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Opinions of Friday, 21 March 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: The president wants a jet

Don’t ask me how, but I knew it would come to this. Just two months into his presidency, the whole nation was made to understand why President Kufuor listed ‘travelling’ as one of his hobbies. He went to places far and near, ostensibly on investment tours. But we knew that on each of those trips, the president also had a jolly good time. Isn’t it a great thing to combine presidential business with the pleasure of enjoying your favourite hobby?

For a man who liked to travel so much, it struck me as rather strange that President Kufuor refused to use the presidential jet his predecessor had bought. The then candidate Kufuor spoke against the senselessness in spending millions of dollars to buy a presidential jet when many Ghanaians could not afford paracetamol and codeine. He told the nation that the NDC didn’t know how to draw up priorities; he had the nation’s priorities close to his heart and they were in good order.

At the time, I agreed with Mr. Kufuor and the likes of JH Mensah and Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey. They often spoke so eloquently against the Rawlings jet so much so that I believe even the jet wasn’t happy that it had been bought and brought to Ghana.

After candidate Kufuor became president, the jet was rendered even more useless and sadder. It was left to gather dust in a hangar at the Airforce Base. No one dared to travel on it. It would have been very shameful for the president to fly on a plane he had so viciously condemned as a waste of the nation’s hard cash. He would rather travel on what the former president’s men referred to as the flying coffin than sit in the abominably wasteful jet Mr. Rawlings had bought.

I especially admired what at the time appeared to be a rare show of presidential modesty, when President Kufuor chose to travel on commercial jets. He flew on all the international airlines on his numerous travels. Name them – KLM, BA, Lufthansa, SAA. He flew with all the major international airlines – except the one he himself had created: Ghana International Airlines. Ghana International’s tardiness made it an unreliable airline for presidential travels but, in the thinking of the administration, it was good enough for Ghanaians with no taste for quality, who were only happy to fly on anything – provided they would be allowed an excess baggage weight allowance to enable them carry an ‘apotoyowa’ or two. The president has also never bothered to fly on GIA because his numerous travels could have been a major strain on the airlines only plane. Just think about the cost of maintenance.

So it served the president well to travel on BA and the like. He still does travel on these airlines. On a number of occasions some of his fellow African leaders have lent him a jet to travel on. I hear when he visited Kenya to try and patch things up between Odinga and the thieving Kibaki, he hitched a ride on the Nigerian presidential jet.

As he sat on the Nigerian aircraft, the president must have been asking himself whether he doesn’t deserve to have a jet of his own. He was the AU president for Christ’s sake. That was when he started regretting the obstinacy with which he refused to use the Gulfstream jet wasteful Rawlings bought. Then he must have thought that Ghanaians have forgotten all the things he said about the Gulfstream. Perhaps, he must also have thought that if we can afford to waste more than 30 million dollars on the Ghana@50 celebrations (when will they account for that by the way?) and a further 40 million on a presidential mansion, we could as well spend 70 million dollars extra to buy not one, but two luxurious presidential jets.

When he returned from Kenya, the president told his ministers about his desire to fly on a presidential jet (yet another Kufuor legacy) before leaving office. Since no one in government challenges the president (you will get sacked and you would have to say bye-bye to the days of free fuel, free accommodation and other governmental privileges) no one objected to the president’s lofty desires.

That’s why the very people who felt it was wastefully idiotic to buy a presidential jet eight years ago, now think it’s just what we need. Those who thought that a presidential jet should not be part of our priorities, are now telling us that it should be top on the list. To make it seem like a great idea, they are trying to cover up the purchase of the jets as a wise decision to acquire military aircraft.

I know our military is one of the most ill-equipped in the world. Trust me, if we went to war with Djibouti we would lose. And I don’t think there is any Ghanaian who would oppose the sensible idea of acquiring military hardware. But apparently, what our military needs are a Falcon 900 and an Airbus A319. Next time there is a flood in Tamale or Oblogo, I believe our military can use these for rescue missions. It might just happen that our president will travel every week (if his past itinerary is anything to go by) on either of these aircraft. So just don’t call them presidential jets. They are air force planes, which would occasionally serve our president’s demanding transport needs.

It’s only just a matter of coincidence that these planes are being bought at a time when most of the country is crying out for water. I hear we might need just about the same amount to be spent on the aircraft to revamp our water system. But water can wait. If you don’t have water and you want to die, take the lead. We will all follow you one day. For now, we have no intention of getting money for water. The priority is to get the president a jet. He has to travel – a lot. And he’s tired of flying commercial.

Yes, it was unwise for Rawlings to buy a jet – just when he was about leaving office. For Kufuor to do the same thing is nothing but a crying shame. Just shake your head in disbelief and tell yourself that politicians are the same – it doesn’t matter whether they are under an umbrella or sitting on an elephant.