Tag Archives: Markets

Ethiopia: Hailemariam must do more to build trust

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

About mid-January, hitherto incarcerated opposition leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Merera Gudina, was released by the Ethiopian authorities. More than five hundred dissidents involved in unrests in 2015 and 2016 have also been earmarked for release. The imprisoned ones could be said to be the lucky ones. Others died on the streets at the hands of the oft-brutish security forces. Considering the antecedents of the ruling Tigray-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, Dr Gudina likely never reckoned his release would be so soon or so easy. Mind you, he had already spent more than a year in prison. His fellow comrades who took on the authorities in the more distant past could not have dared hope to be so lucky. Much earlier detainees essentially resigned to their fates. The EPRDF’s sudden magnanimity has pundits wondering what the catch is. Ordinarily, it makes sense that the government finally decided to extend an olive branch to the opposition. There have been perennial agitations by the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who together constitute about two-thirds of the population, over myriad issues from land to the odd marginalisation here and there. To douse the tensions, the authorities certainly needed to do more than a cosmetic fix. A more inclusive cabinet in the aftermath of one of the now many protests by the Oromos and others did not seem to be satisfactory or adequate to placate the agitators. And unlike Meles Zenawi, the former legendary leader of the EPRDF, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s clout in the party structures is weak. Thus, his consensual style is more forced than voluntary. While this would have been a disadvantage in a quasi-communist regime, it is informative when decisions such as the recent amnesty granted opposition leaders are reached. It was likely decided as a collective. Still Mr Hailemariam must be given some credit. He is leader, after all. In my column of 11 Oct 2016 (“Time for Hailemariam to lead”), I did urge Mr Hailemariam to be bolder and allow more room for dissent and political expression and for world powers to take a tougher stance towards a country that still remains dependent on their beneficence. Because even as Mr Hailemariam could not hope to grow in stature to match Mr Meles, the responsibility was now his to ensure that Ethiopia continued to be a trailblazer on many fronts on the African continent. It does seem like he came to that realisation himself. So if anyone should get credit for this recent positive move, it is Mr Hailemariam. There is only one little problem. Many are sceptical about the genuineness of the EPRDF’s reconciliation move. The EPRDF is well-known for its utter dislike of opposition of any kind. Students of politics also know that power is rarely ceded voluntarily. Nor are political moves ever altruistic. Thus, the opposition, as well as pundits, believe the EPRDF has something up its sleeve. A likely explanation for this recent move may simply be self-interest, though; on the part of most of the EPRDF apparatchiks, at least. Something significant needed to be done to stem the tide of increasingly popular antagonism towards the ruling EPRDF elite. But if the motivation is indeed noble, then the onus is on the EPRDF, and Mr Hailemariam specifically, to prove they are genuinely seeking to reconcile with other political groups in the country.

Good ground
Despite the scepticism, the authorities’ reconciliation move adds to what remains a largely positive narrative; on the economic front, at least. Ethiopia continues to churn out good growth figures and it is making significant strides in logistics, infrastructure, and manufacturing. Most recently, economic growth was more than 8 percent; and is expected to remain so for another two years, thereafter slowing to above 7 percent. And when the 6,450 mega watts (MW) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is completed, Ethiopia would not only have abundant power to fire its industrial ambitions, it would have some left to aid its neighbours achieve theirs as well. In this regard, though, the authorities have had to contend with what have now become incessant disagreements with other countries dependent on the River Nile which feeds the GERD. Egypt and Sudan are currently at loggerheads, with speculations that should calm nerves not prevail, an armed conflict might be imminent. Egypt and Ethiopia have, however, demonstrated remarkable maturity despite their differences. They recently entered into development agreements, vowing to not let their differences over the GERD stop them from engaging in friendly and mutually beneficial relations. Credit for the amity must clearly go to Ethiopia, though, in light of the converse situation between Egypt and Sudan. It is thus not unlikely that Mr Hailemariam genuinely desires to smooth relations internally and externally. With outsiders, it is not so difficult to demonstrate the truth of his intentions; as there are markers by which both sides can measure progress. With distrustful compatriots, however, it would take more than the release of prisoners to build trust.

Open politics
So how should Mr Hailemariam prove he really means business? He could promise genuine elections when the next ones are due, for one. That is, all parties would be able to participate and campaign freely without the typical strong-arm tactics of bans, intimidation, imprisonment and result manipulation. There is not a single member of the opposition in the current parliamentary cohort. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the EPRDF won 500 of the 547 seats. The remaining 47? It went to parties allied with the EPRDF. Surely, it is not because of a lack of interest or a shortage of candidates from the other side. It is by design. Until the EPRDF lets go of its fears and allows plural, free and fair elections, it should not entertain the hope that it could succeed in winning the hearts and minds of its opponents. Thing is, there is yet to be proof that it genuinely gives a darn.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/ethiopia-hailemariam-must-build-trust/

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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/

South Africa: Zuma goes legacy shopping

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

After much anticipation, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s leadership race started during the weekend (15-20 December). It got off to a slow start. Ahead of the elective conference, I sought the views of fellow Africa economists for an article for African Business magazine on what the implications for the South African economy could be depending on who emerges victorious. (See link viz. http://africanbusinessmagazine.com/region/southern-africa/south-africa-markets-weigh-ancs-next-leader/). I also published my preliminary personal views. (See link viz. https://macroafricaintel.com/2017/12/15/macroafricaintel-south-africa-a-race-of-three/). Although deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was leading with nominations and expected to win, the race still had an element of uncertainty. There were a few twists and turns, for sure. The national executive committee (NEC) decided in an emergency meeting before the start of the conference – which was actually the reason for the lengthy delay in the first place – that nullified structures of the Kwazulu-Natal and Free State provinces by the courts would not vote, for instance. Incidentally, these were the strongholds of one of the leading presidential contenders, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife to outgoing party president, Jacob Zuma; who incidentally gave his own shocker just before the start of proceedings. He announced a free education policy; much to the dismay of market participants. It did reveal one thing, though. President Zuma does not want all that is remembered about his presidency to be the scandals that plagued it. He wants a good legacy. This late in the game, you probably wonder. I actually did think Mr Zuma would do something desperate to secure his postion in the aftermath of the conference. But considering the negative reaction of market participants to finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s mid-term budget and the sharp reaction of the rand to rumours before the conference that Mr Zuma might announce a free education policy and his denial afterwards, whatever potential outrageous move Mr Zuma was going to make, I did not think free education would be it. That said, it was the perfect populist move. Free education is such a popular issue with the masses that no matter the wrongs Mr Zuma may have committed, they could be overlooked on the back of it. That said, it is a negative for the fiscus and the authorities’ oft-touted fiscal consolidation drift. The move also raises fears that earlier denials about potentially negative policies like the declaration of a state of emergency might actually just be another ruse.

Worry about money later
Mr Gigaba, who was delivering a speech at a business breakfast event at the ANC conference when Mr Zuma announced his free education policy, says whatever is done would be done in a fiscally sustainable way. He left the details to the 2018 budget in February. Did he even know about it, though? Because it is highly unlikely he would have known about it without at least mentioning it during his speech. His remarks were made afterwards, when reporters accosted him on his way out of the breakfast venue. Besides, it made naught of the many right things he said in his speech. In any case, S&P Global Ratings’ decision in November to downgrade the country’s rating further into junk territory has clearly now been vindicated. And Moody’s? Well, if this does not move the rating agency, nothing else will. Free education is desirable. But a sustainable model is what is needed, not a populist, financially constraining and unsustainable move like the one Mr Zuma just made.

Factions for nothing and something
One key thing palpable from the conference proceedings are the deep divisions within the ANC. Most are just for mundane reasons. But some are ideological. Take the issue of land expropriation. The party’s youth wing wants it done without compensation. The older cadres reason some compensation would be appropriate. How the party should be structured is also an issue. It was proposed at the conference that there should be two deputy presidents, for instance. The argument proffered in support of this was that it would help unify the party. It was really Mr Zuma’s idea. He had earlier opined that the second position presidential candidate should automatically get a deputy presidency; a development that would have required having two slots available. The proposal did not enjoy majority support and was thus turned down. Take another example. The ANC women’s league’s official position was to support the leading female candidate for president; that is, Ms Dlamini-Zuma. Instead, outgoing party chairperson, Baleka Mbete, a woman and hitherto a presidential contender, chose to support the male frontrunner; Mr Ramaphosa. Her reasons made sense: Mr Ramaphasa was a better candidate to beat whoever the opposition might present for the 2019 elections. But you get the dynamics, at least. As I submit this column, no one could confidently say who would win. In fact, rumours surfaced South Africa might have its first female president this week.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/south-africa-zuma-goes-legacy-shopping/

Nigeria: Still delicate

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The Nigerian economy exited recession in the second quarter of 2017 to much applause. Readers of my column would recall my earlier expectations of a positive recovery in the first quarter of 2017. When that did not happen, I took a more cautious view that a recession exit was likely in Q3 but almost certainly in Q4. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised that it finally happened in Q2. A particular client, I thought, would at least be already ahead of its competitors if they acted on my recommendation that the recession was going to be shortlived. But now that the economy is recovering, how sustainable is it likely to be? That would depend on a few things. Government policy for one. Agriculture proved to be resilient during the slump and yet despite stimulus efforts by the authorities in the sector, growth has been slowing. This must be a little frustrating for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), which has been at the forefront of encouraging banks to lend to the agriculture sector. It may very well be that one is being a little hasty: there are indications the CBN is beginning to succeed. Recently, Stanbic IBTC Bank signed a 50 billion naira agreement with the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk-Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL), an agricultural credit guarantee scheme that used to be a unit within the CBN. Should the partnership succeed, more than 90 thousand jobs are expected to be created. And that is just one bank. Also, power generation has begun to improve, rising to about 7,000 mega watts (MW) lately; albeit only about 96 percent can be transmitted and just two-thirds reach consumers. In any case, it would likely remain a while before there is ample electricity to spur the type of industrialization needed to employ the country’s teeming jobless youths.

High food prices weighing on inflation 
Annual consumer inflation has been slowing; 16 percent in August from almost 19 percent in January, although the price index accelerated by the same monthly pace in both months. So, price pressures remain persistent. High food prices are majorly why, with food inflation – about 51 percent of the consumer price index (CPI) – at 20.3 percent in August from 17.8 percent in January. There are myriad reasons for this. Floods in the agricultural belt states of Kogi, Benue and environs mean this year’s harvest has likely been jeopardized. Incidentally, these are areas that have also been barraged by Fulani herdsmen attacks, leaving damaged crops in their wake. Continued insecurity in the northeastern parts of the country also means a significant portion of the farming community remains idle. Never mind that at least 5 million people in these parts are reportedly in need of food aid. Additionally, exporting food is now very lucrative. So what should ordinarily be sold in local markets are increasingly ferried to neighbouring countries and further abroad, where they can be sold at a premium. Some of the food inflation is imported, however, about 13 percent of the CPI. So, a still dear foreign exchange rate is also a factor. There is much to cheer about in this regard, though. Above US$50 crude oil and relative security in the oil-producing Niger Delta area means rising production volumes have been improving the authorities’ finances. These would likely be constrained still, as the authorities’ 2.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) target for 2017 now seems highly unlikely. Because even if that much could be produced, there are indications the oil exporting countries’ cartel the country belongs to would not allow output above 1.8 mbpd.

Burgeoning debt
There is growing concern about the government’s debt burden, rising to US$64.2 billion (16 percent of GDP) in June from US$63.8 billion two years earlier. Ordinarily, there should not be much worry at this relatively benign accumulation rate. But in the period, foreign debt has increased by almost half. And debt servicing is beginning to weigh overmuch on tax revenue, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put at more than two-thirds. Also, the authorities have not been as successful as they would have liked in securing foreign concesssionary debt. There are a couple of reasons for this. It held on to a costly fixed exchange rate regime for too long, haemorrhaging much valuable hard currency. Had the government been more prudent, floating the naira early on that is, it would not have needed to borrow as much. A populist political leadership also meant the CBN lost a great deal of its independence, to the dismay of investors and development partners. Consequently, multilateral financial institutions were relunctant to lend money while such a sub-optimal policy regime subsisted. There is reason to be optimistic now, though. A new FX market platform now allows foreign portfolio investors to trade at market-determined exchange rates. Hard currency inflows have surged consequently, with at least US$9 billion in volumes recorded in the first 6 months of the platform’s operations.

Do not rock the boat
The best the CBN can do at this time – its monetary policy committee would be deciding on interest rates on 26 September – is thus to maintain its current policy stance; one that has engendered naira stability and brought a new lease of life to the equity and fixed income markets. For those who desire that interest rates be lower (the monetary policy rate is currently 14 percent), the fundamental question remains whether they would buy government securities if yields were not high enough. When the authorities recently sought to test if they would, subscriptions were unsatisfctory. So, until market participants are willing to accept lower yields, it would not make sense for the CBN to start reducing interest rates. And that would not likely be the case until inflation is much lower, in the third quarter of 2018, say, when it is likely in the single-digits. Until then, the CBN would do well to do nothing.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/nigeria-still-delicate/

Ghana: Ease faster

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

After earlier boasts about no plans to extend Ghana’s US$918 million aid programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which the country agreed to in April 2015, the still new Nana Akufo-Addo administration was saved from a potential mis-step in late-August, when the Bretton Woods institution graciously decided to extend the package anyway, by another year from April 2018; much to the relief of market participants. Another good news came in one day after the Bank of Ghana (BoG) monetary policy committee (MPC) started its meeting in September (decision due on the 25th): the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ruled Ghana was within its right to drill for oil in an area of the Atlantic Ocean it considered within its maritime boundary, after Ivory Coast contested its right to do so. Had the outcome been adverse, the US$6 billion Tweneboa, Enyenra, and Ntomme (TEN) oil fields located in the disputed area, which produced first oil in August 2016 and are expected to pump 80,000 barrels per day in 2017, would have been in jeopardy. Prices for Ghana’s still dominant export, cocoa, in the international markets remain poor, however; down about 30 percent from a year ago. And even though gold, its other major source of foreign exchange, has been doing well in the international markets lately (up 15 percent from December last year), local production is likely to suffer this year, as the authorities clampdown on illegal small-scale mining (locally termed “Galamsey”). So put together, the authorities’ finances may suffer a little this year.

Take control and diversify
The authorities are not standing idly by while this happens. Together with Ivory Coast, plans are afoot to ensure both governments have greater control over international cocoa prices. In this regard, they plan to build special warehouses to store cocoa beans, enabling them to mop up excess stock when there is risk of a supply glut like is the case currently, or add to supply when there is a scarcity. That capacity won’t be in place for at least another year, though, as a US$1.2 billion loan request to the African Development Bank (AfDB) is yet to be approved, making it more likely that the infrastructure may only become available in the 2018/19 season. The authorities are geared for the current 2017/18 season, though. In September, the Ghana Cocoa Board (Cocobod) secured a US$1.3 billion loan from international banks to fund purchases from farmers, which would start in October. The amount is almost 30 percent lower than the US$1.8 billion it raised for the 2016/17 season. Considering that even that much ran out months before the end of that season, with the Cocobod having to seek US$400 million in bridge financing, the ability of the board to offer attractive prices in the 2017/18 season may be similarly constrained. Thus, smugglers who go across the border to Ivory Coast for better prices are likely to continue having bumper paydays for a little while longer.

Still, there is more the authorities could do to diversify the country’s agricultural base. It does not make sense that a country with such fertile land imports almost three-quarters of its food supply. Efforts to boost local production have not been successful, however. True, there have been investments here and there. But as structural constraints remain, returns have underwhelmed. In some cases, factories built to process agricultural produce simply closed shop, after supply of inputs failed to keep pace. Authorities expect that its ambitious “one district, one factory” programme would change this poor state of things. It remains to be seen whether it would, but early indicators are not encouraging. Things are looking up in other areas, though. Power cuts are no longer the norm. And the authorities are acting proactively to ensure there is a low probability of running out of gas for generating power in the future, one of the reasons why electricity was short in the past. The government signed a 12-year gas supply deal with Russia’s Gazprom in September, after a 15-year one with Equatorial Guinea just a month before. That is, despite the likelihood that Ghana may become self-sufficient in gas by end-2018, when the 180 million cubic feet per day Sankofa gas field is expected to come onstream.

Capitalize on slowing inflation
Annual consumer inflation may very well be in the high single-digits from early 2018. My forecasts put the headline at about 8 percent then. But it would likely be in the 10 percent range before end-2017, from 12.3 percent in August. So at 21 percent going into the September meeting, the central bank’s policy rate is way too high relative to the inflation outlook. That is, despite having cut rates by 450 basis points already this year. Since there is no doubt the BoG would ease rates even further, the advocacy here is that it should do so faster. The economy needs the lift.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/09/25/ghana-the-need-to-ease-monetary-rates-faster-by-rafiq-raji/

What about the 2017 BRICS summit?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The BRICS group of five emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) held its 9th summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen this year (3-5 September). Originally just an idea by former Goldman Sachs (an investment bank) executive Jim O’Neill in a 2001 publication dubbed “Building Better Global Economic BRICs”, BRICS countries today constitute almost a quarter of global output. They have not proved to be as inspiring since those heady days, though. Since its first substantive summit in June 2009, only China (GDP: US$11.2 trillion) and India (GDP: US$2.3 trillion) have proved to be consistent good performers, albeit China has since 2015 adjusted to a new normal of below 7 percent growth. India is forecast by the IMF to continue powering on above 7 percent, though; over the next two years, at least, after a 7.1 percent headline in 2016. But that is where the good story ends. Brazil (GDP: $1.8 trillion) only emerged from a 2-year recession (the longest in its history) in the first quarter of 2017. And South Africa (GDP: $0.3 trillion) exited a relatively short-lived one in the quarter afterwards.

Mostly about China
The 2017 meeting was somewhat overshadowed by coincidental negative global geopolitical happenings; top among them being the firing in late August 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over Japan by the communist North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un. China, which consititutes more than 60 percent of BRICS output, was called on by world powers to reign in the North Korean regime, which depends a great deal on it for sustenance. Naturally, the key headline from the final communique was related to the crisis. In any case, BRICS has become a veritable platform for China to project power and influence, as it seeks to have more say in international affairs. (As the second largest economy in the world, China would like the IMF to be more representative of the new global economic order, for instance.) And judging from the paltry US$80 million funding commitment ($76 million for an economic and technological cooperation plan and $4 million for projects by the group’s development bank) China made at this most recent BRICS summit, the group probably serves no greater purpose than that; especially when you consider its US$124 billion funding commitment in May 2017 to its ambitious Belt and Road initiative or so-called new Silk Road plan. (It did pledge $500 million for a South-South cooperation fund, though.) As a counterweight to recent American insularity, China used the occasion to once again make the case for globalisation and climate change; two major global issues the Americans have been reluctant to show leadership on under its current president, Donald Trump. Specifically, Chinese president Xi Jinping posited the group “should push for an open world economy, promote trade liberalization and facilitation, jointly create a new global value chain, and realize a global economic rebalancing”. 

BRICS plus
The 2017 summit had one major distinction though. It was its largest gathering yet, with non-BRICS countries like Guinea, Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, and Tajikistan in attendance as observers. Their presence was informed by a so-called “BRICS-plus” initiative proposed by China, which could see the current 5-member group include more countries, although this was not formalized at the summit. Of course, it is not too difficult to see why Mexico might be interested in more global outreach, as it faces an imminent dissolution of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which if successful would see it lose lucrative market access to America. Considering it is a major campaign promise of President Trump, it is probably only a matter of time before this happens. Mr Trump desires that America get more from NAFTA, which he believes is currently lopsided in favour of neighbours like Mexico. In any case, China indicated it was interested in entering into a free trade agreement with Mexico; in line with a trend where it now increasingly fills the gap left behind by a less-ambitious America. One of the observer African countries, Guinea, got something as well: it secured a US$20 billion loan over about a 20-year period from China in exchange for mining concessions on its bauxite deposits. Structurally, it did not seem like a bad deal, as revenues from projects the loan would fund would be used to service it. They include a planned alumina refinery and two bauxite mine projects. Roads, a power transmission line and a university are other projects earmarked. Still, considering how shrewd the Chinese are, it is not likely the Guineans got the better side of the deal; especially as the Chinese would get to keep any potential gains down the line, often beyond that which could be reasonably valued at the early stages. Like its other international trade and foreign policy initiatives, the ulimate beneficiary of BRICS is China itself.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/09/08/what-about-the-2017-brics-summit-by-rafiq-raji/

Why are most African airlines floundering?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The state-owned airline of Africa’s most advanced economy, South African Airways, is about to be bailed out by the state with about US$1 billion. Again. In July, not only did the state provide cash support to the almost bankrupt airline after an international bank insisted that its loan be serviced, it had to provide about 20 billion rand in guarantees. It would probably not be the last time. Even more saddening is the proposal that the pension fund of public workers may be used to pay almost half of the proposed US$1 billion bailout. Almost everytime credit rating agencies issue a review on the sovereign now, the deplorable state of the airline’s finances is mentioned. Only breath of fresh air is perhaps, finally, it has new management that probably knows its onions. Time will tell. Up north to the east, Kenyan Airways, another state-owned airline (partially though, as the Kenyan government only has a 29.8 percent stake), which incidentally has an international airline of repute, Air France KLM, as a shareholder (26.73 percent stake), would restructure its finances imminently, after failing to recover from a souring of the Kenyan tourism sector by terrorist attacks some five years ago. The restructuring plan seeks primarily to convert the debt it owes 11 local banks into equity via a special purpose vehicle, which would make them the largest shareholder afterwards (according to Reuters).

Bright spot
Some African countries have simply given up on the idea of a national airline, after earlier initiatives either went bankrupt or simply collapsed out of sheer incompetence. But there is a bright spot. Ethiopian Airlines made more money (US$273m net profit) than all African airlines combined (US$800m net loss) in 2016; a point happily made by African Business, a prestigious African publication, and BBC, the premier British broadcaster, in recent features. It begs the question, though: what makes it possible for Ethiopian Airlines to do so well at the same time that its supposed contemporaries are floundering? Tewolde Gebremariam, chief executive of the Ethiopian national carrier puts it rather well in a recent BBC interview: lack of government interference, private sector expertise and cost management. They seem simple, not so? Not really. Even when private sector experts are allowed to run a state-owned enterprise, African governments loathe being ignored.

The discipline of the Ethiopian government provides many lessons. It does not fund its airline in anyway. Ethiopian Airlines is completely run from its own finances. It does get support from where it matters though: America. The US Exim Bank guarantees most of its aircraft purchases, Mr Gebremariam tells the BBC. With that kind of backing, top global banks like JP Morgan Chase, Citi, Barclays and HSBC are all too eager to offer it accommodative financing. Today, a lot of Africans increasingly do not mind a stop at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa en route their final international destinations and indeed on the return journey back home. Mr Gebremariam made sure to point out to the BBC that at least 2,000 Chinese pass through Bole en route various African countries in the morning and vice versa in the evenings, every blessed day. And anyone who has travelled on the airline would attest to their efficiency. The quality is mid-range, though.

Hands off
Amidst the many floundering African airlines, Nigerian authorities desire to establish a national carrier. The motivation is nostalgic, in part. National pride is also a factor. Many agree that unless the motive is profit, it would suffer the unflattering fate of its predecessors. Thankfully, the authorities plan for it to be private-sector driven. The government has also appointed Lufthansa, a highly-regarded German airline, to advise it. But would the authorities be able to hands off like the Ethiopians seem to be able to do rather well? History suggests this is doubtful. It certainly does not help that Nigeria has a bad reputation when it comes to contracts. The experience of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in the mid- to late-2000s with its Nigerian airline venture, Virgin Nigeria, in which it had a 49 percent stake, is instructive. Mr Branson was left dumbfounded when a new administration began to question the validity of Virgin’s contracts with the preceding one. What was the gripe? The authorities did not think it was appropriate for Virgin Nigeria to operate from the international terminal of the country’s main airport. To Mr Branson’s dismay, “heavies” were sent to “smash up” his airline’s lounge “with sledgehammers” to ensure compliance. The African aviation sector is not for the faint-hearted.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/african-airlines-floundering/