President Uhuru Kenyatta’s frequent foreign trips cost taxpayers more than Sh1 billion in the financial year ended June, adding to the national budget strain that has seen public servants’ wages and allowances eat deeply into development expenditure.
The Controller of Budget report released last week shows that President Kenyatta’s state visits abroad accounted for more than three-quarters of the Sh1.57 billion total that the Foreign Affairs ministry spent on travel.
The ministry ordinarily pays the bills for the President and his entourage.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs spent Sh1.2 billion on state visits abroad,” says Controller of Budget Agnes Odhiambo in the report.
President Kenyatta made at least 24 foreign trips in the year to June. A state visit is a formal trip by a president to a foreign country at the invitation of the host head of state.
The Treasury in a January supplementary budget sought Parliament’s approval for an extra Sh50 million to cater for the President’s local travel expenses after bursting the annual budget.
The Controller of Budget report comes amid persistent calls by the Treasury and even the President for austerity to free up cash for development and provision of basic services such as security, health and education.
Rising State expenditure has led to a cash crunch that saw delays in payment of the September salaries for MPs and the release of money for key infrastructure projects critical for boosting overall growth.
Mr Kenyatta’s foreign trips have increasingly come under scrutiny even as the Presidency maintains that a majority of the travels have the potential to attract mega investments that will help lift the country’s fortunes and generate more employment opportunities.
The large entourages have particularly raised eyebrows, as the senior civil servants pocket hefty allowances with little to show in return for the foreign forays.
“There is need to minimise the country’s foreign trips that have become avenues for blowing resources,” said X N Iraki, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
“Officials should be strategic in their trips; they should be precision-guided to hit the country’s economic targets,” he added.
Mr Iraki said the President’s many trips abroad run the risk of setting the tone for other public officials to waste public funds on foreign travels.
The report shows that Mr Kenyatta’s office and that of Deputy President William Ruto spent Sh2.1 billion on travel and hospitality in the year to June — up 75 per cent compared to a similar period a year earlier.
This was contrary to Treasury secretary Henry Rotich’s assertion in June when he told Parliament that public spending on travel and hospitality would be cut by between 10 and 30 per cent.
The Presidency, through spokesman Manoah Esipisu, has asserted that Kenya stands to reap huge dividends in terms of capital inflows and increased visibility on the global map as the President reaches out to foreign investors.
Prof Macharia Munene, a History and International Relations lecturer at the United States International University in Nairobi, concurred, saying “the net effect of the President’s travels on the economy and Kenya’s image abroad is more beneficial in the long run compared to the expenses.”
Prof Munene cited the recent separate trips by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and US President Barack Obama in July alongside a series of business delegations in Nairobi as pay-offs for Kenya’s outreach to the global community.
The Presidency, which comprises Mr Kenyatta’s and Mr Ruto’s offices, more than doubled its expenditure on hospitality, conferences and catering from Sh670 million to Sh1.48 billion in the year to June.
During his travels, Mr Kenyatta is usually accompanied by large delegations, including his security detail and senior government officials who draw hefty sums in travelling allowances.
Senior members of a presidential delegation reportedly receive a daily out-of-pocket allowance of up to $400 (about Sh40,000) while the government pays for their food and accommodation.
In the last fiscal year to June, Mr Kenyatta travelled thrice to Tanzania and twice to Ethiopia to attend regional summits, mostly to resolve political crises in South Sudan and Burundi.
On February 2, the President was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as the rapporteur of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to witness the two warring South Sudanese factions sign a peace deal following months of bloodshed.
He also travelled to Tanzania on two occasions for regional talks on the Burundi crisis that erupted in May after President Pierre Nkurunzinza announced his intention to run for a third term.
Mr Kenyatta, who was sworn into office on April 9, 2013, made at least 10 foreign trips in his first year in office when he visited Russia, China, the United Kingdom, South Sudan, Qatar, Uganda and Tanzania.
He also travelled to Algeria in March for a three-day state visit and was in Khartoum in June for the inauguration of the recently re-elected Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir.
A government austerity directive issued in April last year to cut on foreign trips, among other expenses, has failed to rein in the travel budget.
This budget has in the past year become a symbol of public funds misuse especially in the counties where governors and members of county assemblies spent millions of shillings on trips whose value to the taxpayer could not be determined.