Presidential jets: Saving Nigeria cost and embarrassment

Let’s begin to with a piece of history. On Tuesday, April 3, 2001, the Senate approved N5.5bn for the purchase of a new presidential aircraft for then-President Olusegun Obasanjo. In February of that year, Obasanjo sought the Senate’s approval for $19m as part of monies to purchase eight new aircraft for the presidential air fleet.

The senate had refused an earlier request by Obasanjo in 2000, but he renewed his request after a technical fault left him stranded in Davos, Switzerland, where he had attended the World Economic Forum.

Twenty three years later, there is a growing concern over the huge maintenance cost of Nigeria’s presidential aircraft. From news reports, Air Force 001, which serves President Bola Ahmed Tinubu as his official jet gulps billions of naira in maintenance. A senior official familiar with the maintenance of the presidential fleet had told news men that between the routine maintenance and purchase of parts, the aircraft had been guzzling huge amounts of money. The unnamed source said it was not a new trend as that it had been going on for a while, making the erstwhile Presidential Air Fleet Commandeer to recommend that it should be demobilised.

Findings revealed that neighbouring countries have fairly newer aircraft compared to Nigeria. For instance, Ivory Coast, apart from having two Gulfstream aircraft in the presidential fleet, also operate A319 and A320 for longer trips. Senegal uses A320Neo and A319 in addition to other smaller jets.

It is high time that Nigeria’s Air Force 1, acquired by President Olusegun Obasanjo 23 years ago, are replaced with new ones because of the high cost of maintenance. Obviously, as aircraft gets older, it costs more to maintain in order to keep it airworthy and for presidential jet, extra care is taken to sustain its safety status.

As the aircraft continues to operate under the presidential jet fleet, no doubt, more money will be needed to acquire more spares and more money will be needed to ferry it overseas to conduct higher maintenance checks.

It was a national embarrassment at international scene, when recently President Tinubu was ferried to an economic summit in Saudi Arabia by a commercial aviation operator after his presidential was taken into rehabilitation and a second aircraft he travelling with developed a technical snag in the Netherlands.

President Tinubu arrived in The Hague on April 23 for a series of economic and diplomatic engagements at the instance of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He learnt shortly before he was scheduled to depart the Netherlands on Friday that his plane had suffered unspecified problems, officials said under anonymity to discuss sensitive details of the president’s itinerary. Some of the technical complications included an oxygen leak. 

This forced the president and his delegation to leave behind the Nigerian government aircraft and use a charter jet company to facilitate their onward journey to Saudi Arabia for a special session of the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, arriving on Friday night.

President Tinubu and some of his personal aides left Rotterdam on a Falcon 8X 9H-GRC private jet for the summit, which is scheduled for April 28-29. The rest, including several ministers and other high-ranking administration officials, made the trip on separate support aircraft and commercial airlines.

Also, Vice President Kashim Shettima few weeks ago had to abort a US trip mid air. He was originally scheduled to represent the president but was unable to make the trip following a technical fault with his aircraft, forcing him to make a detour on the advice of the Presidential Air Fleet.

Over $8 million was reported to have been spent fixing the plane for different vulnerabilities since December 2022 alone. This is a significant amount for a country of 230 million with an unenviable reputation as the world’s poverty capital. Aviation monitors have publicly decried the huge maintenance expenditure as wasteful, prescribing instead that a new plane would serve the country better and  renew confidence in air travel safety for future presidents. 

The House of Representatives Committee on National Security and Intelligence has asked the federal government to purchase new aircraft for President Tinubu and Vice-president Shettima.The committee’s recommendation is contained in a report released after its investigation into the status of the aircraft in the presidential air fleet.

“The committee is of the strong and informed opinion that,  it is in the best interest of the country to procure two additional aircraft as recommended,” the report reads.

“This will also prove to be most cost-efficient in the long run, apart from the added advantage of providing a suitable, comfortable, and safe carrier befitting of the status and responsibilities of the office of the president and vice-president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The senate also through the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, said recently that the presidency had not approached the National Assembly with a request for new presidential jets. He, however, said should such a request be made, the Senate would approve it. 

For his last international outing, the President flew a private jet to South Africa to attend the inauguration of President Ramaphosa. whereas President Tinubu and his Vice Shettima  have managed to carry out their  official duties despite a pattern of last-minute troubles with presidential planes, administration officials are nonetheless concerned that the frequent glitches, besides being immensely embarrassing for the country, could potentially inflict a catastrophe of historic proportions. 

With apparent danger that the planes are signaling from their frequent breakdowns, it is clear that the planes are old and there should be serious consideration towards their replacement in order to save high maintenance cost which the country cannot afford and the consequent national embarrassment cause by the frequent breakdown of the Nigeria Airforce 1.This is a national emergency that should be accorded urgent and accelerated consideration by the authorities as done to President Obasanjo in 2001.

Danasabe writes from Abuja