Before the president falls from the sky

nigeria presidential jet naf 001

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Once upon a time, after a long courtship, a young man was invited to submit his proposal to the proposed bride's family. As was customary, he came in his finery, accompanied by his uncles and friends, to signal the seriousness of his intent. They wanted to impress and arrived in a convoy of three cars. The show-stopping car was a friend's Mercedes Benz sedan that they proudly parked in the girl's family compound. And impress they did as the visit went well as the proposal was well received. Conviviality was shared and reciprocated and in the end farewells were said.

When the visiting party came to leave, they were walked to their cars by their hosts. The groom and his friends got into the Mercedes, turned on the engine and the car coughed once and fell silent. They turned the key again and the car neighed like a reluctant horse and fell silent. Try as they did, they could not coax the car to start. After several attempts, the delegation had to step out, open the bonnet and peer into the engine.

“Perhaps if we push it,” one of the delegates suggested. That idea was not welcomed. They had to seek out a mechanic the following morning to come do his tinkering. But that night, some members of the delegation had to board Okada to return to their homes; leaving their in-laws embarrassed having been disgraced by “karfen bature”.

It would seem, from recent reports, that is on the cusp of suffering a national embarrassment of a similar nature. On Monday, Vice President Kashim Shettima was spared this sort of quagmire when his scheduled visit to the US to attend the 2024 US-Africa Business Summit was cancelled. Reason! The presidential jet assigned to his office developed some faults. Thankfully, this happened at home, so the country wasn't embarrassed as a whole. Imagine telling all those American business tycoons to come invest in Nigeria and they buy into the idea only for them to come see you off and your presidential jet is coughing like an irate horse. Imagine other African leaders getting on their presidential jets and zooming off while the mechanic is banging spanners in the engines of our presidential jet.

While the VP's blushes were spared, this same jet had shamed President Bola Tinubu just last month in Amsterdam on his way to Saudi Arabia for an economic summit. At the time, the presidential Boeing 737 Business Jet, daubed Air Force 001, was undergoing yet another round of maintenance and so the decision was made for him to fly in the VP's Gulfstream G550. In Amsterdam, it was discovered the plane was seriously faulty and the president had to fly commercially the rest of the way.

Some may argue that flying commercial may be more economical because you don't have to pay for the aircraft's hangar, and that it is more environmentally friendly when emission levels are considered.

But it does offer customised travel, the sort that is needed by leaders of countries to be able to discharge their duties efficiently. Above all, it offers greater security for the president who often travels with senior officials of the government with sensitive documents. There are, therefore, security implications to be considered. There is limited control that those in charge of protecting the president have when dealing with a commercial airline; even if chartered.

While that may seem largely inconvenient, and getting in the way of the president or his vice's ability to get from one event to another at the earliest convenience, as their duties require, the more serious issue is the possibility of something more catastrophic happening. No life should be gambled with like that; not least the lives of the leaders of the country.

I know these are difficult times for Nigerians, but still, there is not only the lives of the country's leaders at stake, it is a risk our sensitive political system cannot afford.

The last time a president died in a plane crash was in Smolensk, Russia, when the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, and his wife, Maria; the former president of in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski; the chief of the Polish General Staff and other senior Polish military officers; the president of the National Bank of Poland; Polish government officials; 18 members of the Polish parliament; senior members of the Polish clergy perished. A generation of a nation's leadership wiped away like that.

They had been travelling to Smolensk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, where Polish intellectuals, politicians and military officers were murdered by the Soviets.

Ironically, in one swoop, the Poles lost another class of its political, military and intellectual leaders. Despite investigations proving that the crash was an accident due to bad weather and human error, it bred suspicions and led to the detention and questioning of several opposition leaders.

The last time an African president died in a plane crash, it led to the massacre of 800, 000 people. This was in April, 1994, when Rwandan President, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Burundian President, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were flying into , , and their airplane was shot down. Since then, Rwanda and the history of the world have never been the same.

Nigeria cannot afford the extermination of its leadership through mechanical or human error. We might have enjoyed 25 years of uninterrupted democracy, but I am not sure we have the political stability to handle a disaster like that. This is why we must make the more rational choice of selling off these faulty jets and replacing them with new ones. It would cost a lot, but it would be a more rational use of public funds than buying a presidential yacht.

Accidents and national stability aside, national pride is also at stake. What could be more embarrassing than having the presidential fleet looking like a retinue of molues constantly needing tinkering and constantly in the workshops?

As it is now, in the last year alone, we have spent about $5bn dollars on the maintenance of Air Force 001. This was the same craft that was given a full overhaul by the Buhari administration as it was leaving office. However, since then it had to be taken in for maintenance works several times. That is alarming enough.

While at 22 years, the aircraft is not entirely old, considering the US president flies a much older plane, the problems with the presidential fleet are their records of maintenance, the risk they put the lives of the president and his deputy in and the potential of embarrassing the nation.

I know in this difficult economic situation we are facing, blowing away millions of dollars on replacing the presidential fleet does not sound palatable to Nigerians, but the cost of not doing it may be greater than we can bear. In any case, the constant breakdown of the presidential fleet has served us adequate warning. The ball is now in our court.


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