Why do Nigerian public officials always fail to see the divide between the public and the private? Perhaps taking a cue from their parents, children of successive Nigerian presidents have also made this a pastime. A recent example is the reported cruising in Nigeria’s presidential jet by the president’s son, Mr. Seyi Tinubu. He had flown the aircraft last Sunday to attend polo games in Kano State.
By convention, it is only the president of Nigeria, the First Lady, Vice-President, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Justice of Nigeria, ex-presidents and a presidential delegation who are authorized to use the presidential jet. The convention does not grant the president any powers to transfer that right of usage of the presidential jet to any of his children. Before Mr. Tinubu, children, spouses of Nigerian leaders, and top government officials who should have no business with the aircraft, were forerunners of this aberration. This has provoked the question, is this an endemic problem that should bother us as a people, or it is a mere frivolity that we allow to detain us overtime? In trying to answer this question, permit me to journey to the ecology of the forest in Africa. Perhaps, in the forest, we can locate what is the actual issue at stake.
Ayo Adeduntan’s What the forest told me:Yoruba hunter, culture and narrative performance first alerted me to the fact that African forests speak. Or that, in the forest, there are not only conversations between the hunter and his immediate cosmology, but there are communications in the forest that speak to our everyday human routine and which are essential for our lives as humanity.
In African belief, the forest is not only the place where ghosts, monsters, demons live, it is a place reserved for powerful hunters, the habitats of dangerous animals and where curative plants that herbalists deploy for the health of man can be found. Following the works of writers like Amos Tutuola and D. O. Fagunwa, Adeduntan teaches that, in a literal sense, when hunters go hunting in the forest, there is a dialogue between them and the forest world. This makes hunters “equal actor with animal and nature spirits with whom (the hunter) constantly contests and negotiates space.” It is believed that hunters chant incantations to arrest powerful animals, perfectly understand the life routines of demons and know leaves that can help them survive during the period of their sojourn in the forest.
The dialogue in the forest can explain the unequal nature of our human society, especially between those who are in government, their families and the governed. It can also explain the inequality in the economic systems of the world, capitalism and socialism and the divide between leaders and their followers. I hope it can explain our uproars when children of presidents go on junkets with our national insignia, the presidential jet.
Hunting expedition is actually where I am heading. The first thing hunters do when they embark on hunting is to identify what particular forest to go. When they have done this, judging by prior knowledge of the forest or tales told them about them, they then identify the particular game that makes that forest its habitat, ranging from antelopes, porcupines, buffalo, fox, leopards etc. When a hunting crew embarks on this journey, they divide themselves into two. The first is one that holds dane guns; they are often about two or three persons. There is then the other crew, usually many, as many as ten, called the “forest encircling hunting group.” The job of this group is to encircle the identified forest for game-hunting. With sticks, stones and any other objects, they make sufficient noise and discomforting howls to unsettle the animals from where they are holed. The aim is to get the animals suddenly fleeing their holes and scampering to other parts of the forest in a hurry. In the process of fleeing, they run into the hands of the crew of about three whose guns are readied to be cocked. Then the escaping animal gets pounded by a fiery volley of bullets which immobilizes it and prepares it as a fitting gourmet for dinner.
Game successfully hunted, the hunters then heave the animal, blood dripping from it, depending on its weight, on their shoulders, on a journey back to the village. It is time for sharing the meat, the spoil of the hunting expedition. The crew that encircles the forest, which disrupts the animal from its hole, is decidedly, actually the one that does the most herculean of the hunting expedition. It is comparatively less armed and harm could easily come its way. It also exerts the greatest energy, having to walk inside thorns, briers and thistles in the process of getting the animal to scramble off its comfort zone. The other crew merely holds the gun and shoots when the animal attempts to escape. But, in the sharing of the now dismembered animal, the sharing formula does not follow this pattern of contribution to the hunting. The shooting crew gets the chunkiest part, ranging from the thighs, the neck to even the torso while the “encircling crew” is given less meaty parts.
In underscoring the superiority of the “shooting crew” in a hunting expedition, Yoruba Apala music lord, Ayinla Omowura, apparently excoriating his musical adversaries, likened his superiority to that of this crew that shoots the animal. In one of his songs he entitled E f’awon were sile (don’t mind the incorrigible lot) he likened his adversaries to the “bush encircling crew” whose job was “merely” to get the animals run to him, a man whose gun was cocked to shoot. Between him and them, the world should judge who was the most superior, the real hunter, he boasted. Leave the incorrigible lot alone; let them disrupt the peace of the animals in the bush (while we shoot) and let the world assess who is the greater hunter between us – E f’awon were sile, k’on rugbo si wa k’a w’aperan t’o ba yanju, he boasted.
So, when Mr. Tinubu was sighted flying in Nigeria’s presidential aircraft last Sunday, tongues began to wag among Nigerians. He had gone to Kano to watch the 2023 NPA Kano International Polo Tournament at the Usman Dantata Polo Ground, in company of his friends. The crew of young sybarites, on the bill of the Nigerian people, was welcomed on its arrival to the ancient city by Kano state government officials. Thereafter, the president’s son was chauffeured to the Polo Ground, chaperoned by a strong retinue of gun-wielding detachments of the Nigeria Police Force and the State Security Service. Immediately the finals of the two-week tournament were played, with award trophies given to winners, the presidential jet which was waiting at the Kano airport, then picked the president’s son and his pleasure-seeking friends back to Abuja. Mr. Tinubu is said to be a polo enthusiast and is in fact the patron of the Lagos STL Polo Team in Lagos. Last year at the Lagos Polo Tournament, he was said to be one of the players who represented the club. It will be recalled that the president’s son was on this pleasure ride at a critical time in Nigeria when prices of jet fuel had hit an all-time high, and hardship has become an abiding companion of the Nigerian people.
Nigerians were first confronted with the familial impunity of usage of Nigeria’s presidential aircraft by children of their leaders when on 17 January, 1996, Ibrahim, son of late despot, General Sani Abacha, who was on same jolly ride to a party and private family engagement in Kano, from Lagos with his friends, crashed. He had boarded the Nigerian Air Force presidential Falcon jet. Ibrahim was with 14 other friends, including his Yoruba girlfriend, Funmi; Bello, younger brother of Aliko Dangote and a wealthy young man called Dan Princewill. They were all swallowed inside the belly of the ill-fated presidential aircraft. The jet was almost landing in Kano when it mysteriously exploded mid air.
Ibrahim, aged 28, was known to be very likeable and wealthy and his friends mourned him as a young man who was not only detribalized but whose friends cut across ethnicities and capital divides. However, he was to later to become subject of many controversial financial engagements, especially foreign plundering of Nigerian resources and illegal avoidance of tax matters. One of the Abacha family bagmen and current minister, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, had told a US court how in February 1994, in company with Ibrahim, he had built a Morgan Procurement Corporation. It was also discovered that Ibrahim had been customer of US Citibank’s private financial businesses since 1988 when he was about 20 years old.
The most mysterious aspect of the crash was that the Abacha government refused to investigate the crash. In 2000, the then Minister of Aviation, Dr Kema Chikwe, confirmed this when she said that the report of the crash of the presidential plane carrying Ibrahim, first son of late Head of State and his friends, was never made public because the Abacha government said it was purely a military matter and treated the report thus. The secrecy given the crash had prompted reports at the time which claimed that the late Head of State had a hand in the downing of the jet. The courageous Tell magazine edition of February 15, 1999 then went ahead to report in a story it entitled “How Abacha Killed His Son” what actually transpired. Abacha war rumoured to have ordered the crash to obliterate the memory of Ibrahim who was reportedly not his son.
Since then, if there was an earlier usage of the presidential aircraft for private purposes, it was covert, until in 2020. On this day, the man reputed by his followers to be incorrupt and incorruptible, President Muhammadu Buhari, had his daughter fly the presidential jet right under his nose. Hanan Buhari had taken the jet on a private photography trip to Bauchi State. Hanan had then recently graduated with a first-class in photography from Ravensbourne University, London. She was in Bauchi on the invitation of the Emir, Rilwanu Adamu, as special guest of honour. Photographs, which Nigerians considered obscene, showed Hanan disembarking from the presidential aircraft and, like Mr Tinubu, being welcomed by Bauchi State government officials. Indeed, the press reported that the traditional durbar event was specifically organised for Hanan so that she could capture in her photography the architecture and cultural ambience of the people and thus document the scenic experiences in pictorial form in her photo gallery. Thereafter, a firework of caustic criticisms of the president ensued with Nigerians accusing Buhari of abuse of office. Before he became the Nigerian president, Buhari had stridently criticised past governments for misusage of public funds, promising that if elected into office, he would sell off some of the jets in the presidential fleet. He reckoned that Nigeria could not afford the high maintenance cost of the fleet. In 2020, Nigeria voted the sum of N8.5 billion for the maintenance of her presidential aircraft fleet.
The Buhari government justified Hanan’s action. According to presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, the act received the blessing of Buhari who then notified the National Security Adviser (NSA) about Hanan’s usage of the aircraft. Hear him, “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. These four are the Vice-President, the Senate President the Speaker and any other person(s) authorised by the President.”
America, from where Nigeria cloned its presidential democracy, is very unsparing of private usage of its presidential jet. The Air Force One, the equivalent of our presidential jet, is a designation only for an aircraft the president flies. It has 26 crew members who operate the aircraft as well as providing services to passengers. They are the pilots, navigator, flight engineer, communications specialists, chefs, cabin attendants, two Security Police, and medical staff. In its configuration, the aircraft seats only 76 passengers, which has the President of the United States and ten seats reserved for the press, eight for the Presidential Protection Detail, the President’s Doctor, the Military Aide and Football, the Chief of Staff, a Press Secretary or Deputy (sometimes both), the Communications Director, sometimes Speech Writers, the National Security Advisor or Deputy, the President’s Body Man, and the secretarial pool, with this assemblage taking about 35 to 42 seats of the aircraft.
As a rule, no one is permitted to fly the Air Force One except the serving president of the United States and anyone he invites on the aircraft. When they fly helicopters, American presidents fly on Marine 1 which are choppers designated for official purposes. America is so rigid about its presidential aircraft that, if a president’s term of office expires at 12:01 a.m. on January 20, that is the year after the election is held, the country does not designate any other aircraft the outgoing president would be flying thereafter as AF-1.
Once when President Barrack Obama flew to New York for what was called a “date night” with his wife and for a family vacation in Europe, the press harassed him on the cost of flying the presidential aircraft to taxpayers. Ronald Reagan was also frequently caught flying cross-country on Air Force One to his California ranch while Bill Clinton flew at taxpayers’ expense to expensive vacation spots like Park City, Utah; Amelia Island, Florida and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. There have however never been any reported cases of these presidents’ children flying the presidential aircraft alone. While in some advanced countries, presidents are barred from even flying presidential jets for private matters and if they do, are required to pay from their private purses, Prince Harry, a member of the British Royal family is reported to travel in private aircraft.
A hunting expedition will seem to explain the uproar against private use of Nigerian presidential aircraft by children of presidents. The people believe that their rulers merely use them as canon-fodders even when the principles of democracy consider them, the people, as the central focus of the system of government. Why should we serve those in government and then serve their children as well? they seem to ask. Why should the people, who queue inside the sun to vote politicians, be the ones who get the least when the spoils of the expedition mature?
What the people don’t know is actually that perks that elected executive enjoy are far humongous than the mere talk of usage of presidential jets by their children. Not only do their family members live inside the Villa for free, at taxpayers’ expense, their medicals, schooling, travelling and sundry expensive expenses are borne by the ordinary people. The drafters of the rules and convention envisage that these perks of office will make governance move on an easy and non-distractive plane for the persons who occupy public offices.
However, restricting those aircraft strictly for official usage will promote the principle of fairness and accountability. On its flipside, a school of thought believes that presidents, being human as well, have families and thus, the comfort of their family members will also ensure the smooth conduct of national affairs. With this, a justification is made for the deployment of presidential aircraft for members of families of presidents. But quite significantly, the usage of a revered national instrument as the aircraft for a junket as ordinary as watching polo and a durbar strips the aircraft of its sacredness and respect. Presidential jets are national totems and should be so treated. Otherwise, very soon, they will be flown from Abuja to the Oyingbo market in Lagos to purchase yam!