African leaders’ travel mania is unsustainable

Sunday October 29 2023

Kenya's President William Ruto (L) arrives in Beijing, China for the 3rd Belt and Road Forum for international cooperation on October 14, 2023. PHOTO | PCS


Two mainstream newspapers have reported that President William Ruto has made 38 trips abroad in the past one year. That’s three trips every month!

Just the other day, he and his deputy cautioned their Cabinet members to curb their insatiable appetite for foreign travel. Some Cabinet members, the duo revealed, even change clothes at the airport. A few weeks ago, the Head of Public Service instructed civil servants to limit foreign travel to only crucial engagements. Not so long ago, Kenya sent more than 100 legislators to a legislative conference in the US.

Japan, to whom we extend our begging bowl now and then, sent fewer than 10 to the same gathering.

In Scandinavian countries, travel, even domestic travel by state officials is strictly monitored. In these countries, only essential travel is permitted, and every penny has to be accounted for.

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Here in Kenya, we even have the strange phenomenon of foreign “bench marking trips” by governors, senators, MPs and members of county assemblies.


What is the reason for this love for foreign travel by African leaders? First, there is a fundamentally erroneous thinking that foreigners will help us overcome our condition of underdevelopment.

I was crestfallen when I saw citizens of Niger waving Russian flags while stomping on flags of former colonial power France. They were not only celebrating the coup, they were also jubilant over the impending change of development partners.

I asked myself: “If the coup leaders fail, as I’m sure they will over the next few years, and they, too, are thrown out by the gun or ballot, will the citizens flood the streets stomping on the flags of Russia and waving flags of a new development partner, say, South Korea or Canada ?”

When did we start thinking that our countries will be developed by foreigners? I know we have completely lost confidence in the ability of our governments to deliver us from the indignities of underdevelopment. The solution, however, is not to look to foreigners for salvation. It is to look deep inside ourselves and rediscover the fire that burned inside us at Independence; the burning sense that we could change our condition by the sheer effort of our will.

Read: NGUGI: Kenya urgently needs national renaissance

Therefore, Ruto and African leaders can travel around the world until they are blue in the feet, but this will not help us overcome underdevelopment. Show me one country that developed because their leaders hopped from one foreign capital to the next.

Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, credited with transforming China from a Third World backwater to a superpower, hardly travelled outside of their country.

Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore’s spectacular rise from fishing village to a First World country, stayed in the country, innovating solutions to problems, and showing by example, the values of hard work, integrity, and commitment to national goals.

In addition to foreign trips bringing nothing except sense of personal self-importance, they gobble up money that could go to so many needy causes.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.