Wale Sokunbi CURRENTS, 08056180228, firstname.lastname@example.org
President Goodluck Jonathan and his team have a few good lessons to learn from Joyce Banda, president of fellow African country, Malawi. Last week, this woman who succeeded Mr. Bingu Wa Matharika as president of Malawi earlier in the year, was named alongside Nigeria’s Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Prof. Chinua Achebe among 2012 100 Global Thinkers by the influential international magazine, Foreign Policy.
Banda was ranked 22nd, Okonjo-Iweala, 51st and Achebe, 68th, on a list of 100 global figures whose deep thinking portend great positive impact on their countries. Why do I recommend Banda to Jonathan? I think the president and the Federal Executive Council (FEC), which recently approved the construction of a bigger banquet hall at a cost of N2.2 billion for the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock, need to learn lessons from people like Banda, on the role expected of leaders of troubled nations such as Nigeria.
They need to learn why leaders of a nation plagued by soaring unemployment, insecurity, poverty and all other manner of ills should be more concerned about how to get the country out of its many problems than the building of gargantuan edifices that offer little or no value to the ordinary people of the country. The reason proffered by the presidency and the Federal Executive Council for the building of this party hall in Aso Rock is as frivolous and “unthinking” as could be imagined.
The Minister of Federal Capital Territory, Bala Mohammed, who broached the plan for the new banquet hall said it is to be built because other countries that are smaller than Nigeria have better banquet halls near their presidential villas than the one Nigeria presently has in Aso Rock. A case of Nigeria’s presidential banquet hall must be bigger than those of certain other countries to reinforce the fact that we are a rich country! Another Nigerian foolish case of “My Mercedes is bigger than yours!”
This line of reasoning is simply appalling! The minister probably expected Nigerians to rise up and give a thunderous applause to this initiative as he waxed eloquently on the plan for a hall that would have facilities such as hall conveniences, technical room and enhanced press briefing room so that the president can make national broadcasts within the villa. But the president and the FEC that approved this white elephant are wrong.
For their sake, I think Foreign Policy needs to have another ranking for “Global Unthinkers” and put our own dear president and his team at the top of that list. Jonathan is, unequivocally, the antithesis of presidents such Jose Mujica of Uruguay who drives a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, and Malawian Joyce Banda, who has attracted worldwide attention for reasons that I will enumerate shortly. There are so many reasons why a bigger banquet hall should not be a priority for Nigeria at this time if the country had a thinking government.
The nation’s poor performance on all indices of development should suggest to our leaders that there ought to be a departure from the way this country has been run for many years now. The country’s damning human development statistics are too well known to need repetition. At 46.5 percent currently, about a half of Nigerian youths are unemployed. Over ten million children who ought to be in school are out of school. Life expectancy in the country, at 51.9 years, is much lower than that of much less endowed countries.
It is comparable only to that of war-ravaged countries. Poverty is ravaging the land with about two thirds of the population living on the less than two dollars a day; infrastructure is dilapidated; education is at a crossroads. In the midst of these disheartening statistics, this administration is thinking of building a bigger banquet hall because countries that are not as endowed as Nigeria have better banquet halls near their seats of government. When this plan for a new 150-seater banquet hall for Nigeria is juxtaposed with the fact that the State Dinning Room where the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom hosts his guests reportedly sits only 65 persons, the reason Nigeria is not getting anywhere in her quest for transformation of the lives of the people becomes all too clear.
Apart from corruption, which has been reported to have cost Nigeria N5 trillion in the two and half years of Jonathan’s administration, profligacy is walking on all fours in the country. We have a leadership that is not worrying about how to address the many problems plaguing the country, but one that cares more about building white elephants to demonstrate the “giant-hood” of Nigeria to visiting dignitaries. If this is not a tragedy, I really wonder what it is. In comparison with President Jonathan, let’s look at the profile of Joyce Banda, who became president of Malawi following the death of President Bingu Wa Mutharika in April this year.
Although the wife of the former leader had derided the then Vice President Joyce Banda, saying she cannot be president because a “fruit seller cannot be a president”, this lady has proved the former First Lady and her other critics wrong by not only becoming president, but by taking steps that have held her out as a good thinker who should be emulated by other leaders. Banda, as soon as she assumed the presidency of Malawi, put the former president’s $12 million presidential jet and his 60 luxurious Mercedes Limousines up for sale.
While the former President Mutharika had argued that a presidential jet is a “must” for a president, Banda has said a president does not necessarily need a private jet. She told her people that she would travel by private commercial airliners since she is already used it. This is happening at a time that the Nigerian government set aside N1.9 billion for the purchase of yet another presidential jet in the 2012 Budget to boost a presidential fleet that is already believed to be bloated. N1.5 billion was earmarked for construction of guesthouses for some ranking lawmakers, and N18 billion for maintenance of presidential planes in the 2011 Budget.
In contrast to this profligacy, Banda, on assumption of office, announced a 30 percent reduction in her salary, dropping it from 35,000 pounds to 26,000 pounds a year. In everything also, this visionary leader has demonstrated concern for the plight of the poor, the aged and children in Malawi. She has shown that she is ready to lead her people by example, and not by building gulfs between herself and the ordinary people of her country.
On her decision to raise money through sale of the presidential jet and to cut her salary, she was quoted by Foreign Policy to have told her people: “I can as well use private airlines. I must demonstrate to Malawians that we are in this together. I must be the first person to set an example.” These, indeed, are the words of a leader who fully appreciates the state of her people and is ready to lead by example and do all that is necessary to improve their condition. Instead of this type of mindset, Nigeria has a leadership set that is unmindful of the deplorable conditions under which Nigerians live. A leadership class bent on profligacy and wasteful exhibitionism at the expense of the toiling masses of the people.
I commend the Banda example to Nigerian leaders, especially the president. This administration’s penchant for investment in grandiose projects that cannot in any way improve the sorry condition of the people is deeply regrettable. There are so many areas of national life begging for the attention of government today. The construction of a bigger banquet hall is not one of them.
The present banquet hall, which the FCT Minister described as “inconveniencing”, is the same that was used by past Nigerian presidents, including Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua. If the hall was good enough for Obasanjo and Yar’Adua, it should be good enough for Jonathan and his guests. Nigeria should not commit N2.2 billion to build a bigger one.