A presidential jet is something Malawi does not need

“A presidential plane is not a luxury; it is a necessity. It enhances the president’s ability to work effectively. It is a tool without which no chief executive can effectively execute his duties in the 21st Century. Yes, Malawi is poor. But we are also in the 21st century. And fate has called even the poor Malawian nation to operate within the 21st century with appropriate tools.” Dr Cedrick Ngalande

My good Facebook friend, the learned Dr Cedrick Ngalande, recently presented his case as to why, contrary to public opinion, procurement of a presidential jet for Malawi should be a priority within our priorities.

IMG_1937His case springs from a photo that found its way onto social media, showing President Arthur Peter Mutharika patiently standing in a queue waiting for a plane, as if he is a mere human being.

This, Dr Ngalande eloquently argued, is haram. Skipping the politics of presidential planes, he went to town on arguments often raised against buying a presidential plane, and volunteered his own reasons why Malawi must buy a presidential jet.

His case revolved around the following issues:

a) Popular misconception vis-à-vis planes;
b) People equating presidential planes with lives of the poor dying for lack of medicine;
c) The cost of time lost when the president spends days and hours in queues;
d) Increased risk for leakage of confidential information;
e) Security considerations and costs and;
f) A phenomenon which Dr Cedrick Ngalande terms “advertising poverty”.

Against the background, I want you to join me sifting the issues he has raised – one at a time.

Dr Cedrick Ngalande, on top of the many problems we have as Malawians (e.g. poverty, kusachedwa kuyiwala – identified by Atcheya etc.), has diagnosed a new one.

This fresh problem, he says, is that we wrongly associate planes with luxury. As a result, he continues, when we hear about presidential planes, all we think about is the president living large.

The learned doctor then says medicine missing in our hospitals, potholes on our roads and lack of textbooks in our schools can wait because they will be there forever, but a presidential plane is something we cannot do without.

The insinuations of the good doctor’s line of thought are very clear. First, he is implying that although missing drugs in hospital mean people dying from curable diseases, the lives needlessly lost are worth much less than having a presidential plane.

Secondly, he wants to convince you and me that although the pot-holes on our roads are just a symptom of the broken down infrastructure against which has not spared our airports; we must still prioritize the plane.

Where it will land, taxi and take off, matters less; that a plane needs a smooth and well maintained run-way; all these are of secondary importance to Dr Ngalande.

That to get to the airport in a manner that the president does not waste time needs roads that are free of potholes; is something – according to Dr Ngalande’s logic – we should worry about only when we have a presidential plane.

With respect to education, he seems to be asking: “What after all is education – usually facilitated by availability of textbooks – compared to Malawi owning a presidential plane?” Other than the infamous Boko Haraam, I have heard no-one else belittle education any better.

I should add that while I found Dr Cedrick Ngalande’s arguments on prioritizing a presidential jet over roads and drugs bizarre, his throwing to the back seat our nation’s education needs in preference of a presidential plane is something I fail to understand; coming as it is from a PhD holder.

I expect clarification from him on this one, reconciling why he found it necessary to pursue PhD level education, when education can in fact, be tossed aside so that Malawi buys a presidential jet.
His second line of thought, that equating presidential planes with lives of the poor, who die for lack of medicine but who will die anyway, is comparing mangoes to apples, I agree with.

Medicines are a matter of life and death, while presidential travels and jets are not.

Education is a matter of life and death, and presidential travel – on personal or chartered jet is definitely not.

Pothole-free networks of roads play an undisputable role in national development, while some (if not most of) presidential trips are quite pointless.

These are facts.

Therefore the supremacy of availability of medicines, the essentiality of textbooks in schools and the requisite need for pothole-free roads over procurement of a presidential jet is something that I should not even be debating with someone who ought to know better.

With respect to time lost when the president spends days and hours in queues, I expected Dr Cedrick Ngalande to quantify and value this “lost time” before concluding that it is the ordinary citizens who lose out, if at they lose.

Look at it this way: Malawi has had presidents since 1964. Doing simple arithmetic, we have amassed 51 years or 612 months or 18360 days in terms of hours: 440640 hours of presidential man hours.

And looking at where Malawi is in all spheres of development, have these 440640 hours delivered value for money, jet or no jet? And can anyone president, incumbent or ex-president, say that I failed to develop Malawi because I was spending days in transit on air-ports?

If your answer is “NO”; then should we really worry about a president losing a few hours or days in transit? In my view the 5 years or 60 months or 1800 days or 43200 hours, give or take even 30 days of travel time, that we give our presidents, are enough for a performer to deliver – even after spending time looking glum at an airport.

Come to think of it, even if a Malawian president spent two months queueing in airports, we could not get any poorer.

“Just to visit Lusaka, the president will need to set aside 2 days. Whereas, with his own plane, the journey would take a mere 45 minutes,” argues Dr Ngalande.

On this one, as a minimum, I expected Dr Ngalande to first, explain the benefit of visiting “Lusaka” before factoring it in as basis for buying a presidential jet. If the trip to Lusaka is yet another pointless trip that our roaming presidents make, then the issue is: should the trip take place at all?

It is not that I believe that the presidential plane must be bought only when every soul has been fed and every pothole has been filled; no.

I, for one, believe that the president should show value for money before I decide that his time is indeed precious. So far, this is not evident. I have not seen the promised business unusual yet.

And this being the case, I have no problem with the current or future presidents hanging around airports. In fact, I look forward to meeting them at airports, to ask when the government last brought medicines for rural hospitals, paid teachers and what they are doing to turn Malawi’s fortunes around.

With respect to security considerations and costs, if the current president cared any about these, he would have disbanded redundant and inefficient National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) for a start. Because it is not a secret that NIB is just draining our resources without contributing to anyone’s security.

Given that funds spent on security in transit are a drop in the ocean compared to the costs incurred to sustain NIB, if Dr Ngalande wants to have beef, he ought to have beef with the existence of NIB – which is a much bigger problem.

On the phenomenon Dr Cedrick Ngalande terms “advertising our poverty to the world”; while I agree that we need to start making smart decisions; I do not think our lack of a presidential jet is advertising poverty.

Truth is: our poverty is so glaring, so obvious, and so impossible to hide that it needs no advertising at all.

Our poverty speaks for itself – you just have to go to the townships, districts and villages and while you are at it, visit a rural primary school. Ask the villagers where they draw water to drink and they will tell you that they share wells with livestock.

Even if we wished to, there is nothing we do could to advertise our poverty. It is just the stark reality, the sad truth about Malawi whose presidents love “chartered” or private jets.

To conclude: for presidents who work and deliver, and in those countries where leadership facilitates fast-growing GDP among other things, a presidential plane is worth considering. It could even be an asset IF it is actively used to increase their nations’ affluence.

With respect to us, we do not fit the bill. If anything, availability of a presidential plane or one chartered by “well-wishers” just becomes a distraction which entices our leaders to undertake mysterious and often useless trips, sneaking in and out of the country, with really nothing to show for their expeditions.

I rest my case.

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