FACED with a barrage of criticism over his international trips, the Muhammadu Buhari administration has come out fighting to defend itself. Since assuming office in May 2015, the President has visited France, Saudi Arabia, Malta, the United Arab Emirates and several African countries. Already, he has travelled thrice to the United States and China where he re-negotiated some of Nigeria’s loan deals with the Asian giant. His latest adventure took him to the United Kingdom in May. In the first 11 months in office, Buhari has travelled overseas over 26 times. But with a flood of challenges on the home front, it is crucial for him to knuckle down to the huge task before him.
However, Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, has leapt to Buhari’s defence. “There are three immediate, concrete dividends from his trips,” Onyeama argues. He lists these as security, anti-corruption and the economy. These are lofty goals. Buhari’s key project seems to be how to recover the humongous funds looted before he assumed office. His recent trip to the UK has helped in Nigeria’s anti-corruption war, but the President should not personally attend every assignment abroad. That is why there is a growing concern that his job at home is seriously suffering; just as there is disapproval of his habit of making weighty policy statements abroad.
While Buhari is comfortable with his penchant for overseas trips, he is robbing himself of the unique prospect of cementing his relationship with the electorate. In February, when Fulani herdsmen invaded the Agatu community in Benue State and killed over 400 people, Buhari did not visit there. But in the intervening period, he travelled to the US and China. The President has no excuse for this. A president should identify with the people in their time of tragedy. In January, Boko Haram extremists went on the rampage in Dalori, Borno State, killing about 65 people. The President did not visit the scene. It beggars belief that the President does not see the need for these emergency visits.
Elsewhere, leaders devote absolute attention to domestic affairs. In October 2014, President Barack Obama underscored this when the Ebola virus broke out in the US. He cancelled two trips – one on the economy and a political trip to raise money for Democratic Party candidates in mid-term elections – and sat back in the White House to oversee his government’s response. Likewise, in October 2012, Obama drew praise from Republican governors Chris Christie (New Jersey) and Bob McDonnell (Virginia) for his response and relief efforts to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the two states. He had cancelled his campaign trips and stayed back in Washington, made broadcasts to Americans before personally touring the storm-ravaged areas.
Buhari ought to take a cue from this and show that he is a caring president. But that is missing now. Oddly, he did not visit the Chibok community, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in 2014, even though the second anniversary of the abduction on April 14 gave him the opportunity to do so. All through the three months that petrol scarcity paralysed the nation, the President did not personally communicate with the people. This is appalling. He cannot aim to project a good image of Nigeria overseas to investors when his citizens are reeling under crises at home.
How does a country attract FDI? Investors gravitate to environments that favour their capital to generate returns. Without addressing the electricity crisis and security problems plaguing the country, international investors will be wary of coming to Nigeria. It behoves Buhari to present to the nation what the government is doing in the short, medium and long terms to fix the power and security crises.
At the time he visited China in April, there was a legislative-executive disagreement on the 2016 budget. The document was only signed into law in May. This is poor management, considering the importance of the budget to the economy. In December, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced that he would reduce his foreign trips in 2016, and delegate ministers for such assignments, travelling only when it was absolutely necessary. One of the main reasons was because he wanted to concentrate on his government’s (third) budget. Obama delegates critical international assignments to John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, in a similar fashion.
This is a governance model for Buhari. The country put up with his initial trips abroad because he had not appointed his cabinet; and because some of them were vital to the health of the country. Now that the ministers are in place, he should empower them to do their job, while he attends to pressing national issues.
Since 1999, Nigeria’s presidents – except Umaru Yar’Adua’s interrupted tenure between 2007 and 2010 – have cultivated the habit of frequently travelling overseas. Goodluck Jonathan was as guilty of this as much as Olusegun Obasanjo. What is fuelling this insatiable appetite? Buhari should be different and formulate homegrown solutions to our problems.
The spin in the media by Babatunde Fashola, the Power, Works and Housing Minister, of the need for Buhari to travel overseas every time is out of point. Fashola dismantled the once-intractable gridlock in Oshodi when he was governor of Lagos State by deploying an innovative local remedy. Diligently, he did the same to other problems that bedevilled Lagos, and won praises for them. Buhari should stay back at home and put the country to work. This is the best advertisement of Nigeria he can present to international investors.
First published on: Punch, 25.05.16