He’s only been in office for less than three years, but at the rate President Goodluck Jonathan is flying around the world, he is destined to become the most traveled president in history–and probably the most expensive, when it comes to travel expenditure.
The president had last year visited several countries including United States, France, Uganda, Australia, Ghana, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia among others, but his frequent foreign trips this year despite a pledge to reduce such overseas travels have continued to attract widespread criticisms.
Within the last nine months, President Jonathan had jetted out of the country 18 times to different destinations in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America and South America. He has already spent 45 days in office out of Nigeria in 2012 alone, costing taxpayers millions.
Paradoxically, the President had on January 7, 2012, during the fuel subsidy imbroglio, promised to reduce overseas travels.
While addressing the nation in a telecast, Jonathan declared: "To save Nigeria, we must all be prepared to make sacrifices. On the part of government, we are taking several measures aimed at cutting the size and cost of governance, including ongoing effort to reduce the size of our recurrent expenditure and increase capital spending.
"In this regard, I have directed that overseas travels by all political office-holders, including the President, should be reduced to the barest minimum. The size of delegations on foreign trips will also be drastically reduced; only trips that are absolutely necessary will be approved."
Nine months down the lane, the president does not seem to be walking his talk on foreign trips. Twenty days after making that broadcast, he boarded the presidential aircraft to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for African Union Summit with a sizeable delegation.
Reportedly, the president had muted trimming down his entourage on foreign trips in June last year before travelling to Equatorial Guinea for the 17th African Union Summit in Malabo. A Presidency source described it as "part of a cutting cost measure" to reverse the trend of travelling with large team. The source added, "Huge financial resources are committed to presidential trips. Only those whose services are essential like security, protocol and the media would henceforth be allowed to travel with the president again." But on the contrary, most trips made by the president since January had been accompanied by a large number of aides, ministers, associates and government officials which goes against the purported directives given earlier that only people whose services would be required while on the trip will be allowed to travel with the president.
Again, when the president chooses to travel with a trimmed down delegation like the recent visit to New York, United States for the 67th Session of United Nations General Assembly, the level of profligacy was mindboggling. President Jonathan was reportedly quartered at the Pierre Hotel in a suite that cost $10,000 per night. The Nigerian delegation’s wastefulness during the trip earned the attraction of America’s conventional media. The National Broadcasting Corporation ((NBC), one of the top three television networks in the US, reported that the Nigerian delegates along with other African counterparts stayed in some of the most expensive hotels and shopped in high-priced retail stores during the UN General Assembly.
Similarly, the 2013 budget recently submitted to the National Assembly by President Jonathan suggested that N2.6 billion was voted for the president’s foreign travels for the president which was N1.69 billion more than the N951 million allocated for the same purpose in this year’s budget. Indicatively, the Presidency intends to stretch its foreign jaunts beyond the current figures.
Economic experts believe N2.6 billion is too huge for foreign trips in a nation where critical sectors such as health and education are underfunded.
Critics were also quick to point out the president’s poor sense of timing when on June 19, 2012 he left Nigeria for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations’ Earth Summit.
President Jonathan was accused of negligence for travelling to Brazil barely 24 hours after about 75 persons were killed in the bombing of three churches and consequent reprisals in Kaduna State. Similarly, there was a fierce gunfight between operatives of the Joint Task Force and suspected terrorists, which also left about 25 dead in Damaturu, Yobe State.
In that trip, the president travelled with 116 others, including 25 personal aides; 18 aides of the First Lady; two members of the National Assembly; five ministers; two governors and 63 officials of various ministries.
Defending the Brazil jaunt, Information Minister, Labaran Maku, claimed that the president could rule the country from anywhere in the world.
He uttered: "The President can take decision from anywhere in the world; his absence will not hamper his power to act. The Vice-President effectively takes charge of affairs, once the president is out of Nigeria and he is in touch with the president on an hourly basis. There is no vacuum; the most important thing is that the president and the VP work harmoniously and are in constant touch."
President Jonathan equally defended himself during a Presidential Media Chat broadcast nationwide on June 24.
"I have no regrets going to Brazil. Nigerians who were worried that I travelled got worried out of ignorance. One of the tactics of terrorists is to strangle government. If they heard that the president and the vice-president wanted to travel but couldn’t do so because they struck, they would celebrate it," he said.
Five days after his arrival from Brazil, the president left Abuja again for Brussels, Belgium, for a one-day official visit to Belgium, where he addressed participants at the Summit of the World Customs Organisation.
He took along with him 57 persons for the trip. They included 26 aides, three ministers, eight members of the National Assembly and 20 other government officials.
Mrs. Jonathan left Brussels for Maryland, United States of America to attend the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s First Ladies "Youth Infusion" Summit in Annapolis, reportedly in company with 36 people, including 18 aides, four wives of governors and 14 associates.
The 2012 presidential foreign trip dossier suggests that President Jonathan travelled out of the country four times in September alone. He went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a two-day visit on September 1 for the burial of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and nine days later he took a trip to Malawi and Botswana in a cumulative three-day visit for enhancement of bi-lateral relationships. The president ended the month of September with another trip to New York, United States for the UN General Assembly.
He was also a special guest of Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minster Kamla Persad-Bissessar between July 31 and August 1. The president took with him a 70-member delegation for Emancipation celebrations.
President Jonathan’s trips have been likened to those of former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was said to have been one of the most travelled heads of government in the world. He had traveled out of the country 93 times within the first three years in office.
He was reported to have stayed outside the country for 340 days during his presidency and travelled 400 times between 1999 and 2007.
Critics of the president’s frequent foreign trips have argued that there are serious issues at home which require his attention rather than the jaunts he often makes to countries with less economic and political importance.
Many of the trips he had made in the past months, they submitted, should have been done by the officials of the ministry of foreign affairs so that he can sit at home and concentrate on the pressing issues facing the nation.
Civil right activist, Mr Yinka Odumakin, decried the frequent foreign travels of the president. He observed that it does not show that the president is committed to the task given to him by the people.
According to him, "the president’s frequent foreign trips are a clear indication that he does not care about us at home, we are not his priority. He does not give a damn about Nigerians and the job he was given to do by the people. As someone with limited exposure, he sees the seat of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as an excuse to go round the world shaking hands with foreign leaders and visit cities he has not been before rather than sitting down at home to tackle the challenges facing the country.
The challenges caused by insecurity, floods, hunger, fuel scarcity and all sort of afflictions we are witnessing today should be the concern of any president anywhere in the world. But the priority of the president is quite different, it’s not about Nigerians and Nigeria, it’s about the privilege of office beyond responsibility of office.
"When the Malawian president was to come to Nigeria for the African presidents submit it was Nigeria that sent the plane that brought her from Malawi because she has sold all the aircrafts that her country has to revive the country’s ailing economy. This is a leader that has heart for her people. She wants to live in the condition that is not far from the one her people are living. But our own president, despite the fact that he met several Jets in the presidential fleet, he has acquired three more jets for his foreign trips whereas today we don’t have one single plane flying Nigerian colour yet we have several planes in the presidential fleet.
I think it’s a function of priority and focus of the president. What it means is that he owe no allegiance to Nigerian people or willing to do anything about the economy but going about the world to impress world leaders. Look at all the events he has gone to anywhere in the world, Nigeria always has the largest number of delegations, is this the way to improving our ailing economy. The president is feasting but asked us to fast, he asked us to tightened our belts but he is not ready to make any sacrifice for the country."
A former deputy governor of Kebbi State and Chairman of the integrity group of the All Nigerian Peoples Party [ANPP], Alhaji Suleiman Muhammed Argungu bemoaned the president’s frequent foreign trips.
Alhaji Argungu stated that the challenges posed by insecurity, floods, power and corruption should be the priority of the president rather than his frequent foreign trips which may not yield any good thing for the country.
He said "I think the president should stop or minimize his frequent foreign trips because it’s not in the interest of the nation. He should sit at home and tackle the various problems confronting us as a nation. We have issues of corruption, fuel scarcity, insecurity and power to tackle, so he should sit at home to tackle them rather than frequently embarking on foreign trips."
Also speaking to Sunday Trust on the issue, national publicity secretary of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) Mr Rotimi Fashakin described as "excessive" the N2.9 billion voted for his travels in the 2013 budget at a time when Nigeria is still grappling with recession.
Fashakin noted that by his action President Jonathan does not mean what he says, stressing that his administration does not have real desire to bring about a fundamental change from the past.
"In the budget proposal for 2013, Jonathan plans to spend N2.9billion on travels. For a country still grappling with recession, that is excessive. There is no real desire by this administration to bring about a fundamental change from the horrendous past. Jonathan has become a talking but not doing president! For most of the time, the president does not mean what he says.
"The other day, he gave false statistics credited to the Transparency International about Nigeria. Why should anyone be surprised that the president continues to spend more on his big government? There is a leadership deficit in Nigeria. Is Jonathan a hostage of his deceptive schemes?," CPC spokesperson queried.
Similarly, the Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP) spokesman, Mr Osita Okechukwu, said though he had no problem with foreign trips aimed at boosting Nigeria’s relations with other countries, he advised that the number of contingent should be shrunk to save money.
"I don’t have anything against the trips. I may just be worried about the enlargement of the contingent. They should try to shrink the contingent. I’m saying this because you cannot tell him not to go the United Nations. Will you tell him not to strike a balance in terms of bi-lateral relations? What is awful is the size of the contingent. The size of the contingent is more worrisome than the number of trips.
"I will advise that they should shrink the contingent to save money. There are a lot of people that have no business on the trips. Those that do not have any business on the trip should stay back," he said.
But in a swift reaction to the issue, Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs Dr Doyin Okupe dismissed the report that the president is travelling overseas with large contingent as untrue.
Okupe, who was told that President Jonathan’s trips abroad with large contingent, was not in tune with his promise to cut cost of governance after the January 2012 fuel subsidy protests, said fuming:"What do you mean by large contingent? What do you mean by that? Like the recent trip to the United Nations, how many people follow the President?
"….The allegation is that the president said he is going to cut the cost of governance and that when he travels, he goes with large contingent. Now, if that is true. The latest travel was his trip to the UN. How many people from your own investigation did he carry?
"I will tell you point blank that it is not true that the president carries a lot of people on any trip when he is going. Number one, he is using a Gulfstream aircraft that doesn’t take more than 20 or so. A lot of Nigerians travel by regular routes to just go and give president support….
"So, where is this large crowd from? Where do you get it from? You cannot give me any exact number anywhere. The UN is the latest meeting he went. What number of people did you find out?
"You should be able to tell me that when he went to America, he went with certain number of people. When the president says he wants to cut the cost of governance, what he is trying to say is that we are going to cut the cost of overhead, the cost of bureaucracy and others.
"How many times does he travel in a month? How many times does he travel in a quarter? There is no need for us to write things for the sake of writing them. That story has no substance and cannot be proven by anything. In any case, the government has a budget for President’s travels. And there is no evidence from the National Assembly that he has overstressed that budget."