President Peter Mutharika has had a trip to forget as he travelled to Malta for the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting (Chogm).
Mutharika’s 27-hour travel was rife with pitfalls such as some of his luggage going missing, and waiting to take off for close to an hour during a connecting flight to Valetta in Malta.
After departure from Lilongwe, some of his luggage did not arrive with him as it was still stuck in Johannesburg and only arrived in Malta on Wednesday evening.
A State House source claimed some of the bags left in South Africa contained confidential information and clothing to be used during his three-country trips which started in Malta this week.
The source said the information was ‘‘not a few pieces of paper but many kilogrammes” of documents that the President would normally tackle over many days if he were at home; hence, they could not be carried on board as hand luggage.
Chief adviser to the President on economic affairs Collins Magalasi confirmed the hitches, saying the incident of missing luggage was one of the disadvantages of the President travelling using commercial airlines and not a chartered plane or presidential jet.
But Magalasi could neither confirm nor deny that the bags contained confidential information for the President’s eyes only.
‘‘It is true that some of his luggage did not arrive until Wednesday evening. On commercial flights, there is only so much hand luggage the aides can carry and some of it is checked in,’’ he said.
He said government has conceded that a presidential jet is a costly investment to the country as it attempts to sail out of troubled financial times, but submitted that the image portrayed of a president whose luggage has gone missing is not good.
“People should look at this situation as more than a saving to the government’s coffers. It costs money each time the President is connecting at an airport because he has to be accorded VIP treatment and security during the wait.
Sometimes, we have to ask ourselves, what sort of risks are we subjecting our President and our nation to?” he said.
But Chancellor College political scientist Joseph Chunga said on Friday that the President’s flight hassles do not justify the purchasing or chartering of jets.
Chunga, who is also Political Scientists Association of Malawi (Psam) president, further said he was at pains to believe the authenticity of the account considering that it is coming barely a few weeks after Mutharika faced criticism for taking a large entourage to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in the United States of America.
Chunga feared this could be a staged act by government to draw public sympathy, thereby swaying analytical Malawians from critiquing the President’s dealings in the face of economic crisis.
“But assuming that the reports are true, I don’t think there is anything strange for the President to get his luggage late or indeed lose it altogether. I shudder to believe that this should be a basis to justify the chartering of private jets or buying one for the President,” he said.
However, Lytton Nkata, an ex-protocol officer in the Department of Protocol, in the Ministry of Affairs blamed the hassles on “serious glitches in the VVIP protocol arrangements.”
“These failures had nothing to do with the fact that he travelled commercial. I am also compelled to conclude that the glitches were compounded by the fact that Malawi has no Embassies in Rome and Valletta,” he said.
Nkata said the presidential guard command is responsible for the President’s luggage when he is travelling abroad, using commercial flights.
“Normally, the presidential guard command assigns one of the senior presidential guards, in most cases the deputy guard commander, if he is part of the delegation, to check in and claim the President’s luggage upon arrival. There are no special arrangements regarding the handling or the transportation of the luggage.
“However, it is my opinion that taking into account the fact that luggage can be lost or may arrive late, the State House advance party should always carry additional personal effects for the President, just in case something happens to the luggage that is conveyed with him. This should have been standard operating procedure by now [as former] president Bakili Muluzi had a similar experience, so the system should have learnt some lessons,” he said.
Magalasi, who did not travel with the President, said Mutharika’s itinerary was from Lilongwe to Johannesburg where he had a layover of a few hours, then to Dubai before he connected to Malta from Rome International Airport.
It was at Rome International Airport where Mutharika arrived with his delegation from Dubai around 8am on a United Arab Emirates flight that it was discovered that his luggage was still in Johannesburg.
When Mutharika left the VIP lounge to board before the rest of the passengers, Air Malta officials had not finished entering luggage tag numbers into the system.
This made Mutharika wait in line with his aides and aid-de-camp and First Lady as the problem was sorted out.
‘‘When such things happen, it is difficult to quantify the savings to the government. A trip that could have taken seven hours if a plane was chartered took 27 hours. During those hours, he could have done a lot of work back home,” Magalasi argued.
The economist further explained that wherever a president has a layover, embassy officials have to lay the groundwork for the hours in which he would be in a particular country.
In the case of Dubai, embassy officials travelled from Kuwait where Malawi has an embassy to make VIP and security arrangements while in Rome, embassy officials travelled from Brussels for a similar exercise, according to Magalasi.
“People should understand that it’s not about him as President Arthur Peter Mutharika, but the government systems which will exist even when he is out of office,” Magalasi said.
Nkata explained that where the President is using VVIP facilities at an airport, the boarding passes and all other procedures are processed by protocol officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“In some cases, State House staff are involved, but the responsibility is squarely with the Protocol Department. In Rome, it seems to me (judging from the picture that’s circulating), the President did not have access to a VVIP holding room/lounge. There could be two possibilities: a) the connecting flight was already boarding when he arrived; b) the VVIP facilities were not available because they did not expect him and they were not booked in advance,” he explained.
He, however, said the President’s experience does not warrant the purchase of a presidential jet for Malawi.
“A presidential jet is a must-have for any country. It is a bare basic. But Malawi cannot afford a lot of basics for herself and her people. There are more pressing priorities. Taking into account the state of our economy, it would be ill-advised to purchase a presidential jet today.
“The people who are responsible for the President’s travels have learnt their lesson. They should do their advance party tactics better and also plan for any unforeseeable and foreseeable occurrence,” he advised.
Recent sentiments by presidential press secretary Gerald Viola suggesting that it would be prudent for the country to buy a presidential jet for the President when the country’s troubled economy picks up, attracted criticism from the general public, forcing government to disown the statement.
A presidential jet that former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika bought in 2009 was in July 2013 controversially bartered off to Africa’s largest privately owned defence and aerospace company, Paramount Group, after president Joyce Banda assumed office.
The barter, which was done to offset a $19 million debt owed to Paramount Group, attracted controversy, with the current government probing whether the sale of the jet was fuelled by kickbacks and corruption.
Mutharika is due to depart for London, United Kingdom— after attending Chogm today and tomorrow for the Global African Investment Summit—before he travels down to South Africa for the Forum of China Africa Cooperation later next week.