African woman sells presidential jet and related stories of air miles

So Malawi’s newish President Joyce Banda continues to shake things up. She says her cash-strapped country cannot afford a presidential jet, so she is flogging it.

At $13.3 million, it is probably cheap enough for a rich corrupt African Big Man like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema to buy as a weekend shopping cart for the First Lady without feeling a dent in his wallet.

Presidential jets have always been a very politically charged issue in Africa. The last time Uganda president Yoweri Museveni wanted to replace his, there was an uproar. When Tanzania also went presidential jet shopping, it kicked up a storm.

The purchases usually get so charged that donors, the World Bank, IMF, NGOs, and all manner of activists jump into the fray.

Even after it is bought, the quarrels continue. For example, in Tanzania, opposition Chadema party officials allege that President Jakaya Kikwete is trying to break a record for the number of air miles flown by an African president.

They claim that travel-happy Kikwete, who has been nicknamed “Vasco da Gama” among many such epithets, has travelled on state expense 322 times in just seven years in office. By contrast Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president and much-beloved founder of the Union, travelled out of the country only 68 times.

I cannot confirm this, but if it is true, that is one for the record books. The problem, though, is not just the number of trips Kikwete has made and their associated cost. It is whether they added value.

On that too, critics say he has fallen far short of Nyerere. Nyerere was not just one of the most influential African leaders of his generation, he was also among the most important world leaders of his time.

He was the most critical and inspirational leader in the liberation of southern Africa; the intellectual driving force for the North-South dialogues, and part of the club that kept the Non-Aligned Movement alive.


When that generation passed on, things like the Non-Aligned Movement started to wither. If he, indeed, did all that with just 68 trips abroad in 20 years, that is truly remarkable.

I still remember a story in that wonderful magazine, Africa Today, about Nyerere from more than 30 years ago when I was a little boy still wet behind the ears. It was during the Zimbabwe independence talks in the late 1970s. Nyerere was on a Swiss Air flight to Geneva to attend one of the meetings being held there.

On the same flight was Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) leader Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) chief Joshua Nkomo.

The unassuming Nyerere was travelling in economy class. He didn’t know that Mugabe and Nkomo were out front in Business class. Soon he found out.

After some hours of flight, Nkomo needed to stretch his large frame, so he decided to take a walk up and down the aisle. Seated in the back, Nyerere recognised the huge figure even before he got close.

Tanzania then was the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU, which was later reinvented as the African Union) Liberation Committee. It was home to over half a dozen Southern African liberation movements, including Zimbabwean groups.

Nyerere was the godfather of liberation. Yet there he was in cattle class, while the rebel leaders he was helping to take power in Zimbabwe, were in Business.

But Nyerere was not alone. Most founding fathers (there were no Joyce Bandas or Ellen Johnson-Sirleafs then) were not men who travelled much. They either had flying phobia, like Jomo Kenyatta, or didn’t travel too far from home, like Uganda’s Milton Obote.

That was a time when nation-building was big business, and some of these leaders, like Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, took time to work on it.

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