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Concern over President’s foreign trips

Friday December 4 2015

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) receives a gift from the China Communications Construction Company Executive Director and Chairman Liu Qitao, after a meeting at a hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg. The President has been to Malta, France and South Africa this week alone and has travelled abroad more times in two-and-a-half years than his predecessor Mwai Kibaki did in his entire 10-year reign. PHOTO | PSCU

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) receives a gift from the China Communications Construction Company Executive Director and Chairman Liu Qitao, after a meeting at a hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg. The President has been to Malta, France and South Africa this week alone and has travelled abroad more times in two-and-a-half years than his predecessor Mwai Kibaki did in his entire 10-year reign. PHOTO | PSCU 

PATRICK LANG'AT
By PATRICK LANG'AT
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DANIEL OTIENO
By DANIEL OTIENO
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President Uhuru Kenyatta is on the spot from his critics for what they say are too many foreign trips.

They also say he goes with very large delegations on international visits at a time his government is facing a cash crunch.

The President has been to Malta, France and South Africa this week alone and has travelled abroad more times in two-and-a-half years than his predecessor Mwai Kibaki did in his entire 10-year reign.

President Kenyatta has so far been on 43 taxpayer-funded trips. Mr Kibaki did 33 in 10 years.

However, President Kenyatta’s supporters say the trips are of great value to the country.

Mukurweini MP Kabando wa Kabando says the government would soon make public the deals signed by the President during these trips.

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“I am informed that the Foreign Affairs Ministry will broadcast accords entered during the trips,” Mr Kabando said.

Kenya’s representative to the United Nations Macharia Kamau defended the trips when the President went to New York for the UN General Assembly.

“What needs to be understood is that for development to take place, we have to attract the attention of the world. That is exactly what President Kenyatta is doing. He is being sought after by other leaders,” Mr Kamau said.

Interviews with insiders in the presidency paint the picture of a man who is a star attraction in international conferences.

They say his “mien and polished nature” make him a pleasant guest to be around with.

A WORRYING ENTOURAGE SIZE
Even critics admit that as Kenya’s foremost diplomat, the President should travel, but they are worried by the size of his delegations and the frequency.

The controller of budget capped the cost of the presidency’s foreign trips at Sh1.2 billion in the financial year that ended in June 2015.

According to the controller of budget, the presidency, which combines Mr Kenyatta’s office and that of Deputy President William Ruto, spent Sh2.1 billion on travel and hospitality in the financial year ending in June — 75 per cent higher than the figures for a similar period last year.

President Kenyatta has made eight more trips since then, the latest being to Johannesburg, South Africa for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

He flew to South Africa on Thursday after the four-day climate talks in Paris, France.

The delegation to France had 43 officials.

Earlier in the week, he attended a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the island state of Malta.

Between August and the first week of December, the President has flown out nine times, averaging 24 days out of the country in three months.

In 2013, he went on 18 international trips, five of them in May, only a month after he was sworn into office.

Last year, Mr Kenyatta flew out 14 times, six of them in April. So far, Mr Kenyatta has travelled out of Kenya 11 times this year.

TRIPS RELEVANCE QUESTIONED

Critics are questioning if the country needs the President to hop from one country to another and what the trips actually mean for the taxpayer.

The President’s trips out of the country included a global function (like the United Nations), on the invite of another head of state and those made during the shuttle diplomacy when he had a case at the International Criminal Court.

On his trip to India in October, the President asked the country’s hospitals to invest in Kenya. He said this would save Kenyans from travelling to India for treatment.

Critics questioned why the government could not improve service in hospitals.

Admittedly, Mr Kibaki was ill in the early years of his administration and would not have been able to travel as extensively.

Satirists are now having a field day depicting Mr Kenyatta as a happy-go-lucky traveller keen to hop on a plane.

One humorist this week depicted the President as a visitor to Kenya with those seeing him off at the airport wishing he had stayed longer.

Senate Public Accounts and Investments Committee Chairman Boni Khalwale says the trips paint an image of a “tourist” president.

Dr Khalwale asked in September for a ministerial statement on presidential trips.

He also wanted to know how the Paris Climate talks delegates were picked.

His questions have not been answered in the House.

“The President has stopped being Kenya’s chief executive and has become our tourist number one, jetting from one country to another,” Dr Khalwale said.

WASTEFUL TRIPS
In September, he sought to know the cost of Mr Kenyatta’s travels on the taxpayer following reports that the President would be accompanied by more than 40 MPs to the UN meeting in New York, while the Kenyan delegation was entitled to only 10 sitting slots.

“What measures is the government taking to cut down on the frequency and size of delegations in overseas trips, in view of the admission by the President that the country is in a financial crisis?” Dr Khalwale asked.

National Assembly Public Accounts Committee Chairman Nicholas Gumbo says what is even more worrying is the number of MPs Mr Kenyatta travels with.

“Some MPs have become a permanent feature in these trips. What are they doing there? Who is going to provide oversight to these trips if MPs are the first ones to hop on the plane?” Mr Gumbo asked.

Some Jubilee MPs even complained that Mr Kenyatta takes opposition lawmakers on his trips and ignores them.

Calculations by the Saturday Nation show that the Paris climate talks would cost the taxpayer an estimated Sh33 million for travel and accommodation alone, assuming delegates use economy class tickets and are housed in a Sh40,000-per-night hotel.

Former Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Richard Onyonka says: “To a large extent, presidential trips are mostly bilateral and add value to the country. But we really must ask ourselves if it is prudent use of resources to send 40 people on a trip where only the President and maybe two other officials will engage with the host,” the Kitutu Chache South MP said.

Mr Onyonka also rubbished ‘benchmark’ trips by MPs and county assembly members as wasteful.

This week, the National Assembly caused fury in social media when the House catering and health club committee members said they visited India, Ethiopia and the Netherlands to benchmark.

Treasury CS Henry Rotich recently announced austerity measures by cutting foreign trips and capping the number of aides to travel with at two.

PRESIDENT EXEMPTED

He however said that the austerity measures did not apply to the presidency. “The Treasury allocates a certain amount every year to the presidency for foreign travel,” Mr Rotich said.

He said that the austerity measures only applied to Cabinet Secretaries and their departments.

Scrutiny into President Kenyatta’s trip comes at a time a new excise duty has taken effect, with prices of many items going up.

The rise in the cost of goods has led to an increase in the cost of living.

Inflation in November rose to 7.32 per cent from 6.72 per cent the previous month.

The Treasury and economic experts have in the past urged austerity to free up cash for development and services like security, health and education.

Mr Gumbo claimed the President was using the trips “to run away from problems facing the country.”

He criticised President Kenyatta for flying to New York during a teachers’ strike.

“Even if some trips are planed in advance, the fact that they happen almost always in the middle of crises makes the President look bad,” Mr Gumbo added.

But Mr Kabando disagreed. “The president needs to engage directly with world leadership. Kenya has achieved global recognition because of a determined foreign policy on connectivity,” he said.