Few people know the joy and hassles of leaving home like Ibn Batutta. Fewer have ranged across the wide world, not to trade and traffic, but to observe the wonders of nature and the folly of men. So yours sincerely understands only too well the motives behind wanting to get away from it all, both the ones we admit to ourselves and those harder to acknowledge.
Wanting a change, including that of scenery, is desirable to most men and women. In some individuals with heightened sensitivities, such as Inventors, Artists, Writers and other lost souls, it becomes almost a necessity. They crave it and seek it to retain their sanity or renew the creative spark.
The well-to-do also travel, in search of novelty or to banish boredom. Hence they are called the “ jet set “, because they fly from one exotic location to another, in search of new experiences or to renew old ones. They often meet with disappointment, because as someone said, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
More productively, a new breed of international businessmen and other busy-bodies have truly turned the world into a global village. They are incessantly on the move, from one capital city to another, doing deals, attending seminars and conferences and generally attempting to run our lives from hotel suits and boardrooms.
Going from one summit meeting to another is also part of the job description of top politicians and diplomats. They do this either to foster good relations between countries, or to mediate when neighbours turn on each other, as they often do. Bodies like the United Nations(UN) and the African Union (AU) were expressly created for that. Top officials of big nations are in demand everywhere. The richer and more military powerful a country, the wider it’s so called sphere of influence. This can be glimpsed from busy itinerary of any American Secretary of State, but increasingly from the foot work of Chinese diplomats and leaders.
Few countries in Africa are either rich or powerful. Most are struggling to keep poverty at bay and to deal with internal divisions that sometimes threaten their very survival. Yet African Presidents seem to relish foreign travel and most cannot resist the photo opportunity with the super stars of world politics. I have seen it repeated in the media, that former President Ummaru Yar’adua (whose health challenges and introverted personality must have dampened his enthusiasm for foreign junkets) described the day he met former American president George Bush as the happiest day of his life!
Nigerians, and not just rabble rousers like Ekiti Governor Ayo Fayose, have noted and commented on President Buhari’s frequent foreign trips.
In a lengthy editorial, the Daily Trust on Sunday said it counted 28 such journeys in his 10 months as president (he has since gone to China and the UK). Some of the trips, according to the paper, were justified, others to do with conferences on Nuclear Energy (US) or Investment Opportunities in Africa(Egypt) could be handled by lower officials and experts.
In Kenya there is the same debate and similar justifications. According to the Daily Nation of Nairobi, in three years between 2013-16, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been on 64 foreign tours, including seven this year. To compare like with like, his predecessor, the more elderly and less flamboyant Mwai Kibaki made only 33 trips during his 10 years in office. This became an issue in Kenya, though much less in Nigeria, because the hospitality and travel budget for the presidency increased by 640% between the 2014/15 and 2015/16 budgets, with spending in the first six months exceeding the entire year’s allocation!
President Kenyatta was forced to return to parliament for more spending money and as the Daily Nation commented acidly “should parliament approve the Supplementary Budget in its current form, the Presidency’s budget to wine, dance, entertain and travel will have expanded nearly seven times in less than two years”.
Like Buhari, Kenyatta has articulate defenders, who, not surprisingly, are part of the gravy train (or is it plane!) His spokesman Monoah Esipisu has issued a statement saying that the President’s foreign trips have enabled Kenya to secure billions of dollars in loans and infrastructure deals. He added for effect that, “ the President’s travels are business, not pleasure.”
Clearly, no amount of criticism, or budget shortfall, can stop African leaders from hopping onto those well-fitted presidential aircraft and taking a break from troubles at home. The invitations, for one feel good summit or other, keep coming and smart aides know how to pander to the apparent need of politicians for the illusions of grandeur. To be fair, leaders of regional power-houses like Nigeria and Kenya, will have a certain amount of diplomat duties on their plates. But surely the heavy lifting, even with an eye to attracting foreign loans and investments, is in trenches nearer home.
If you are inclined to think that Ibn Battuta is a low-budget traveller, not schooled in the ways of international wheeling and dealing, let me cite a real life president of an African country who seems to get the balance right.
John Magufuli was elected president of Tanzania in October 2015. Like Buhari he has the reputation of being honest and thrifty. He is fighting corruption with zeal, jailing corrupt civil servants and politicians, cleaning the payroll of ghost workers, and chasing after crooked contractors and tax dodgers. Google his name and see the interesting details!
One thing that got my attention is Magufuli’s absolute focus on the task at hand. Like our military leaders of old, he turns up at offices to lock out late comers, joins cleaning crews to clear out rubbish from the streets; he seems a permanent presence every day and everywhere, warning, encouraging and leading by example. Such seems his ferocious drive to right the wrongs in his country, that he has travelled outside Tanzania only once in nine months (to neighbouring Rwanda).
In January he was elected chair of the East African Community at a summit in Arusha (Tanzania). To the surprise of many, after the wining and dining was over and his fellow heads of state had flown their jets home, he did the maths and discovered that civil servants have “ padded” the cost of the meeting. He protested publicly and promised to keep the budgets of even such high profile jamborees modest.
The media and other elites in the region are excited about Magufuli. It’s early days yet, but they are impressed with his determination to return to first principles. For it is an important, if partial truth, that all charity must begin - and sometimes end - at home. Or as the Hausa say, only when those at home have had their fill, do you take the remnants outside.