Tag Archives: Africa

MainaGate: We must be fair

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

I have followed the “MainaGate” saga with great interest. (It refers to the furtive reinstatement into the public service of Abdul-Rasheed Maina, the former head of a presidential task force on pension reforms, who to the knowledge of the public had been declared wanted for myriad corruption allegations but was purportedly at large.) My views are mixed. After watching a 2-hour video recording of the investigative hearing by a committee of the lower house of the Nigerian legislature, what is clear to me is that Mr Maina has the sympathies of some people in the current government. He returned to a post at the interior ministry without any fear it seems. And the country’s chief spy, Lawal Daura, acknowledges action on a request on behalf of Mr Maina of a threat to his life. Mr Daura says since Mr Maina is a Nigerian and that they indeed found his fears to be credible, they had no choice but to take action. Nigerians likely find this interesting: You could not get past the gate of the premises of the spy agency if you were not “special”, talk less have the ears and heart of the agency’s chief. Besides, why would any agency help someone who everyone in the public domain thought to be a fugitive from justice? It could be that they are privy to a truth; but which would be injurious to the state if made public. Mr Daura also revealed without the slightest equivocation that Mr Maina is not on his agency’s watch list; hence why he has not been arrested. Furthermore, is it possible that Mr Maina would make incorrect claims about helping the authorities to recover assets in the knowledge that should these be found to be untrue, it would not help his already unfortunate circumstances? There are just too many questions. And many remain unanswered.

Passing the buck
My primary concern is really just about fairness. I am usually very wary when a narrative dominates the airwaves to the point that people become reluctant to espouse anything different. And in my experience, narratives with such prominence tend to contain some untruths. In time, the real state of affairs tends to unfold; but by then, it is usually not that useful for the victims of the earlier falsehood. But in this case, the lives of a man and his family are at stake. And the matter has been so publicised to the point that anything short of a proper resolution would be a great injustice. And the potential victims are not just Mr Maina and his relatives. A senior civil servant has accepted full responsibility for Mr Maina’s supposedly illegal reinstatement. I doubt very much he is as culpable as he claims. But there is a culture amongst the people from the part of the country he comes from about keeping to pacts and acting courageously. So should push come to shove, those he is likely protecting can sleep quite restfully in the knowledge that he would not change his tune later. To be clear, I am not taking sides here. But if murderers can be allowed the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a purportedly corrupt former public servant can surely be allowed some accommodation.

Truth at all times
I think President Muhammadu Buhari was likely privy to at least some elements of the events that led to Mr Maina’s now supposed illegal reinstatement and promotion. When he became aware is the part one cannot objectively infer. To be fair, the president is procedurally apprised of only high-level details of issues. It is only when he prompts further that he is made aware of more. And even when a president does this, the details are still watered down. It is not the practice, however, for any president to probe too much; at least, not if his principal staffer, the chief of staff, Abba Kyari or any person in the position, has his full confidence. But when Mr Maina started gracing the full cover of newspapers, it would certainly have been impossible for Mr Buhari, who is well-known for his love of the papers, not to have become fully aware of the controversy and the injury it was causing his administration. Predictably, he directed that Mr Maina be immediately disengaged from the civil service and asked for a full report on the great matter. That said, Mr Maina’s issue has become so controversial that even when he receives the fairest hearing, it would be unwise to allow him back into the civil service. Besides, the matter could be left to the court which Mr Maina’s lawyers claim ordered his reinstatement in the first place; albeit he would probably be better off collecting his emoluments and retiring into a quiet life should he emerge victorious. Even so, some pragmatism could be applied to make the matter a win-win for all concerned. If his claim that he could help the authorities recover about three trillion naira in stolen public funds and assets – more than a third of planned public spending next year – is found to be credible, for instance, it should be pursued in exchange for some plea bargain deal (if applicable). But there is a broader issue about how public pension funds have been perennially misappropriated by public officials; ironically, the raison d’etre of Mr Maina’s task force. My advocacy is to Mr Buhari and not his underlings. No matter how villainous Mr Maina may have become and the potential costs to his government if he chooses to be fair, Mr Buhari must stick to the path of truth. Mr Maina should be given fair hearing, full protection by the security services whilst this lasts, and the judgements and resolutions by competent bodies on the matter should be implemented to the letter.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/mainagate-must-fair/

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Europe could do more for Africa

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

It is a little annoying that this year’s African Union (AU) – European Union (EU) summit (29-30 November), the fifth now, has been overshadowed by recent revelations by CNN – an American news organisation much reviled by President Donald Trump – of black Africans being enslaved in Libya on their way to Europe illegally. Europe’s concerns about increasing illegal migration from African countries, often at great peril – for those who choose to make the journey, that is – would ordinarily have been the focal point at the summit regardless. European governments have committed to helping with evacuating the victims and prosecuting the culprits. Of course, it is not unlikely that the most secret bit of their ruminations wonders if the ugly phenomenon may not finally be the deterrent they so desperately seek to stop the rising illegal immigration rate of Africans to Europe. European governments have been at their wits’ end trying to stop the uncontrollable flow hitherto. Of course, the bad press that comes with many that die on the journey across the sea is not necessarily helpful. And it speaks to the motivation of the travellers if despite the dangers of the journey, more continue to embark on it. Even so, EU countries have become more stringent, as their citizens increasingly worry about losing jobs to migrants who do not mind lower pay; albeit their eyes are typically set on better skilled fellow Europeans. Upon arrival on the shores of Europe, often that of Italy, and after being rescued, the few that “made it” amongst the multitude at the beginning of the perilous journey back home, are sent to camps where they would sometimes stay for months or years. In the past, they could transition from these camps to what they eventually find to be a less than ideal “dream life” in Europe. Lately, sterner restrictions have increasingly made even this less likely: more are repartriated home these days. But these are the lucky ones. They are alive and have a chance to rebuild their lives. That said, the proportion of Africans that make this dangerous journeys pale in comparison to the many, youths mostly, who stay behind and try to make a meaning of their lives. Themed “Investing in the youth for a sustainable future”, it is this latter group that the 5th AU-EU Summit in Abidjan focuses on.

Faith and works
So at least, European governments know what the problem is. 60 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion population is aged below 25 years. That is 761 million people. One estimate put the number of young Africans entering the labour market annually at about 10 million. Of these, only about 30 percent secure wage employment. The other 70 percent? We know some seek greener pastures abroad, for sure; and clearly in not so salubrious ways for most. Crucially, the majority are idle, thus posing a security risk not only to their countries, the African continent, but abroad as well. Trying to resolve the problem is at the core of the joint Africa-EU strategy. The advocacy here is that what has been done thus far, laudable though they are, could be much more. The European Union is quick to tout its 7-year €30 billion official development aid to 2020, for instance. It is a drop in the ocean. Compare with this: Africa needs at least $90 billion annually over at least a decade to plug its infrastructure deficit alone. There is a consensus, at least, that aid is not the solution. Better trade, could be, though. In this regard, the EU could be more forthcoming. Its Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African countries are controversial. Some African countries have reservations about them; Nigeria for instance. And there are quite a few amongst the ones that signed them which did so grudgingly. One issue is usually about the potential loss of revenue that African governments would suffer from allowing reciprocal tariff-free European access to African markets. To be fair, there has been some accommodation by the EU to compensate for this. The problem is that it pales in comparison to the potential loss. The great matter is how the EPAs in their current form might stymie Africa’s industrialization. Of course, it could be argued that automation and the so-called fourth industrial revolution are greater and more imminent threats. Even so, Europe should back its good faith with more action.

Diversified Nigerian economy still about oil

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Last week, I was part of a brilliant panel at the 2017 Bonds, Loans and Sukuk Nigeria Briefing event in Lagos that discussed the Nigerian economic outlook for the coming year. With the economy largely looking upward, the panel was naturally upbeat about the future; no doubt helped by the release of better than expected Q3 GDP data just about 30 minutes earlier. The forecasts one had just before the data release had to be momentarily revised upwards, for instance. Above 1 percent GDP growth rate for 2017 is beginning to look feasible certainly; from earlier projections of below 1 percent. More importantly, earlier estimates of about 2 percent for 2018 seem somewhat conservative now. With planned ramped-up public spending, because of the political cycle no less, expected lower inflation and interest rates, likely appreciation of the naira on the back of likely high for longer crude oil prices, 3 percent GDP growth next year would not be farfetched at all. One veteran company board guru in attendance agreed as much in private.

What if
Amid this optimism, however, an experienced foreign portfolio manager rightly asked a so-called disconfirming question. What if oil prices go south again? Of course, recent events suggest that scenario is not likely for another year, at least. But if one were to learn from history, sometimes all it takes for things to go awry can be no more than a single event. For example, if anyone said previously that Russia would be crucial to solving the Syrian and North Korean crises and indeed be germane to whether the oil producers’ cartel OPEC (which meets on 30 November) would be able to sustain the efficacy of its production cuts, you would have been sceptical. But that is exactly the case now. No one could have envisaged the radical anti-corruption move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia or that his power would be formalized so quickly, for instance. Incidentally, the Saudi royal’s youthful exuberance is already becoming writ large: while the Yemeni war is still ongoing and the cold shoulder towards Qatar persists, MBS virtually held hostage the head of government of a sovereign country; and with the benefit of hindsight clearly forced him to read out a resignation letter that was intended to instigate a conflict with Iran. Otherwise there is no other explanation for why Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri would, following summons from the Saudis, quit office in Riyadh on supposed intelligence of plans to assassinate him and then suddenly change his mind after what is believed to be an internationally brokered “release” from their watchful eye. (Upon returning to Beirut, Mr Hariri announced he would not be leaving office after all.) And since then, MBS has been unrelenting in his acerbic rhetoric towards the Iranian leadership. At this rate, it is beginning to seem like the bad blood between the Arabs and Persians might be a better trick for keeping the price of crude oil above $50 than any coordinated production cuts could ever do; albeit the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers have been largely speaking with one voice on an expected extension of the period for the production cuts. Besides, both countries need oil prices to remain high.

Political tune dictates
So what was my reply to the portfolio manager I referred to earlier? The problem with the Nigerian economy has never been about its structure. An economy that is 90 percent non-oil is not any sense of the word a mono-economy. It has always been the policy response. Unlike the popular perception, there is not so much a fixation on the exchange rate by foreign portfolio investors as there is on the crude oil price: they know to fly to safety the moment it seems like it would sustainably be below $50. Without saying so explicitly, what he really meant to ask about was the likelihood of capital controls if oil prices tanked again. And my view is that irrespective of the very nice commentary coming from the lips of officials at the central bank about the many lessons they have learnt during this most recent foreign exchange crisis, if another one comes about in the coming year, they would likely respond in a similar or worse fashion. Why? Electioneering ahead of the 2019 elections has begun in earnest. So, we are already in a political cycle. Within such a context, does anyone really think the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would simply hands off if crude oil prices go back to the $30-$40 area? Bear in mind that even at the current above-$50 price levels, the CBN is believed to still participate actively in the buoyant investors’ and exporters’ (I&E) FX window; albeit on both the demand and supply sides. Thus, should crude oil prices fall again, I doubt very much the CBN would behave any differently; especially under a government that is keen on a second term and is led by a president that is very sensitive to the level of the exchange rate. To be fair, it would not be because the CBN does not know the right thing to do. And its officials were definitely not dumb in the past. They simply did not have the political space to do the smart thing. In the coming year, that space would become even smaller.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/diversified-nigerian-economy-still-oil/

African central banks to close year cautiously

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Over the course of this business week (starts 20 November), central banks of the largest regional economies on the African continent would decide on interest rates. They are likely to keep them unchanged. Even as inflation has been slowing gradually in Nigeria, it remains high. And it is primarily driven by food inflation. Improved agricultural production on the back of a good harvest is expected to moderate prices over time. Besides the authorities are currently marketing a Eurobond that could be as much as $5.5 billion if everything goes well. It is not likely the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would like to be seen making decisions other than ones that are data-dependent. In any case, CBN governor Godwin Emefiele has signalled the benchmark rate would stay pat at 14 percent for the remainder of 2017, with potential cuts next year when inflation would have slowed considerably.

For South Africa, the rand went into a tailspin lately, rising above the psychological 14.0 level for much of the past two weeks, as rumours persist about the desire of the Jacob Zuma-led government to make higher education free, amid well-known financial constraints. With a pliable finance minister at the helm, it is also now widely believed President Zuma has successfully ‘captured’ the Treasury. So even, as annual consumer inflation likely slowed to 4.8 percent in October, from 5.1 percent earlier, it may accelerate in November and December on the back of rand weakness and volatility. The headline would probably be no more than 5 percent by year-end, though; within the 3-6 percent inflation target band of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). Over a 12-18 month horizon, consumer inflation would probably slow to 3-4 percent, however. Under different circumstances, this could justify a rate cut. However, the November monetary policy committee (MPC) meeting, the last this year and one just weeks before a tense leadership contest in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, require the SARB to exercise the utmost restraint. And even as the SARB pretends not to be perturbed by market moves, it does pay attention to the inflationary impact of rand weakness and volatility; and indeed the political noise that tends to be the trigger lately. A balanced outcome would thus be for the benchamark rate to remain unchanged at 6.75 percent.

And for Kenya, ongoing troubles related to a controversial presidential election rerun boycotted by the opposition, mean the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) would need to continue exercising caution. It has shown much dexterity throughout the impasse thus far, though, as the shilling has remained largely stable. And inflation has been slowing; came out at 5.7 percent in October from 7.1 percent in the prior month. More importantly, inflation expectations suggest the headline would likely come out much lower in coming months; about 4.5 percent in December, say, and plausibly less than zero percent in Q2-2018 due to base effects. Even so, it would be better if it kept its benchmark rate unchanged at 10 percent at this meeting with a view to easing policy when the political situation improves.

Politics, politics, politics
The elective conference of South Africa’s ruling ANC party in December is on everyone’s minds. Mr Zuma’s rhetoric about the preferred candidate by the business community has not been comforting. The president has all but mentioned his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, in name when making accusations about the presence of western-backed traitors in the ANC. Judging from his countenance and body language, Mr Zuma is likely to do everything in his power to block Mr Ramaphosa from replacing him. Turns out, though, Mr Ramaphosa is leading in support from the party’s branches, whose delegates to the conference would elect the next party president. Many reckon if Mr Ramaphosa wins, he would move swiftly against Mr Zuma in a bid to replace him as head of state much sooner. Should his rival and Mr Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma win, however, it is highly probable Mr Zuma would retain his position till it expires in 2019. To further this goal, it is believed Mr Zuma might fire Mr Ramaphosa as deputy president in the coming weeks. Ironically, this could actually boost Mr Ramaphosa’s chances.

In the Nigerian case, all indications suggest President Muhammadu Buhari would be seeking a second term in office; after ill-health hitherto increasingly made it unlikely he would do so. His recent activities point to a full campaign mode. He visited the southeastern part of the country recently; albeit to campaign for his party’s candidate at elections in one of the states there. But that only provided cover for his visit; he seemed reluctant to embrace the region hitherto. He and his aides vehemently deny this, of course. His defence rings hollow in the face of his actions, however. His inner circle is very exclusive. A recently announced ambitious N8.6 trillion budget for next year also has political coloration. Put simply, the political cycle is in full steam. There are thus risks of fiscal slippages as the administration rushes to show it has been doing well. Recently announced plans to appoint more ministers are not necessarily borne out of a desire for efficiency as they are about dishing out patronage. Such behaviour tends to cascade down to lower levels of government, with negative effects for the fiscus.

Leading opposition figure in Kenya, Raila Odinga, who recently returned from an American trip amidst police-induced chaos, has been leading the charge for secession in the western and coastal areas. Political motivations inform the recent ratcheting up of tensions in this regard. Besides, Mr Odinga is advocating the estalishment of a Peoples’ Assembly via a proclamation of parliament, where the ruling Jubilee party, which is averse to the proposal, has a majority. Continued protests and tight security measures have been stifling business activities and would definitely weigh on economic growth in the fourth quarter of this year. A ruling by the Supreme Court on 20 November on petitions about the conduct of the presidential election rerun could either ease or heighten tensions. In the past, the outcome would have been expectedly one that would not cause much disruptions. After a bold landmark ruling cancelling the first poll in August, the court’s judgement could go either way. With such political dynamics about in these key African countries, it makes sense for their central banks to be on guard.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/african-central-banks-close-year-cautiously/

2018 budget should be passed before year end

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, presents his 2018 budget statement to the legislature on 7 November. He reportedly wanted to do it in late October; to allow ample time for the spending proposals to be considered and passed by December. Some lawmakers have expressed reservations about this. BusinessDay, the newspaper which publishes this column, found out why. There are at least three executive proposals currently under consideration by the lawmakers. First is the 2018-2020 Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP). Second is a N135.6 billion virement proposal. And third, a US$5.5 billion foreign borrowing request. My view is that the lawmakers can get them all done on or before 31 December. And they should. Considering how much they get paid, it would not be too much to ask that they go into overdrive, consider and pass them all before heading for their Christmas break.

More spending
In the MTEF, the 2018 spending estimate is put at N8.6 trillion, up by about 16 percent relative to the 2017 budget of N7.4 trillion. Oil production is assumed at 2.3 million barrels per day (mbpd), which would probably be no more than 1.8 mbpd if a likely OPEC production cap in November is sanctioned. But even this level of production may be weighed on by imminent militant attacks on oil and gas infrastructure by agitators in the Niger Delta region. Additional tax measures are planned. A 15 percent tax on luxury goods from 5 percent currently, for instance. An ongoing tax amnesty programme till March 2018 should also boost the government’s finances. Tax revenue performance this year has been quite impressive, with respect to VAT at least; N797.5 billion was realised between January and October 2017, up about 20 percent from the same period last year.

Better narrative
It is not news that the 2017 budget was only partially implemented; never mind shortfalls here and there even for the parts that were. As the authorities likely plan to issue a US$5.5 billion eurobond imminently, it would help a great deal if investors are able to see how things are beginning to indeed change for the better. There have been some positive developments lately. The World Bank recently affirmed the authorities’ ease of doing business reforms are working, raising Nigeria’s ranking 24 places to 145th out of 190 countries. Central bank governor Godwin Emefiele was also recently conferred with an award by Forbes magazine. And in late October, Nigeria kept its place in the MSCI Frontier Markets Index (country weight of 8 percent); attributed to a rebound in the foreign exchange market. So, imagine how truly positive the Nigerian investment narrative would be if the authorities are able to also demonstrate they are succeeding with fiscal policy.

Good plan
Concerns have been raised about the supposedly planned US$5.5 billion eurobond, though. The country’s historical pains with indebtedness make Nigerians naturally wary. Public debt of N19.6 trillion (US$64.2 billion) in June, about 16 percent of 2016 GDP of US$405 billion, should ordinarily not be concerning. But electioneering for the 2019 polls has started in earnest. And President Buhari, hitherto thought might not be seeking a second term in light of his fragile health, recently signalled he has decided otherwise. So there is the risk that new borrowings might not be spent wisely. In response, finance minister Kemi Adeosun is taking pains to explain the rationale behind the plan. Of the US$5.5 billion they plan to borrow, US$3 billion would be used to refinance the authorities’ current debt portfolio. The remaining US$2.5 billion, which would be new borrowing, is intended to in part fill a hole in the 2017 budget; already appropriated for. It seems like a good plan, if you ask me.

Be bold
Feelers that came out initially were that the planned foreign borrowing would be done in two parts. I do not believe this to be wise. Interest rates are rising in the developed world, with the American Federal Reserve expected to hike rates again in December. And only last week, the Bank of England raised its benchmark rate by 25 basis points to 0.5 percent, the first time since 2007. What this portends for African sovereigns looking to issue eurobonds is that potential subscribers are going to insist on higher yields; albeit they would by far still not be as dear as those in their domestic debt markets.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/2018-budget-passed-year-end/

Buhari needs not change to win a second term

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, recently proved the point that all politicians are the same. And that power is “sweet”, as we say in local parlance. Just this week, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party held its third national executive committee (NEC) meeting since coming to office. (The penultimate one was held in March 2016.) President Buhari used to occasion to announce plans to rejig his cabinet, appoint more ministers, and make long-awaited ‘juicy’ appointments to the boards of parastatals and agencies. Having resisted overtures to do these hitherto, there is only one conclusion that can be inferred: Mr Buhari has decided to run for a second term. Just so no one is left in any doubt about this, some one proposed the adoption of Mr Buhari for a second term at the NEC meeting. In what was likely a well-choreographed move, the chair stood down the proposal for a later time. But the point had been made. Newspaper headlines afterwards were confusing, though. Some suggested state governors from the ruling party endorsed the president for a second term. Others said they opposed it. The former is more likely, in my view.

Still in charge
It has always been the practice to use patronage to appease influential party members in view of elections. This is not meant in a negative sense. People join political parties in the hope that when they win, they would be able to serve (or have influence) in government. Savvier politicians do what Mr Buhari is about to do belatedly, much, much earlier; when their intentions would not be so writ large. It may also have dawned on Mr Buhari, that no matter how powerful a president is, he still has to abide by party processes and rules. At least, he has to appear to. If you wonder about this, just ask former president, Olusegun Obasanjo. His deputy, Atiku Abubakar, demonstrated how with careful and deft scheming, a sitting president can literally be brought to his knees when such things are treated with levity. Ordinarily, a second 4-year term for Mr Buhari would not be up for question. But considering he spent a great deal of time trying to recover from undisclosed illnesses, it was assumed he would not contest. Lately, however, Mr Buhari has been brimming with confidence, on account of better health clearly. He is not likely totally out of the woods yet; still works from home, for instance, even though this is attributed to ongoing renovations at his supposedly rat-infested office. Even so, is Mr Buhari healthy enough for a second term? Since his medical history remains secret, he is the only one that can answer that question. Relatively younger presidential hopefuls from the north within the APC who were already gearing up to fill his shoes are perhaps now not so happy, though; albeit they are likely to support him without question if he decides to run again. One who may not be so obedient, that is, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, did not show up for the NEC meeting.

Opportune win
Lucky man that he is; the World Bank released its Ease of Doing Business rankings on the day of the NEC meeting. Nigeria moved up 24 places to 145thout of 190 countries. But like Bloomberg aptly put it: it is still tough to do business in Nigeria. Trust the president and his team to make as much hay from it regardless. Information minister Lai Mohammed was in his best form, taking interviews with local and foreign media so that no one forgets how the efforts of the administration led to the feat. Well, on this one, they got it right. And the vindication came from a source outside of their influence. Bear in mind, it is not often that a government, especially a Nigerian one, sets out to do something and records a verifiable quick win in such record time. Mr Buhari set up the so-called Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) under the headship of his diligent deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, just over a year ago. Incidentally, the recent validation of the administration’s efforts came not long after a second 60-day national action plan (NAP 2.0) to December was launched. But it is not uhuru yet; far from it. Clever man that he is; Mr Buhari acknowledged the myriad challenges that continue to exist. Still, it was an excellent way to make the point that his administration was working, and without having to say it out loud; he would be deserving of a second term.

At what cost
I like Mr Buhari for one major reason: he is as honest as a politican can be allowed to be in this country. He rightly reasoned there should not be as many ministers and political appointees as was the case in previous administrations. And even though the constitution insists there should be at least one minister from the 36 states of the federation, it is wasteful and unnecessary to appoint that much. Mr Buhari can still win without giving up his soul.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/11/02/buhari-needs-not-change-to-win-a-second-term-by-rafiq-raji/

South Africa: Gigaba’s first test

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Malusi Gigaba, the sometimes colourfully dapper – his unique wardrobe include suits with such ‘interesting’ colours like green and purple – South African finance minister, presents his first budget statement on 25 October. It is not the big one; that won’t be due until next year. But the mid-term budget would be a good first test of his 7-month stewardship thus far. Economists polled by Reuters put the likely revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year to be announced by Mr Gigaba at R40 billion (US$3 billion). (It could be up to R55 billion, some suggest.) I did not provide a shortfall forecast but the fiscal deficit projections I expect the finance minister to announce are as follows: 3.3 percent of GDP for the 2017/18 fiscal year, 3.1 percent for 2018/19, 2.8 percent for 2019/20 and 2.6 percent for 2020/21. Of course, if growth were to improve, they would be a little lower. However, there is not much to suggest that the needed structural reforms to spur growth would be implemented anytime soon.

Show me the money
Ahead of Mr Gigaba’s speech, several allegations have emerged he might be following a meticulous script written by his controversial principal, Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa. Lately, he has made some moves that deserve commendation, though. Dudu Myeni, a Zuma acolyte and perhaps much more, would finally leave her post as chairperson of loss-making and highly indebted national airline, South African Airways (SAA), in early November. Even this supposedly laudable move is being viewed with suspicion. There have been suggestions that the R5 billion (US$374 million) that is needed by end-October to ensure SAA remains solvent could be funded from the coffers of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the manager of public workers’ retirement funds. Additionally, as much as US$7 billion in total might be drained from the PIC to sustain ailing state-owned enterprises (SOEs). These suggestions have been met with vehement opposition by labour unions and others. To allay such fears, Mr Gigaba has provided assurances that the PIC’s funds would not be put to such use and has ordered an investigation into alleged irregularities at the PIC. Such moves might still not be enough. Earlier, Julius Malema, the firebrand opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party “commander-in-chief”, accused Mr Gigaba of being the architect of the now infamous phrase: “state capture”; which implies the domineering influence of a few private actors in collusion with public officials over state resources. Mr Malema analogizes the finance minister’s assurances to a rat saying one’s cheese is safe with it. Curiously, PIC chief, Daniel Matjila, who earlier asserted machinations were afoot to see his back at the investment firm because he won’t let go off “the keys to the big safe”, somehow got a clean bill of health from the PIC board in late September; after an internal audit about whether he allocated funds improperly. Interestingly, Mr Matjila now says he has not entirely ruled out providing some funds for SAA. But should public workers’ hard-earned pensions be used to revive something so intractably failing? Surely not.

Game of thrones
Hitherto loud political noise have recently become even louder, after President Zuma lost a court case that if he had won, would have enabled him escape his day in court for myriad corruption charges. Regardless of recent directives by the prosecution authorities that he make representations to them before end-November, it is not likely he would be prosecuted (if at all) before he secures a deal to leave office relatively unscathed (see my earlier column on 17 October 2017: “What next after Zuma fails to shake off corruption charges?” for broader views on this). More pertinent is that plans are likely at an advanced stage to remove Mr Ramaphosa as deputy president. The speculations have been fuelled even more by frantic denials from the president’s office. But in Mr Zuma’s case, when there have been speculations in the past, they tend to happen eventually; that is, even after many denials. Besides, a recent surprise cabinet reshuffle that saw the exit of Blade Nzimande, an ardent Zuma critic and leader of the South African Communist Party (one of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) tripartite alliance partners) suggests Mr Ramaphosa’s axing is only a matter of time. Turns out the wait may not be too long. Just this past weekend, reports emerged that Mr Ramaphosa might be arrested and charged with treason as early as November. The reason the president would want Mr Ramaphosa out of his government is not too difficult to discern. Should his deputy win the elective ANC presidential elections in December, Mr Zuma’s likely premature retirement may be very cold indeed.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/south-africa-gigabas-first-test/