The other side of Africa’s presidents and their foreign trips

Former Tanzania President, Dr John Magufuli, during a past public rally. Photo /File

What you need to know:

  •  In Africa, ever since the dawn of what has been labelled as ‘economic diplomacy’, these travels have been a source of heated debates on the merits or otherwise of these frequent foreign travels.

Presidents travelling abroad is nothing new, and the reasons for such travels are diverse. In Africa, ever since the dawn of what has been labelled as ‘economic diplomacy’, these travels have been a source of heated debates on the merits or otherwise of these frequent foreign travels. However, these foreign travels tell another story about the reality of domestic politics.

Frequent travelling African presidents have been variously labelled by their critics as ‘globetrotters’, ‘flying presidents’, ‘roaming presidents’, ‘tourist in chief’ or, in the worst-case scenario, ‘absentee presidents’. Critics have argued that while some foreign travel is necessary for a president, some of these foreign travels have not had any tangible benefits to their countries and happen at times when some of these countries face severe cost of living crises or security challenges.

Supporters, and at times the presidents themselves, have defended their frequent foreign travels as necessary to guarantee economic growth or much needed financial aid for their countries or secure crucial grants or loans for various mega infrastructure or agricultural projects at home.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of African presidents regarding their foreign travels.

There are those who are ‘hermits’.

These rarely venture beyond their countries political borders. They have delegated foreign travel for various reasons ranging from security concerns to their own doubts about the efficacy of a president travelling with a ‘begging bowl’. Former president John Magufuli was known for his aversion to foreign travel during his time in office, making no more than a dozen foreign trips and none beyond Africa. Others like former Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza rarely travelled abroad, not even within the region after surviving an attempted coup in 2015.

In the 1960s-1990s, there were many presidents who were overthrown while on foreign visits. With a surge in coups on the continent, some president have turned into political hermits to avoid such fates. After all, it is far easier burglarizing an ‘empty house’.

Then there are those who are ‘absentees’, ‘disappearing’ or often travel for non-related state matters.

This is a diverse group of individuals. Some like Cameroon’s long time ruler, Paul Biya, spend significant amount of time travelling abroad in what his office terms as ‘short private visits abroad’. By some estimates, during his more than four decades in power, he has spent nearly six years away, missing key events back at home.

Some like former Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika, Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa and Guinea-Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanha, to name but a few, disappeared from public view with cagey information on their whereabouts. In most cases they had been whisked to foreign countries for medical care and only news of their deaths confirmed their whereabouts. There are many African presidents who travel abroad for medical care.

Then there are the ‘flying’ presidents.

These are the faces of the never ending debate about African presidents and their foreign travels. Like the ‘absentees’, some have made close to or more than one hundred foreign trips in under two years since coming to power. During the same time, they have rarely made any visits within their own countries. Their justification is economic benefits even though not all foreign trips are about the economy.

While the focus has been on the economic benefits or otherwise of these foreign trips, the other side is that of the certainty of the president’s tenure.

The most foreign-travelled presidents on the continent either have the support of their security forces that there is little to no chance of them being overthrown while away or their political parties have such control or influence over the security forces and political affairs of the country to afford a president a ‘relaxed’ foreign trip.

There are also presidents who hail from countries where security forces have largely avoided meddling in politics for decades or respect whatever democratic gains achieved since their countries opted for multipartism.

Unlike days gone by, these foreign trips are indicative of a changing continent where the frequency and length of the president’s foreign trips also point to the chances (or lack thereof) of ‘burglaries’ occurring while they are away.

Erick Mwakibete is a socio-political commentator and analyst based in Dar es Salaam