The culture of private jets: who are the real beneficiaries?
November 13, 2012 § 7 Comments
PJs once had a dominant meaning – pyjamas. Today that meaning is contested with something much more exotic and flamboyant – private jets. Coincidentally, both rest on hangers. However, the latter meaning has become one of those very expensive toys in town. They are not just ordinary toys. They embody status, competition, aspiration, and supposedly a sophisticated taste. They are the preserve of an extraordinary class who can afford to spend an awful lot of money to buy one of these toys. A Gulfstream G550, for example, costs about $50m. This amount conservatively translates to about N8bn and does not include the cost of monthly maintenance, crew and others. Some people have more than one of these toys and still crave for more.
This flamboyant consumption often evokes three intertwined sentiments: surprise, understanding, and numbness. First and foremost, the existence of such opulence amidst abject poverty in Nigeria is remarkably very surprising, and raises some intriguing questions. Where do these monies come from? Why are they only in the hands of a select group of people? Could it be that these individuals are smarter and more hardworking than the rest of the country? In line with the theistic inclination of an average Nigerian, could it also be that God loves them more than others? Obviously, genuine businesses and enterprises account for some of this wealth. These entrepreneurs understand the needs of the people and offer valuable products and services; and in turn, they make big bucks and are adequately rewarded for their creative entrepreneurship. Some of these rewards are then expressed in the acquisition of private jets and other conspicuous lifestyle choices.
Finding such people amongst bankers and businessmen is not usually surprising. It is rather strange to find politicians and pastor who are supposedly meant for public service in such company. What on earth does a pastor or a politician need a private jet for? This question is more worrying when one juxtaposes the politicians’ and pastors’ obvious ostentatious lifestyles against the penury that ravages most members of their constituencies and congregations, respectively – the people they are meant to serve, lead and protect. Could it be that the shepherds have turned to feed on the flock entrusted to their care? The same question applies to the politicians. How do they convince themselves to indulge in such lifestyles amidst poverty and still sleep peacefully at night?
On a second thought, one might be inclined to see reason with the members of this extraordinary class, and show some sympathy and understanding. These guys, like the rest of Nigerians, are human; sometimes they are afraid and safety conscious. Again like any other Nigerian, it is only reasonable for them to minimise the risks they go through in life. Unfortunately, flying in Nigeria has become a very terrifying and traumatic experience. The poor maintenance culture of the public airlines together with the poor aviation infrastructure in the country makes flying an obvious death trap. Faced with such risks, who wouldn’t want to buy a private jet, especially when it is within reach and affordable?
Understandably, you might expect such reach and affordability to come through legitimate means. Yes, you are right. However, if that is your main concern, then you have ready-made answers: the politicians can easily fall back on their security votes, and the pastors can point to tithes and ‘gifts’. Good market arguments and business cases are always within the reach of the bankers and businessmen; after all, that’s what the reward for hard work and successful entrepreneurship looks like. At the end, the kind of legitimacy you are looking for is reduced to a theatrical performance created by an extraordinary class for the consumption of an uncritical audience who are endlessly entertained and enthralled by exotic tastes.
With sympathy and understanding, surprises fizzle into numbness. In this state one is tempted to close one’s eyes and ears to the poverty in the land. This temptation is powerful and pervasive. It is often an expression of frustration and powerlessness – a false acceptance of the status quo informed by the belief that there is nothing much one can do to initiate a positive social change. This state and feeling of helplessness is unfortunately dehumanising and debasing. How long shall things continue to be the way they are? What sort of society do Nigerians want to live in? What values should hold us together as a country? Unfortunately, we cannot run away from these questions. They will continue to haunt us until they are laid to rest.
Upon further reflection, the co-existence of the private jet culture and abject poverty in the country reveals a miserable sore on our collective conscience in a country where most people live below $1.25 per day. The private jet culture embodies a form of consumption that is symptomatic of a much more underlying malaise, grandiose naivety, and spiritual impoverishment in the society. Our rich elites have the resources and power to fix our airports and ensure a viable aviation sector. What stops them from pulling their resources and power for the public good? Will this threaten their power, self-worth and respect?
Whilst the attitude of our rich elites, in general, remains a mystery, it is obvious that the foreign firms are the main beneficiaries of their ostentatious consumption and display of wealth, albeit silently. We buy the toys from them. We employ them to maintain and run some of these toys. In the process, we help them sustain their industries, and create jobs and good life for the ordinary folks in their countries. We enjoy their expensive toys and remain collectively poor afterwards, whilst they create and redistribute wealth in their countries. We end up being consumers and a market to be explored and exploited. They feed on our rapacious and ostentatious desire for anything foreign. We see it as an expression of class and sophisticated tastes. Many of our folks languish and die in poverty. We continue to forsake our public good infrastructure, enjoy the status symbols, and line their pockets. At the end, who is smarter; who loses, and who wins?
Kenneth Amaeshi is a visiting professor at the Lagos Business School, and member, Thought Leadership Forum, Nigeria.