FAAC and then an upscale in the volume of imported items possibly including the much talked about imported weed for cows.

We all saw what the government of President Goodluck Jonathan went through in the hands of former Governor Rotimi Amaechi-led Nigerian Governors’ Forum while setting up the Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF). Even now, the suit filed by the governors is still at the Supreme Court, which is asking parties to explore out of court settlement trying to establish the leaders must do what is good for their countries. They equally have to chart the ways to national prosperity. How they go about that is a function of policies and strategies. It certainly not a function of populism and galleria dance. I just hope that the decision to sell the aircraft is not borne out of the need to satisfy the oozing shouts of the market place and receive the applause.