The Federal Government, last week, not only defended the proposed N2.2 billion Banquet Hall, it insisted on going ahead with the project. Its excuses notwithstanding, the project appears an apparent case of misplaced priority, writes Olawale Olaleye
It was at Bethany, the house of Simon the leper. A certain woman had come to Jesus with an alabaster box of precious and expensive oil, the Bible says. As she approached Jesus, she broke the oil box and poured it on his head while Jesus sat for a meal. The woman, who remained at his feet, had come to honour Jesus.
But her action, in the face of palpable poverty in the land, did not go down with some of the disciples of Jesus who had proclaimed that the oil could have been sold and that the proceeds used to meet the needs of the many “poor” who daily cluster round Jesus.
According to Mathew Chapter 26, when eventually, Jesus understood their point, he responded: “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me; for ye have the poor always with you, but me, ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body; she did it for my burial.
“Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”
The attitude of the Federal Government since the news of the plan to build a N2.2 billion banquet hall at the presidential villa broke has been likened to that biblical story. In the midst of the swirling criticisms that have greeted the idea, government’s defence sounds more like an afterthought.
Although, the poor will always be there like Jesus had noted, his defence of the woman was not to condone wastage and unproductive venture at the expense of the people. Besides, for Jesus, that was one honour that came at the right time because he was going to be picked up not too long after that for his eventual crucifixion, hence he said: “For ye have the poor always with you, but me, ye have not always.”
Whatever may have informed the idea of a N2.2 billion banquet hall, it certainly cannot be sufficiently explained by any sincere administration, especially at a time when nothing seems to be working and government is overwhelmed by the multifarious crises bedeviling the nation.
The fact that government has not been able to explain to the Nigerian public why the existing banquet hall is no longer befitting seems more like an avenue to find a means of giving patronage to those in the corridor of power.
In advanced climes, monuments and structures are usually appreciated in their original state but maintained for future references because they reflect their age and history. Thus, year in, year out, such structures look as new and fascinating as they were when first built because of the maintenance culture of such societies.
But in Nigeria today, many national structures and monuments are seeking attention which government is too preoccupied to give. The National Art Theatre is a typical example. Perhaps, if the Federal Government had its way, it would rather prefer such a structure is sold or outsourced.
Sadly, excuses that the new banquet hall was in the 2012 budget do not suffice. Minister of Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Senator Bala Mohammed, said contrary to widely held belief that the project was a duplication of the existing one; that the new one is meant to ease the work of the president because it will be located close to the president’s office.
“The new banquet hall is for ease of work which will be attached to the president’s office. It is not a duplication or replacement of the existing one. It will contain a private lounge and broadcast facility for addressing the nation. Anytime the president needs to hold some important events, we don’t need to go elsewhere and start improvising. It will be very useful for ECOWAS and AU meetings.”
His counterpart in the information ministry, Labaran Maku, also said the new project “is a small multi-purpose hall useful for hosting important guests like heads of state and envoys.”
He went further to state: “It is absolutely a necessity and not a duplication. The main banquet hall which is two kilometres away from the president’s office is meant for big concerts and dinners which can contain up to a thousand people but this new one will serve different purposes since it is attached to the president’s office.
“The old banquet hall is for big concerts and events. For now, when the president needs to hold meetings, he uses the First Lady’s conference room and when he was to receive ambassadors and media chats, he uses an area that serve as minister’s tea room”, he said.
It is bad enough to allocate N2.2 billion for what is now being widely regarded as a needless project but even more insulting to the sensibilities of Nigerians is what Maku said that “it is a small banquet hall.” A bigger one, obviously, would have cost much more.
Ironically, the Speaker, House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, during the 2013 budget presentation had raised the issue of poor releases as a reason for poor budget performance. And of all the things competing for attention, a banquet hall is all that government desires as urgent. For a hall within the precinct of the villa, the existing one is now too big and far away from the office of the president to the extent that N2.2 billion is nothing for the nation to part with.
Perhaps, it is about time the president’s aides learnt to keep quiet where issues they lack the expertise or emotional intelligence to defend are concerned.
As if that was not enough, contractors handling the official quarters of Vice-President Namadi Sambo are requesting for additional N9 billion to a contract whose total sum was originally put at N7 billion. In totality, all that is required to complete the VP’s residence, according to the contractor, is now N16 billion.
But for the quick intervention of the Senator Smart Adeyemi-led committee which not only questioned the request but also turned it down, it would have been another huge fund gone down the drain. In the end, after a few years, government will sell the same house to one of its officials at a ridiculous amount while provisions would be made for new a one.
Yet, such funds could have been properly channelled into critical areas like education, health and security.
The controversy over the banquet hall is seen a reflection of the misplaced priority by the Jonathan administration and such disposition could incite people, many of whom are harried by the nation’s state of insecurity, epileptic power supply and living with minimal basic needs, against the government. It could also exacerbate mutual distrust between the government and the governed.
There is an urgent need for the FCT ministry to rethink the project, which many consider a misplaced priority in view of other things begging for government’s attention.