I have been amused, reading a number of jokes concerning the frequency of the President, Muhammadu Buhari’s foreign trips. Questions have been raised about why so many visits, and what are the benefits Nigeria is getting?
I will make it clear from the beginning that the critic is entitled to his and her opinion and nothing said here is intended to silence him or her.
Criticism goes with the territory and as it is often said in a wisecrack, if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.
President Buhari came into office under the mantra of change. While Nigerians are yearning for change, you need someone who will set up the infrastructure, both at home and abroad for it. President Buhari is busy doing that. The change is manifest in where he visits and what he does.
In the delegations accompanying him abroad, President Buhari has slashed the numbers, bringing them down to a tolerable or the bearable minimum. He went to the United Nations General Assembly in September with an unbelievable 32 officials in his delegation. These included his cook, his doctor and luggage officer.
His predecessor in office went to the same meeting with 150 officials and family members the year before. Wherever they are given government accommodation and feeding, members of President Buhari’s entourage receive reduced allowances, thereby saving the government some money.
In public diplomacy, experts say that it is better conducted through face-to-face interaction than through third parties. This is even moreso at the level of heads of state. To do by it by proxy is to miss the effect of fostering strong interpersonal relations between leaders, by which nations benefit.
President Buhari has so far visited Germany, South Africa, USA, Niger, Tchad, Cameroon, Benin, Ghana, South Africa, India, Iran and Malta, where we are presently for the Commonwealth Summit. Mostly, these were due to either the United Nations, EU, African Union or energy and security-related summits. They were mostly undertaken to attend specific meetings, not State Visits. Looking at these assignments, the trips are inescapable for the president. What would Nigerians say of their leader when see the array of world leaders assemble, as they would shortly be doing discussing climate change in Paris on Monday and their own president is missing from the table?
Those of us who were around under Abacha read all the taunts about him being a sit-at-home leader. Abacha was despised for not representing his country abroad.
President Buhari’s foreign visits have been marked by punishing schedules. They are always business-like and results-oriented. All trips have been marked by tight schedules. Meeting after meeting, happening back-to-back morning, afternoon and evening. The president has had to travel overnight for some of these meetings. The visit by any president to another country is the highest act in international relations. It sends out a message that that county is important to the visitor.
It is not like your usual vacation abroad. Official discussions involving political leaders, the military, the diplomats and at times, business people are held at multi- track levels. In foreign policy you stand on a quick sand of events and you slip up if take a rest or lose focus. Governments also know that their achievements at home will be meaningless if they cannot project them abroad. Who or where are the foreign investors,whose hand you are seeking if you can’t travel meet them? Will they come if they don’t know about the country? President Buhari demonstrated a keen understanding of these when in the first week of his taking the office, he brought together foreign policy and all three cardinal objectives of his administration-security,economy and war on corruption- by embarking on visits to neighboring countries.
As a consequence, this country has suffered past isolation of various types, including the denial of access to the arms-purchase market.
President Buhari will definitely make Nigeria great, as all heads of countries around the world now take our country seriously. His foreign trips are for business, security of the country and bilateral contacts- contacts that get actualised by follow-ups and the love and support a leader enjoys at home and abroad.
Today, the world is in a warm embrace of President Buhari, and Nigerians should be proud of the attention, love and admiration, importance, respect and investment he is bringing to Nigeria. These trips are not for enjoyment.
Lastly, to answer those who ask all the time, what is he bringing back home?
We are not a country of beggars. It is good if something is in the bag as the leader comes home from a trip.
Culturally, we never return home from a trip without a souvenir for everyone left at home. Yes it is good he declares something upon his return.
But the most important task for the President at this time is to reset the image of Nigeria abroad, given the damage it sustained over many years in the past.
So far, in fairness, the president has projected a large image of Nigeria and of himself which should be a matter of pride for all our citizens. Marketing of Brand Nigeria can never be more important than currently it is. The President is doing a great job for the nation. He needs to be supported.
Shehu is Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity.