A leader who travels a lot probably does not need you so much

Friday October 17 2014

Frank Kagabo

Frank Kagabo  

By FRANK KAGABO

At the end January, an article appeared in the Huffington Post by a writer named Adi Zarsadias, talking about why men should not date a girl who travels. It went viral on the Internet; it gave some seven reasons why such a girl should be avoided by men!

One of those reasons was that she does not need you! The writer observed that she will, most of the time, be looking forward to the next trip. To fly away and look for new experiences.

I had just finished reading it once again when I noticed that, somewhere on the Internet, a debate had been ongoing in regard to the international travels that President Paul Kagame undertakes, especially in the past month when he spent a lot of his time abroad. Without doubt, Kagame is a globetrotting president.

A casual glance on Kagame’s website www.paulkagame.com and on his Flicker photostream tells it all. He has spent the better part of the past month and a good part of October so far on engagements outside the country. In fact, a lot of the presidential itinerary has involves travels abroad year after year.

The debate, mainly on social media, is a legitimate one and is revealing on the place the presidency occupies in the minds and reality of some of the Rwandan people.

I think that if this country had real competitive multiparty politics, President Kagame’s trips would be a sticking point, drawing debate and constant calls for justification of the budget allocation to the Presidency.

Logistics to do with the travels of government officials in high office, such as the president, always need serious scrutiny by parliament. And in many, if not all, cases, some questions are asked. But how effective that scrutiny is remains the question.

Chartered executive jets

Seemingly, ministerial policy statements to parliamentary committees rarely get the deserved public attention. Hardly does the general public get a clear picture of spending in some public offices. It’s also unclear what is under “classified” expenditure and what is not.

What this creates is a debate that may lack the necessary objectivity. But that is not entirely the problem.

Indeed, it is problematic that government expenditure on things such as presidential travel on chartered executive jets, done ostensibly for the benefit of Rwandans, are hardly part of the national discourse inside Rwanda. Worse still, attempts to raise it, even among friends, is followed by people clamming up, further mystifying some public offices.

Instead, what we get is only people who are outside the country that make the effort to ask if, for example, the frequent travels of the leaders, specifically the president, are absolutely necessary given the poverty that this country is in.

Several of the trips Kagame has made this year have been to universities in the United States. Early in the year, he led a delegation to various autonomous universities in the University of California system, addressing faculty and students at UCLA, Berkeley and other institutions.

When he went back to the US, in the middle of the year, he made a swing through MIT, Brandeis and other similar institutions in Massachusetts before heading to Stanford. These great institutions of learning have a lot to offer Rwanda.

Is it worth the cost?

Study and research opportunities have been made available through the initiative of the president. This is a continuation of the well known association and partnerships the Kigali leadership has initiated with various education institutions across the world.
However, this initiative has come under severe criticism from opponents of the administration, questioning some aspects of these ventures. Given the cost of chartering private executive jet travel, is it worth it, they ask.

It is probably worth it but, certainly, it would be cheaper for the Rwandan taxpayer if some of these engagements were delegated to other lower-ranking officials who are less costly to fly across the world. Only, they may not carry the prestige that a president brings along which may help fast-track some things.

In the early years of the current administration, our generation learnt about the leadership through the public profile of an austere government that was a reflection of its leader. However, that austere character is no longer talked of as it once was.

The fact is that Kagame, having twice won elections by insurmountable percentage points, may inform how he deals with some issues.
He may only go to the countryside at his pleasure and probably from a sense of duty. There is no political pressure. This is in contrast to some other leaders in African countries who can not afford the luxury of being away for so long.

Eyes on the next election

Those ones spend a lot of time holding court with different local interest groups or travelling across their sizeable countries to touch base with the people, with their eyes set on the next election.

This is save for a few cases like Paul Biya, who is known as an absentee president who occasionally visits his country. Also, Robert Mugabe’s frequent trips to Hong Kong have been a cause for speculation.

The nature of Rwanda politics and a combination of other reasons means that Rwandans could be like that man who is in love with a woman who travels to faraway places. You may need her, but that does not mean she necessarily needs you equally and will not hesitate to jump on the next flight.

Frank Kagabo is a Rwandan journalist based in London, the United Kingdom.

Twitter: @kagabo