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Private Visits: Use of taxpayers’ resources, an “abuse of office” – CSOs, Others

The use of taxpayers’ resources for so-called private visits of the president and governors, has been described as an “abuse of office” and prodigal use of scarce resources.

 

Members of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and eminent citizens decried the rate at which other public officers, top civil servants and their family members deploy public assets, including official vehicles for private engagement, thereby increasing the cost of governance.

Recall that President Tinubu returned to the country Tuesday night after a 13-day private stay in Paris, France. The trip, the third of such visits in eight months, was made on the presidential jet with other paraphernalia of office.

Concerned CSOs said the president’s recent trip to Paris was a sharp contrast to his directive to slash the cost of governance by reducing travelling expenses. Besides the harsh economic realities that inhibit profligacies, they also noted that the Constitution has no provision for a private visit at public expense.

The 2023 presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP), Peter Obi, earlier berated the president for embarking on the jamboree.

Obi said: “I have been wondering what is private for a sitting president who is not on vacation to embark on a publicly funded ‘private’ visit? May I humbly remind the president that he is now a public national asset.

“Therefore, all his movements now should be public knowledge and matters of public interest. Even when he needs a private visit like a holiday, family gathering, and so on, he should state so, which is graciously allowed. But private visits, like the one he has embarked on now, should be done at his expense and not at public cost,” he said.

Executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Rafsanjani told The Guardian that the “illegal” use of public funds for private matters should be blamed on the absence of accountability in governance.

Stressing that such an attitude is an act of indiscipline, abuse of trust and completely unacceptable, he said governance is about trust and managing public resources.

He urged leaders to prioritise where they visit, including how public funds are spent.

Rafsanjani said: “Corruption is also about turning public office to private gain. This is a serious problem when Nigerians are looking for food to eat, water to drink, and affordable medicine, and then some public officials will be taking billions of Naira and millions of dollars for personal use.

“This is an act of corruption. It is an act of indiscipline, an abuse of trust and it is completely unacceptable because governance is about trust, about managing public resources.  Now, if public officials are abusing this trust, it means they are undermining the very important reason why they are given that trust. So, we certainly condemn public officials who are using public assets and resources for frivolous things.

“Even if as a public official, you are invited, there must be a priority and you must look at what benefits it will bring to the people. Does attending birthdays have any relationship with improving the lives of Nigerians, providing security and jobs? Even if you are invited, you must prioritise how to spend public money.

“You can’t be using taxpayers’ money from frivolous expenditure, and this is the reason for rising poverty and electoral violence. This is because people grab power and use it anyhow. That is the reason they are using all sorts of violence and fraudulent means to capture power so that they can continue to misuse public resources,” he said.

Apparently, in agreement, the Country Director, Accountability Lab Nigeria, Friday Odeh, said spending public money for private issues like travel and parties shows how politicians have institutionalised illegality using legal means.

He explained that it becomes difficult to challenge wasteful spending of public officials when the illegality has budgetary provisions that were not strictly scrutinised by the national or state house of assemblies.

According to them, when such wasteful budgetary allocations are passed into law, there is not much citizens can do.

Chief Executive Officer, Public and Private Development Centre, (PPDC), Jubril Shittu, however, believed that Nigerians are being unnecessarily distracted with less important matters, stressing the need for citizens to focus on real issues affecting the country.

He said: “We need to focus on how to get the economy back on track. This discussion about travel and the cost of governance in general needs to come from the point of even the budget. What are we budgeting for?

“What is the provision of the law on this matter? What do we define as a private trip, especially when you are hearing rumours of the deal that was done with Shell to unlock investment in the country? So, what is a private trip or was it just framed as a private trip to take away attention? I will say let’s get our facts right and more importantly, let’s focus on real issues affecting the country. Food inflation has gone up and we are looking at the challenges with our exchange rate,” Shittu said.

An Abuja-based public analyst, Murkthar Suleiman, described the president’s private visit to France at this time as a careless decision, saying the president must learn to set his priorities right.

He said: “For a president who some weeks ago slashed official delegations in his trip by 60 per cent, I think that was a careless decision. Travelling with taxpayers’ money for a private visit is something the president needs to retrace his steps on. He needs to be firm with an ideology, if he says he wants to help in cutting the cost of governance, then those kinds of careless decisions should not be taken at this point, especially when we look at the way the country is.

“To move a president from one point to another costs a lot of time and then to carelessly travel on a private trip using the Presidential jet and all of that is not good right now. Though I am not certain about the law around that, there is general agreement on what is right and wrong, and I think the right thing should be done every time irrespective of whether it is lawful or not,” he said.

Recall, in June 2023, barely one month in office the president travelled to the United Kingdom, “for a short private visit.”

At that time, the president was also on an official trip to Paris, during which he participated in the summit for ‘A New Global Financing Pact’ hosted by French President, Emmanuel Macron. He extended his stay after the conference.

On its website, govspend.ng, it was reported that President Tinubu spent not less than N3.4 billion on local and foreign travels within his first six months of assuming office.

Giving a monthly breakdown of this amount, the government spent N82.2m in June, N393.3 million was paid for trips and related expenses in August 2023, and N287.9 million was also spent for these expenses in September.

Though no amount was paid in October, President Tinubu spent N314.2 million in November and N69.2 million to embark on local and foreign trips in December.

It was also stated that N732.8 million was paid to two travel tour companies for the purchase of presidential international and local air tickets. The two companies, Hinterland Travels and Travel Options, were paid N687.7 million and N45.1 million, respectively.

Also, the report said N1.53 billion was paid for the purchase of forex worth $5.1 million, 300 euros during travels.

The 2024 budget appropriated about N8 billion for President Tinubu and Vice President Kashim Shettima for local and international trips.

 

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