Six months after President Muhammadu Buhari swore in his ministers, most of them have still not settled down in Abuja and are groaning because the N4 million approved by the president as their yearly accommodation allowance have not been able to rent any meaningful house in Abuja.
The N4 million, THISDAY findings reviewed, can only rent flats and not homes, and giving the need for security, those flats which have many other tenants in the building, are not secure or fit for purpose.
Usually, accommodation for ministers, special advisers and other political office holders is quickly resolved shortly after their swearing-in to enable them settle down to their official responsibilities.
But owing to the inadequacy of the funds approved for their accommodation by Buhari, some ministers have been forced to stay in dingy hotels or squat with friends and relatives, it was gathered.
The ministers are concerned that it would be next to impossible for them to get accommodation befitting their offices with N4 million in Abuja and have repeatedly appealed to Buhari to review it upwards to N20 million per annum, but their request has been turned down.
According to a source in the presidency, “In a bid to make their case, all the ministers who had formed a committee on the issue of their accommodation met with Buhari last week Wednesday, but he rejected their request because his hands are tied by the Remuneration Act, even though he empathises with their situation.
“They were asking for N20 million per annum for their accommodation. But prior to last week’s meeting, several other options had been proposed, including buying an estate or the FCDA (Federal Capital Development Authority) building one, but these were considered expensive and dropped.
“The final option was the request for N20 million per annum, because some ministers are squatting in Abuja and the situation is impacting on their jobs.”
However, the president was said to have balked at increasing the accommodation allowance to N20 million on the grounds that the administration could suffer a backlash from the public.
The source also explained that the N4 million approved by the president was in line with the current remuneration package for public office holders in the ministerial cadre set by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) under the Remuneration Act of 2007.
Under the current package, ministers are entitled to N4,052,800 as housing allowance per annum. The housing allowance is 200 per cent of a minister’s annual remuneration.
They are also entitled to N6,079,200 as furniture allowance. The furniture allowance is 300 per cent of a minister’s annual salary.
But unlike the housing allowance, the furniture allowance is paid once in four years. This means the furniture allowance per annum is N1,519,800.
Ministers it was gathered, will be entitled to N8,105,600 as motor vehicle allowance, but will come in the form of a loan repayable by the end of a minister’s tenure.
However, aides of the ministers conversant with the problem, informed THISDAY that some compromise would have to be reached so that the ministers could find decent accommodation in Abuja.
“We hope there will be a meeting point over what the president has approved for the ministers and the special advisers who are on the same level, as the N4 million is not realistic at all.
“Some of these public office holders were past governors and chief executives in private concerns before they were appointed, and it will be unfair to downgrade their living standards,” one ministerial aide stated.
He added that the nature of their jobs also requires some ministers to host local and foreign dignitaries at their residences when they visit Abuja.
“By virtue of their office, some ministers such as those in charge of foreign affairs, budget and national planning, finance, trade and investment, health, and education, among others, often host foreign dignitaries from missions, embassies and international or multilateral donor agencies. Accordingly, they would need befitting accommodation.
“It would not be in our interest for such dignitaries to be hosted in tiny flats or in far flung suburbs outside the metropolis, which is what the N4 million can afford at the moment. Besides, there might also be security concerns about allowing ministers to live in such suburbs or even hosting foreign dignitaries there.
“Right now, the absence of accommodation also means that many of them have not been able to relocate their families and have been shuttling on a regular basis to cater to the home front. Realistically, that will be a distraction that the administration could do without,” the aide said.
Another aide, who preferred not to be named, blamed the problem on the monetisation programme of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, resulting in the sale of official residences built for ministers and other top government functionaries in Abuja.
“In the past, former ministers lived in purpose-built spacious mansions in Maitama, the Ministers’ Hill, also in Maitama, and the Ministers’ Quarters in Mabushi, which were all within the Abuja metropolis.
“But those official residences were sold to former ministers. So their successors have had to rent accommodation starting with the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
“And with the N4 million approved by President Buhari, it is next to impossible for the ministers to rent anything decent,” the source said.
He added that the problem does not just apply to ministers but also the principal officers of the National Assembly.
“The Obasanjo administration should not have sold the official residences of the Senate president, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and their deputies to Senator David Mark, Hon. Dimeji Bankole, and others.
“Today, the FCDA is spending billions of naira building another set of official residences for the National Assembly’s principal officers. Had the government retained them, billions could have been saved in building a new set of residences for the leadership of parliament,” he said.