Jubilee House communications director, Eugene Arhin, hinted at his press briefing on 27 September, without details, that the government has initiated a procurement process for a new and bigger presidential jet. His evasive statement followed months of shrill denunciation by Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, the honorable Member of Parliament from North Tongu, of what he describes as President Nana Akufo Addo’s penchant for chartering luxurious jets for his travels.
Ghana has one functional presidential jet. So, why would the president not travel on this jet and rather spend the tax-payers’ money on chartering private jets? This strident question has provoked an avalanche of public commentary, mostly chastising the government’s decision. Also of concern to many is the timing of the procurement. With rising public grumblings about “economic hardships” and infrastructure shortfalls across the country, the government’s decision would seem most insensitive.
Those opposing the procurement may, therefore, have good reasons, and I personally applaud the persistence of Mr. Ablakwa for leading the crusade for frugality and accountability in the use of public purse. However, I cannot associate with his derision of the president’s knack for chartering luxurious jets because of the subjective nature of his stance. His insistence that the president uses the existing functional jet for long travels, however, is amenable to objective appraisal.
Presidential Jets in Perspective
To begin with, Ghana has procured four presidential jets since independence in 1957. With the exception of those acquired by President Kwame Nkrumah in 1962 and General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong in 1976, no other attempt to procure one has been without controversy. Notably, Nkrumah and Acheampong functioned in an authoritarian political environment. Few could, therefore, question their decisions and actions.
The emergence of the Fourth Republic in 1993 and consolidation of democratic rule have since empowered citizens and institutions to play their rightful roles in the governance of the country. Not surprisingly, the procurement of the third presidential jet, Gulfstream GIII, by President Jerry Rawlings in 1998 was not without criticism. Protestations by the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) led to the refusal of their leader John Agyekum Kufuor to use the plane once he assumed the presidency in 2001. In fact, he sold the Gulfstream in 2006, arguing that the 12-seater jet was not only unsafe but also inadequate for presidential travels.
In 2008, President Kufuor decided to procure for the nation a presidential fleet of two jets – the Falcon 900 EX-Easy aircraft and a Boeing Business Jet (BBJ). The BBJ is very versatile. It contains a presidential suite and extra room for nearly a hundred passengers. The Falcon was to serve as a backup and for emergency purposes. This was the recommendation of the technical team of the Ghana Air Force.
With the change in government in January 2009, President John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) who had criticized his predecessor’s procurement decision cancelled the order for the BBJ but kept the Falcon. His explanation was, again, the usual populist argument of prudence in government spending and the time not being right. But his choice of the Falcon, which was designed to play the backup role in the fleet, was not the best.
The existing functional jet
Today, the Falcon 900 EX-Easy is the only functional presidential jet. It is a crammed 14-seater with a cargo space so small it cannot hold 14 suitcases. Besides not having enough legroom, anyone as tall as 180 centimeters walking the aisle will likely hit the head against the roof. There is no privacy for the president and no workstation. Frankly, a business class seat on any commercial flight provides better comfort.
When pushed, the Falcon could fly to Europe or South Africa non-strop, but that will be pushing your luck. To the United States, the Falcon will need a stopover at least once somewhere on the way for refueling.
Comparing with the Acheampong Fokker 28 which was procured as far back as 1976, the Falcon, which is twelve years old in the country, pales in comfort and relevance. The configuration in the Fokker is in three major sections. The VVIP section has an inflight workstation, resting area and a bathroom. Another section provides a sitting area for a president to hold meetings and discussions with his delegation. The final space belongs to members of delegation with their own bathroom. Above all, the cargo section allows each person on board at least two pieces of luggage. The Fokker is now a museum piece at the Air Force Station.
Unlike rich nations, such as the United States, where Air Force One is designed to be a flying mansion and used exclusively for presidential trips, presidential jets in Ghana and other developing countries have practical and strategic uses, besides flying the president.
Most recently, the Ghana Black Stars after beating the Zimbabwe side at home in a World Cup football qualifying match, flew by a chartered flight to Harare for the return game barely three days later. This strategic decision to charter a plane placed the Ghanaian team clear 24 hours ahead of their opponents who had to return home via Ethiopia Airlines to South Africa and then to Harare. The Black Starts were on national assignment and needed a strategic lift, a role the BBJ could easily perform.
Also, given Ghana’s longstanding commitment to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, the BBJ can transport our troops on schedule. The UN reimburses the cost of such self-flights.
A versatile presidential jet can also be assigned humanitarian roles. During the Ebola crisis in our sub-region, the Ghana Air Force airlifted about 100 tons humanitarian food relief items to the three affected countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. This was a donation by President John Mahama on behalf of the government and people of Ghana. As Mahama rightly said, “Africans don’t have to always wait for the developed world to come to their aid in times of crisis. We must show love to each other in our own small way.”
In the ongoing COVID-19 global crisis, Ghana could have quickly sent for the donated vaccines from Europe, Asia and elsewhere if the country had airlift capability. Instead, we had to wait for several weeks and months to receive the COVAX Facility and other international donations.
Against this backdrop, President Kufuor’s rationale for the “two aircraft strategy” can well be appreciated – to have a main and a supporting or backup aircrafts to form a fleet. The fleet capability is both security and complementary strategy. The strategic nature of the BBJ is its flexibility in responding to varied national needs, in addition to providing relative comfort for long hours of sanitary flight for VVIPs. It has high responsiveness to availability at short notice and high dispatch rate.
The idea to procure a BBJ and re-institute the “two aircraft strategy” cannot be a bad one for the country. As our presidents assume increasing global and sub-regional roles, it is important to have a safer and comfortable official air transport. It is equally important to empower the Ghana Air Force with the means to meet our strategic airlift needs.
It is time for the NPP and NDC to unlock themselves from the unfortunate but real extreme political partisanship, where one sees nothing good in the other and play on populism to denounce and oppose each other on policy initiatives. Unbridled partisanship does not only divide, but also deprive the nation of what we, otherwise, stand to achieve.
The building of Jubilee House as a more befitting presidential edifice by President Kufuor suffered caustic criticisms from the NDC in opposition. The depressing symbolism of the Christianborg Castle, the former colonial office with slave dungeons, serving as home for our governments’ did not seem to matter. Assuming power, therefore, President Attah-Mills could not embarrass himself by moving into the newly completed Jubilee House, just as he rejected the “two aircraft strategy.” We should stop doing this to ourselves!
Interestingly, just as Kufuor ended his tenure without spending a night at Jubilee House, President Akufo Addo might as well not fly the BBJ by the time it arrives. Like building a house, procurement of a presidential jet is a process, not an event. We should therefore look beyond personalities and parties as we seek to enhance Ghana’s capabilities at home and abroad.
*The writer is a former United Nations Senior Governance Advisor and co-founder of CDD-Ghana.