By Willy Eya
LAST week, precisely on Monday, February 22, President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on a week-long official visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Buhari who was accompanied by a high-powered Federal Government delegation, including the Minister of State (Petroleum), Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, flew to Riyadyh for talks with King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and senior officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Reports on the trip showed that the ongoing efforts by Nigeria and other members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to achieve greater stability in the price of crude oil exports was part of the highpoints on the agenda of discussions between President Buhari and the Saudi Monarch. Expectedly, the issue of crude oil prices and market stability formed part of President Buhari’s mission to Doha for talks with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
In the trip, the President met with leading Saudi and Qatari businessmen in Riyadh and Doha, and invited them to support his administration’s efforts to revamp the Nigerian economy by taking advantage of the great investment opportunities currently available in Nigeria’s mining, agriculture, power supply, infrastructure, transportation, communications and other sectors.
But even as important as the president’s trip appeared, it raised dust in the nation’s polity as opinions were divided on the issue.
Before his latest trip, the media was awash with criticisms against his earlier trips to Iran, Malta, France and South Africa.
Critics of his administration believe that the president is embarking on too many foreign trips and neglecting his basic responsibilities at home. Those in this school of thought argue that the trips are a form of distraction to President Buhari. The calculation is that even though the president needs to network with other nations, he should spend more time at home to face the enormous challenges confronting the present administration. Some Nigerians criticize the foreign trips on the grounds that with the persistent fuel queues, the increasing spate of insurgency and lack of economic directions so far, the president should be in the country tackling those challenges rather than figuratively chasing a rat while his house is on fire.
But the argument against such trips does not hold water for supporters of the Daura-born retired Army General. Many of Buhari’s loyalists believe that no nation is an island unto herself, hence the need for the president to connect to the global village which the world has become. The calculation among people in this school of thought is that such trips afford Buhari the opportunity to market Nigeria to the international community.
Corroborating this position, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu said President Buhari’s incessant shuttle abroad is part of the promise of change which the present administration wants to bring about.
In an article entitled: “The President trips are not for enjoyment’, Shehu recalled that President Buhari came into office under the mantra of change.
He argued that the president is busy trying to effect the change which is manifest in “where he visits and what he does”.
Shehu said public diplomacy is better conducted through face-to-face interaction than through third parties, adding that this is even more so at the level of Heads of State.
The presidential spokesman said: “do it by proxy is to miss the effect of fostering strong interpersonal relations between leaders, by which nations benefit”.
Before his latest trip, he said President Buhari had so far visited Germany, South Africa, USA, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Benin, Ghana, South Africa, India, Iran and Malta. The trips, he said, were due to either the United Nations, African Union or energy and security-related summits and that they were mostly undertaken to attend specific meetings, not state visits.
In line with Shehu’s explanation, Nigerian ministers reviewed the trips, and defended the president against criticisms that the trips had become too frequent and frivolous and of no value to a nation facing multiple crises.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed who spoke to journalists after the Federal Executive Council meeting, said the trips were meant to attract investments to Nigeria.
“You do not run a country by being isolated and the personal presence of the president in many of these fora is very important because before now, we were almost a pariah state and the two things that have been driving investments away from this country are terrorism and corruption.
“One thing that nobody can fault this president on is his determination to fight these two ills. Mr President’s presence in these fora is very crucial even to the economy back at home.
“Before now, the level of corruption was very high that nobody was ready to risk his investment in Nigeria. The cost of doing business was so high that most inter- national businessmen didn’t want to come here. Who is coming to invest in a country where there is insecurity?”
But as expected, the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) does not agree with the position of those defending the trips by President Buhari. The party criticized the president for his frequent trips abroad despite the economic problems currently plagu- ing the nation.
The PDP said Buhari is comfortable travelling often because he collects his “estacode”, the travel allowance given to government officials, in dollars. Making the comments via its Twitter handle,
it stated: “If Buhari was collecting estacode in Naira,
would he still travel as often? His estacode is in dollars.”
Supporting the argument by his party, the Ekiti State Governor, Ayo Fayose said the
Foreign trips are bleeding Nigeria’s economy. The governor, who said most of the trips embarked on by the President were unnecessary, added that ministers or at best the Vice President could have been made to attend most of the functions abroad by Buhari.
In a statement by his Special Assistant on Public
Communications and New Media, Lere Olayinka, Fayose counseled President Buhari to stay at home and govern the country in- stead of junketing from one country to the other.
Fayose said foreign countries won’t solve Nigeria’s problems, adding that Buhari’s foreign
trips are already bleeding the economy with about $1
million being allegedly spent per trip. Governor Fayose said: “The President should rather listen more to those of us who criticise him in- stead of those hailing every of his wrong steps either because of what they intend to gain or for fear of persecution.
“Conservatively, about $1 million goes into every of the foreign trips and the way the President is going, foreign trips alone might gulp 20 percent of the Federal Government budget and that will be disastrous for the dwindling economy of the country.
“It is even more worrisome that while the economy is already in shambles and insecurity pervades the land with Boko Haram burning Nigerians, including children alive in the North East, our President is busy globetrotting.
“From available records, in June 2015 alone, the President travelled to Niger Republic, Chad, Germany and South Africa. Also in 2015, the President travelled to United States of America in July, Benin Republic in August, Ghana and France in September, India in October, Iran, France and United States of America in November and in December, he travelled to South Africa, Benin Republic.
“In most of these trips, about $500,000 is spent on estacode, transportation, accommodation, honorarium, media coverage, contingency and other expenses on accompanying Presidency officials. The Presidential Air Fleet, which includes fuelling of the planes and allowances for crew members as well as the President’s es- tacode per night and those of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his aides is said to be in the range of $500,000.
“Out of his eight months as President of Nigeria, two months have been spent outside the
country, and one wonders how a country like Nigeria can progress with its president spend- ing the better part of his time abroad”.
But for the former Secretary General of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers of Nigeria, Frank Kokori, Nigerians should exercise pa- tience with President Buhari’s administration.
He said: “My take on that is that most of the trips are useful. Let us watch him for one year. After one year, we will be able to assess whether they are serious trips or not. At that time, we will be able to know whether they are frivolous trips or not but for now, let us watch him.
“In any case, if a president travels, it does not mean that the country cannot operate. The vice president is there; the secretary to the Government of the Federation is there. So, I think they should allow him for one year to assess him. Let us wait and see what he can do for one year and after that, we can then assess him. “I believe that Buhari is a serious man and not the frivolous type. Nigerians want to see their country far better than it is presently which is not his fault really but let us watch him for one year”.
For the former Minister of Transport, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, the president has the liberty to embark on such trips but cautioned that they must be geared toward repositioning the country and lifting the spirit of the people.
He said: “He can spend his time the way he likes (he is the president of the country) for as long as he is convinced in his own mind that all the trips he is making are for the interest of the nation. He should not go on missions that are frivolous but the ones that will serve the interest of Nigeria.