That Aso Rock Budget

The Nigerian budget is a peculiar mess. Last year, the amazing concept of Budget Padding accidentally fell into our national lingua. Sometimes it’s amazing how these things happen: one minute you’ve never heard a word before, the next minute you totally “get it”. Budget padding was like that. We all woke up one day and realized that budgets have been padded in Nigeria since time immemorial. Every civil servant knew it. Everyone in government knew it; and it didn’t matter if they were fresh entrants or old dogs…for the budget to perform, it had to be padded.

Those sums to be spent on various aspects of national life maintenance, when we heard them, we all jointly shouted yeepa! and wondered if we were not better ditching our federal system of looting in favor of the regional lootocracy conceived at yet another national chopference 2 years ago. Instructive that nothing was done about the report from that exercise though. The President received and approved the report in the 11th hour of his reign. It appeared that he didn’t want the onerous burden of implementing it. But he wanted to take the glory for birthing the idea. In case it was the solution.

In 2016 and now in 2017, the budget of one particular body has received immense scrutiny above and beyond any other MDA (Ministries, Departments and Agencies) of government; the name is Rock, Aso Rock. And for the opposition, it is such an easy example of how government steals. Which is really in keeping with the global trend around these matters — for every one kobo (one cent) spent, expect at least N10 ($10) worth of critical attack.

But Aso Rock is not your average house or home. It is a fortress. It is the most secure piece of real estate in Nigeria. Or ideally it should be. It is the seat and symbol of Nigerian sovereignty, unity, power, nationhood, etc. You cannot care for it like you would a normal house. You can’t build it or its associated buildings like you would a normal house. People in there cannot eat like they eat in a normal house. Nothing in Aso Rock is normal. In fact, nothing in any presidential palace is normal across the world.

Presidential residences cost a fortune to build and maintain. They are, expectedly, major fortresses. Places where the President or Prime Minister can sleep knowing that except he is sleeping with the enemy, his presidential armed guards and the presidential armed palace are more than enough to keep all enemies (aka opposition) out. Well, maybe one past leader did sleep with the enemy. And no armed rock could protect him from harmless apples. But the truth is no country ever plays games with the security of its number one citizen; the symbol, epitome, pride and joy of its nationhood. Well, sort of.

Across the world, budgets for Presidential hospitality has always been a soft target for the opposition. Turkey’s Presidential Palace cost a princely N307,500,000,000 i.e N307.5 billion naira ($615m) to build and was opened in 2014. I can’t immediately lay hands on annual cost of maintenance though. My best finger-to-the-ground-and-to-my-mouth-and-then-in-the-air guess work would be that you set aside 10% of total building cost for maintenance in the first three years and increase subsequently up to to a maximum 20% annually to take care of replacements, repairs, refurbishing, running, etc. Factor in inflation, security upgrades, etc. But what do I know about these things. Nothing. Google didn’t help much either.

As far back as 2008, George W. Bush spent $1.6bn (N800,000,000,000) on maintaining the White House. In 2012, American taxpayers paid $1.4bn (N700,000,000,000) to keep President Obama and his family happy and the White House running. If you are Nigerian, have fun counting those zeroes…

The British, conservative as ever, only have a flat for their Prime Minister above his office on 10 Downing Street. In 2011, David Cameron spent £700,000 (N437,500,000) renovating 10 Downing Street. In the spirit of British famed frugality though, he refunded the sum of £30,000 or N15m being the amount he spent pimping up his personal living quarters upstairs above the approved budget of £25k. In 2008/9, Tony Blair had spent £1.3million (N812,500,000) on refurbishing same No 10. I didn’t see it stated anywhere that Mr. Blair paid for anything from his own pocket. Maybe he didn’t ‘own’ his space? Typically conservative Britico I guess.

There’s more presidential residence data all over the internet. But essentially, a presidential palace is again, a fortress. Don’t go pointing out Justin Trudau’s modest digs in Canada though. He, like his father and other presidents before him apparently have nothing to fear. Though he’s currently not living in the Presidential cottage since the roof is leaking and there is no hot water. A few other world leaders have chosen frugality too. Uruguay’s former president Jose Mujica continued to live like the former guerrilla fighter even after he became president.

Its cost is not necessarily the cost of the designer rice and beans ridiculed to high heavens to score cheap political points by politricians at all levels of open or hidden government. There are some highly classified ‘stuff’ that some of those line items will take care of that couldn’t be itemized for “security reasons”. These are items that are above everyone’s responsibility grades. Sometimes including the President. Much as accountability and transparency are guiding slogans of this administration, there is still data that must be so deeply classified that political jesters must not be honored with a response no matter what.

Everyone knows the location of our Eagle’s nest but as it should be, no random anyone should be able to access it. It must be secure and armed to the teeth to protect our nation’s number one citizen. In the past when an attempt was made on a former military Head of State’s life, the residence protected its own. Just as it should do.

The unfortunate fact of the naira losing tonnes of value in recent times has also not been lost on the prices of goods and equipment needed to keep the Rock afloat. There is no doubt that even though the government has committed to buying Nigerian and spending less abroad, it must, of a necessity, premium Nigerian. And still import some items it requires to maintain the edifice called Aso Rock.

After all said and and done, the cost of maintaining Presidential or Head of State residences will forever be filled with contentious rhetoric as long as politicians clutch at every straw in defacement of the government in power. But you know, that is okay. Sometimes the guys in power must take one or a couple for the team. Because in the end, since it has to be done, it is up to the guys we put there to do it.