Anger over ‘Gulliver’s travels’

President Buhari’s frequent globe-trotting has drawn ire from Nigerians, who say it is a waste of public money. By Sunny Idachaba

SINCE HIS inauguration on May 29, 2015, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, has made a number of official trips outside the country earning him the nickname of ‘President Gulliver’. Well intentioned as these trips might be, the president and his party, the All Progressives Congress, (APC), are being rou­tinely criticised for their globe-trotting, with the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) saying he should spend more time at home solving the country’s economic prob­lems.

The APC’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, stoutly defends the trips, saying they create a number of opportunities for the country, which may become only appar­ent in the long-term.

Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, two of president’s media aides, have also gone to great lengths to explain the benefits of foreign visits, principally that they gave Nigeria proper representation.

Both attempted to put the issue in perspec­tive: When President Buhari arrived at Aso Rock, the seat of government, the country was ravaged by Boko Haram insurgents, who had killed more than 12,000 people in the northeast part of the country and left at least 10,000 Nigerians internally displaced. At the time, the terrorists held a number of local governments in their strongholds of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, hoisting their flags there to declare the arrival of the Islamic State caliphate.

Military strategists warned that if the fight against the insurgents were to be won, Nigeria must consciously collaborate with its neighbours bordering the northeast of the country to rout them. It was in that spirit that President Buhari embarked on what his critics described as his foreign jamborees.

Aside from this, Nigeria’s reputation as a corrupt nation was reinforced by revelations that members of the previous government, led by Goodluck Jonathan, had had their hands in the till and made off with the money following their electoral defeat. This led to massive capital flight. 

Although much talk was made of President Buhari’s autocratic tendencies during his first tenure of government as a military leader during the early 1980s, people were also aware that throughout his long political career he had never been tainted by so much as a whiff of corruption. Even as president, he continued to present himself as a humble figure not interested in the usual ostentatious display of wealth and power that most Nigerian politicians indulge in. This reassured his fellow leaders, favourably disposing them to Nigeria at a time when it was most in need of firm alliances and, of course, foreign investment.

Just three days after his inauguration, President Buhari left Nigeria to meet with the leaders of three neighbouring countries which had also been affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. First, he travelled to Niger Republic to meet with President Mahamadou Issoufou and discuss the need to secure the Nigeria/Niger border, which had been used by the Islamists as an escape route. From there he travelled to Chad and Cameroon.

Next he embarked on a visit to South Africa to attend a meeting of the African Union, where Nigeria chairs the peace and security council committee.

Buhari entered the world stage, as it were, when he travelled to the US in July last year, meeting President Obama in the White House to discuss security, Nigeria’s economy and ways to tackle corruption in its govern­ment. He had already shook hands with Obama the previous month when he attend­ed the G-7 summit in Germany. Buhari dis­cussed threats posed by terror groups such as Boko Haram.

In September last year, the president embarked on a three-day visit to France at the invitation of his French counterpart Francois Hollande. The focus was on further strengthening bilateral cooperation between Nigeria and France in the areas of defence, security, trade and investment.

In the same month, Buhari made a one-day official visit to Ghana, ostensibly to secure the repatriation of Nigerian funds he alleged the previous administrations had stolen and stashed away there. Shortly afterwards he materialised in New Delhi to attend the third India-Africa Forum Summit, as well as to hold talks with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi about terrorism, climate change and poverty alleviation. Then it was on to Malta for the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, from where he immediately left for Paris to present Nigeria’s statement at the UN Climate Change Conference that opened on, November 30.

Earlier this year, Buhari visit Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a week. Buhari was accompa­nied by his minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun, the minister of petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, and the minister of aviation, Hadi Sirika. He was also accompanied by the state governors for Zamfara, Borno, Osun, Katsina and Ogun states. This drew the ire of Nigerians, with many claiming it was a waste of the country’s resources to travel with so many governors. However, in terms of investments and a stabilising of the global price of oil, which has hurt the Nigerian economy hard, the government insists that the visit was worth its weight in gold.

In March during a visit to Equatorial Guinea, Buhari was accompanied by his min­ister of defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, and the national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, for bilateral talks on regional security

Critics maintain that all these trips exceed those of his predecessors and are funded by the tax payer. The PDP spokesperson Olisa Metuh said, rather than embarking on foreign jamborees, the president should concentrate on fixing the economy., which has nose-dived since he took office.

Ayodele Fayose, the governor of Ekiti state in the country’s southwest, claimed that Buhari’s excursions had already cost the country millions: “Foreign trips won’t solve our problems for us and the president’s inces­sant travels are already bleeding the economy, with about Jim being spent per trip,” he fumed.

He added: “The way the president is going, foreign trips alone might gulp 20 per cent of the federal government budget and that would be disastrous for the dwindling economy of the country.”

Fayose suggests that most of the visits cold have been led by the vice-president or a min­ister, saving the country the huge amount spent in ‘estacode’, that is the so-called estab­lishment code that dictates the travel allowances given to government officials. A hangover from colonial days, these are usually very generous. .

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Onwubiko of the Human Rights Writers Association, said he needed concrete evidence of how ‘Gulliver’s travels’ benefit the country. “In as much as I am not against any trip, be it foreign or local, embarked upon by the president, I want to see the benefits of those trips on Nigeria so that we can give the president the thumbs up,” he said.

“But anything outside that is a serious drain on the lean resources of the country.”, Information minister Mohammed recently told journalists that foreign trips were critical to the implementation of the administration’s key policies of enhancing security, jump-start­ing the economy, creating jobs and fighting against corruption.

While Nigerians had the right to ask ques­tions about the trips of their president, they should ask them from an informed perspec­tive, he added.

“The president was in Germany shortly after his inauguration on the invitation of the G-7 to solicit support from the industrialised nations for the war against terrorism. No one who has witnessed the killings and maiming in the last seven years by Boko Haram will call such trips frivolous. After all, the security and welfare of the citizens are the reasons for the existence of any government,” the minister continued He went on to explain that most of the president’s trips to were devoted to rallying global and regional supports for the war against terrorism.

The president’s media aide Garba Shehu said, “While Nigerians are yearning for change you need someone who will set up the infrastructure both at home and abroad. President Buhari is busy doing that. The change is manifest in where he visits. In the delegations accompanying him abroad, President Buhari has slashed the numbers bringing them down to a bearable minimum. He went to the UN General Assembly in September 2015 with an unbelievable 32 offi­cials on his trip. His predecessor in office went with as much as 150 officials and family members the year before.”

Garba wondered why people did not see the international approval President Buhari's foreign trips had brought to bear on the country: “What would Nigerians say of their leader when they see the arrays of world leaders assemble and their own president is missing from the table? Those of us who were around during Abacha’s days remember all the taunts that labelled him a sit-at-home leader. Abacha was despised for not repre­senting his country abroad. The visit by any president to another country is the highest act in international relations”.

The president’s foreign trips were working to strengthen diplomatic relations, trade and security of the country. According to him, the president had presided over meetings aborad with entrepreneurs that brought country billions in investments.

Countries like France, UK and the US were supporting Nigeria with intelligence gathering and training of the military against Boko Haram and the economic saboteurs in the Niger Delta region.

“All heads of state around the world now take Nigeria seriously. His foreign trips are for business, security of the country and bilat­eral contacts that get actualised by follow- ups. Today, the world is in warm embrace of President Buhari. Nigerians should be proud of that attention, love and admiration,” he concluded.

President Buhari has pledged to address three priority areas, namely: corruption, economy and insecurity on the day of his inauguration. Many Nigerians feel is admin­istration has largely been able to address the problem of insecurity, which his supporters say is a direct result of his globe-trotting. “Today, Boko Haram is almost history as they can no longer hold on to territories like before even though there are pockets of soft target bombings here and there,” Mohammed declared. “Arrangements are now being made for the displaced persons to return to their homes as the military has restored order in those volatile areas.”

On corruption, he said a number of people have been arrested in connection with money laundering activities. This is as a result of eco­nomic intelligence reports the president received while abroad, especially in the US and the Mddle East.

Plans are underway to turn round the economy, which is largely hinged on the passage of the 2016 Appropriation Bill. 

 

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