Monthly Archives: January 2018

Rise of the peoples’ assembly

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

We the people…”; that is how most constitutions start. Of course, the politicians who tend to refer to those words the most are usually the ones who also hold them in contempt the most. It used to be the case that they could actually get away with the disgust they often have for the very people that voted them into office. Aloof and conveniently tone-deaf for most of their tenures initially, their amnesia is miraculously cured at the near-end of their typical four to five-year first term in office, when it dawns on them that should they not now grovel to the same people they cared little about hitherto, they may soon lose the office that has been the source of their ostentation. In other words, as much as they dislike the very people they are supposed to serve, they know they are ultimately vulnerable to their whim. Power truly belongs to the people. Shrewd politicians realise this very early on. And the successful ones are able to hold sway over the affairs of their fellow men and women for as long as the Heavens allow irrespective of whether they hold office or not because they stay close to the people and go with their ever-changing tide of opinion. Inevitably, they are populists. Politicians, even the supposedly altruistic ones, do not like to admit it. But ultimately, it is the desire to rule that really drives them. Power is the end, not the means.

All about power
A person has to have a certain level of hubris to think himself qualified to rule over a multitude. Some do not realise this until they lose an election. Otherwise what would motivate some men to seek political office repeatedly even as they lose with the same frequency. Take Kenyan opposition figure Raila Odinga, for instance, who has been aspiring to be president for almost all of his political life. He probably made his last futile attempt last year. Probably realising he no longer stands a chance, he now seeks to be president of a so-called “peoples’ assembly”. If what has happened since the idea was first mooted is anything to go by, it has not been as successful as he might have hoped. An earlier botched swearing-in as the “peoples’ president” is now supposed to happen anytime soon or never. Perhaps taking a cue from his older fellow opposition politician, longsuffering Ugandan presidential contender Kizza Besigye also called for the establishment of a peoples’ assembly in early January. What instigated his call was the recent enactment of a law that removed presidential age limits, enabling longtime president Yoweri Museveni to run for office again. In both cases, the opposition politician’s frustration made them resort to the people. Had they been more successful, it is hardly likely their reckoning would ever sway towards them. Their evolution lays bare what they wanted all along: power. They are not any different from their supposed antagonists in office. And were they to secure power themselves, they may behave similarly as the politicians they oust or worse.

Yours to wield
This new trend of African opposition politicians drifting towards alternative and mostly informal platforms to wield power after failing to secure it via state institutions is not entirely novel. They are simply latching on to something that already started without their urging. What is a peoples’ assembly? What is it supposed to achieve? Is there somewhere they are supposed to gather? Are they voted for? How long do the members serve in office? The peoples’ assembly is you and I. When Nigerians finally lost their patience with an effective but wayward police commando unit, they raised their voices. Were they heard? You bet they were. Nigerian authorities were finally forced to go after marauding Fulani herdsmen, long maiming and killing innocent farmers with impunity, after the people said enough! South Africans have been unrelenting in their insistence that the “capture” of their state by private persons – who have, in collusion with the very people they elected, been pilfering their commonwealth – must stop and the culprits punished. Did their voices matter? Yes. Now a judicial commission of inquiry is slated to get to the bottom of the matter. But for pressure by Ghanaians on their government during the infamous “dumsor” period of power load-shedding and cuts, they may have suffered a little while longer. Opposition politicians are clearly being opportunistic. A peoples’ assembly is not something you organise per se. It is leader-less. Put another way, all of its members are leaders. Before the advent of social media, people power manifested itself in African countries only on occasion. Now, it can be as immediate as the time it takes to type a hashtag. We all have the power to make a change.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/rise-peoples-assembly/

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#FuelScarcity: Multiple pricing can work

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Nigerians are a hypocritical bunch. I am Nigerian. It is curious that fuel suddenly became scarce after signals began to emerge that President Muhammadu Buhari might be interested in seeking a second term in office. Incidentally, former vice president Atiku Abubakar moved to another political party in obvious pursuance of his own presidential ambition at about the same time. Now there is increased violence here and there, gas pipelines supplying power stations are suddenly catching fire and fuel is scarce. Even though intuition should not suffice to attribute causation, it is a little too much of a coincidence that these negative events are happening just as the political cycle changed into a higher gear. Recent killings by criminals in the middle-belt region, who to witnesses looked like “Fulani herdsmen”, can be dealt with by the security agencies; if they choose to. Pipelines can be policed; costly but doable. Besides, many already know to turn on their generators when there is a power cut; which is almost everytime. But how did fuel supply become short all of a sudden? Mr Buhari blames saboteurs. (See? Intuition can be reliable.) Considering the timing – the scarcity started curiously during the Christmas festivities – the president may be on to something. In any case, he would not have made such a pronouncement if his security chiefs did not show strong evidence of sabotage. Even so, the fuel scarcity has a robust economic explanation.

Call it anything but…
Fuel marketers would have had a terrible Christmas if they continued to sell fuel at the current N145 per litre without some support from the government. About a year ago, when the retail price was set, crude oil was selling for less. And the naira was artificially stronger. On those two variables alone, it would not require a stroke of genius to know that should everything else remain the same, it cannot be profitable for fuel retailers to continue selling at that price. To make the point, the marketers likely chose the best opportunity for them to be heard. Well, they succeeded. Most analysts, if not all, suggest it would be politically suicidal for Mr Buhari to increase the price of fuel at just the moment he is trying to woo the citizenry to allow him a second chance at the State House. He did get away with past price increases, though. But now, “the times they are a-changin’.” If for political reasons the Buhari administration cannot now afford to increase the price of fuel like other more sensible countries have done, there is only one option available to it. And there is a word for it: subsidy. Wait a minute, the government does not pay subsidy on fuel anymore. So how have marketers been able to continue supplying fuel for the most part of the second half of last year – when crude oil prices appreciated significantly – without going bankrupt? It has to be that they had been receiving some form of support. We just must not call it “subsidy”; too sensitive.

Multiple choice
But should a temporary solution be again applied to what is a perennially recurring problem? The authorities probably hope they would be able to manage the situation until the mega refinery being built by the country’s richest man Aliko Dangote is completed. But at what cost? During the most recent fuel scarcity period, how were so-called black marketers able to sell their stock? I am not aware that any of them sold for less than twice the official retail price of N145. Their customers were not ghosts. There are many Nigerians who are willing to make the trade-off between price and availability. What could be wrong with having a system where this set of people get to pay a premium for the convenience of shorter lead times and assured supply at private filling stations while those not as endowed buy at the official price at filling stations of state oil company, NNPC? Yes, there are not enough of them. Heard of franchising, anyone? The NNPC could simply approve a number of filling stations per locale to supply fuel it imports and supplies to them at the official price. And as part of the arrangement, the approved filling stations would be branded with its logo. That way, anyone who desires to buy fuel at the official price could simply go to an NNPC-branded filling station. And those who do not want the inconvenience of likely queues at the official stations could simply buy fuel at a likely higher price at the private ones. The authorities should give it a try.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (9 Jan 2018). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/fuelscarcity-multiple-pricing-can-work/

South Africa: Free higher education is complicated

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If you asked university officials whether they desired free education for the poor, they would probably answer in the affirmative. Ask them if it is sustainable under the government’s recently announced plan, they are not likely to be so sunny. What is probably feasible is a system whereby an obviously brilliant and promising student is not prevented from higher education because he or she is poor. If South Africa were abundantly wealthy, free education might not be potentially problematic. Sadly, the country is not. Not at the moment, at least. And if the palpable absence of the finance minister or his representative at a media briefing on the new policy in early January is anything to go by, the fiscal authorities are likely at their wits’ end to fund what was clearly a unilateral pronouncement by President Jacob Zuma.

As the new academic session begins, university authorities have announced they would not allow walk-in registrations. Ultranationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader, Julius Malema, had urged prospective students to simply turn up at any university of their choice for admission. It is not difficult to see the potential complications that this would cause. The authorities have disabused any such action by learners who just passed their qualifying exams (“matric”) – results for the class of 2017 were released in early January. Hitherto, those who could not afford varsity would have simply sought employment in jobs where a matric certificate suffices. With higher education now “free”, they are now able to pursue their dreams. Because Mr Zuma’s proclamation was impromptu, those who hitherto did not apply to universities due to financial constraints would have ordinarily needed to wait a year if disruptions are to be avoided. Unsurprisingly, the EFF, and understandably, the affected prospective students, would have none of it. To manage the situation, the authorities have instead advised that those who qualify should follow the normal application process; an online portal has been designated for the task.

China works
Free education, whether at the basic or higher level, is not novel. It has been tried in many jurisdictions. Swedes attend university for free, for instance. And their degrees are very competitive. So the policy does work. But Sweden is rich, South Africa is not. In their heyday, communist regimes also provided free higher education to their comrade citizens. They succeeded to some extent. The times were a signifcant motivation, though. There was a cold war between a mostly democratic west and a mostly communist east. To the extent that they were able to compete quite well with the west on many technological fronts suggest free education is not only feasible but does not necessarily stifle innovation. In other words, poor countries can successfully educate their citizens for free. To some extent. Because when you look at how the west and east have evolved, there is a strong case for the clearly more developed west’s capitalist model. What about China then? Well, it realised free higher education was sub-optimal after a while: it abolished the policy in 1985. Instead, poor Chinese who desire a university education compete for scholarships. And those with ample means began to have a choice in the early 1980s, when Chinese authorities allowed the establishment of private universities.

My heart, my head
To be clear, one is not in anyway suggesting that the majority of black South Africans be left out in the cold without the prospect of prosperity that higher education is supposed to provide, eventually; ideally. I recall quite well during my doctoral studies at a top South African university how frustrated, and in fact angry, some black South African students were at the very high fees their sponsors had to scrape to pay. But the success of western universities can be directly traced to students paying the economic cost of their education. And the means through which they acquire the funding are in part responsible for the high value placed on it. A loans system means a student upon graduation is incentivized to find employment or engage in some entrepreneurial venture to clear his or her indebtedness. It also means that employers must pay an economically viable wage. Market forces that have been found to engender optimal pricing for goods and services have also been found to serve the education system quite well. So as a practicing economist, I see how fraught with risks for the economy the new free education policy is. As an African who has witnessed the pains of many black South Africans, however, I desire that they are able to achieve their wildest dreams. I am conflicted.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/05/south-africa-the-complications-of-free-higher-education-by-rafiq-raji/

#NotTooYoungToRun: Lessons from Weah’s triumph

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

After ex-football star George Weah’s victory in the recent Liberian presidential run-off poll, similarly young aspirants in other African countries have become expectant that they might also be able to pull a similar feat. Trust Nigerians to lead the bandwagon. It is interesting that a man in his early fifties is considered young in the African sense, of course. But considering the many leaders in their seventies and eighties that Africans have had to endure thus far, Mr Weah is an exemplar. And a worthy one. But his accession bears many lessons. There is a consistency in the route to power for young non-establishment figures it seems. Curiously, it does not matter whether the country’s democracy is young or matured. Take France’s Emmanuel Macron; one of the increasingly youthful leaders beginning to take over the world stage. Unlike his other similarly youthful Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, whose father was once prime minister and was already quite known as early as when he was still being held by the hand, Mr Macron had to found his own political party, secure votes and then win his place. Turns out if Mr Weah wanted to be president, he would have no choice but to form his own political party as well. But unlike Mr Macron, he was not so lucky. He did not win the first time, losing to outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. After another failed attempt, this time as a vice-presidential candidate, he settled for the Senate to perhaps sulk or as they say, lick his wounds. He used the time well. Clearly the wiser, he chose the ex-wife of former warlord Charles Taylor as a running mate. The move paid off. Former warlords, now influential in the country – as is often the case after a prolonged civil war – rallied round him. It did help, though, that he had a boring and uncharismatic rival this time around for the post. Vice-president Joseph Boakai, with the appropriate epithet “Sleepy Joe” did not just sit by and allow Mr Weah a free pass, though. He made sure to give him some grief. Thankfully, he gracefully conceded defeat after the results showed an overwhelming Weah win.

We too
Is there an opportunity then for a Nigerian case, say? Unlike Liberia, or France for that matter, Nigeria is a more complex country. Ethinic and religious divisions are deeper and wider. And there is the added disadvantage that Nigeria is still largely an ageist society. Incidentally, there is likely not a better place where this is writ large than in how Nigerian political parties are run. In Nigeria, if a young person rises to a position of power, it either occurs by accident (An Act of God) or because the person is the child of a very important person. A meritocratic political system, whereby a young person ascends to an exalted position, is non-existent. Another avenue is via the House of Representatives, where younger politicians tend to gravitate towards. A speaker, if young, could leverage on his national exposure and recognition to aspire to higher office. Unfortunately or incidentally, this tends to be no more than vying for the position of state governor. That is not entirely a bad thing. As governors have become highly influential as a collective, they now determine who becomes president of the Republic. Penultimately, they chose one of their own. President Muhammadu Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, a former governor, may not be the ideal case, though. By a stroke of good fortune, Mr Jonathan was nominated for the vice-presidency at the age of 50; while an incumbent state governor. Three years later, he became president. The prospects of another so “young” becoming a Nigerian president are not so bright, however: it would be unnatural for his kind of luck to be abundant.

Raise your flag
Point is, it is difficult for a young person to succeed in Nigerian politics or that of other major African countries. Our culture, ways and history do not lend themselves to making it likely that a young person would join a political party, and on his own merits, secure a presidential nomination, and win. If it is going to ever happen, however, it seems it would have to be like Mr Weah’s.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/nottooyoungtorun-lessons-weahs-trimph/