By Kayode Komolafe
One of the positive things in the ferment about the 2023 elections is the increasing advocacy that the elections should be a contest of ideas.
In other words, candidates contesting on the platforms of the various political parties should be identified by the ideas underlying their programmes beyond their ethnic, regional and religious labels.
The corollary to that, of course, is that instead of abuses, curses and peddling of prejudice, political parties and their candidates should articulate clear strategies of development and workable policies. The public should in turn assess the parties and candidates on the basis of these strategies and the policies articulated to bring the visions to life.
What should be added is that not only must 2023 be of politics of ideas, the ideas themselves must also be new and workable so as to confront the multi-dimensional crisis the country faces at this time.
There should be a rethink of some ideas that risk being reduced to platitudes. A moment of crisis demands fresh ideas to confront the new situation. It is a simple logic of life.
As the political parties and their candidates unfold their plans, critical questions should be asked about the efficacy of the medicine being prescribed to cure the malaise of the Nigerian economy, polity and society.
New ideas are sorely needed for the simple fact that the same old ideas that the political parties and their candidates have presented as various acronyms in more than two decades have not helped sufficiently to tackle the problems. If the ideas had been cumulatively efficacious, the society would not have been plagued by mass poverty and gross inequality. And the consequences of the socio-economic decay including worsening insecurity are frightening.
For instance, on the critical question of what to do with the economy and the pivotal public sector, fresh ideas should be developed if the crisis is to be resolved in the interest of the people.
As a matter of fact, since the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida recast the Nigerian political economy with its Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) virtually all economic discussions have begun and ended with the invocation of the components of this monumental programme. Among these components are privatisation, commercialisation, liberalisation and deregulation. They are, of course, meant for different purposes. These ideas have featured in Nigeria’s economic management since the Babangida regime promulgated the Public Enterprises Privatisation and Commercialisation Decree Number 25 of 1988 and the concomitant establishment of the Technical Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation (TCPC).
Yet if you have a conversation today with the experts working on the economic strategies, policies and programmes of the various parties and candidates, you would think privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation are new ideas invented in 2022 by policy wonks.
It is amazing that politicians are still promising privatisation as the silver bullet to the festering economic crisis. You wonder what else is there in the economy to privatise! Maybe one day Aso Rock itself would be privatised for “efficient management.”
What should be done is an honest audit of the privatisation exercise so as to know what went wrong and how to make amends.
However, in the wisdom of some economic experts the solution to the problems arising from privatisation is more privatisation.
Instead of falsely presenting privatisation as a magic solution, there should be a critical review of the idea and practice of the policy in more than three decades. In 2011, the senate embarked on a probe of 122 public enterprises privatised between 1999 and that year. A committee of the senate looked into the outcomes of the privatisation process. The findings are instructive, but no administration has learnt anything from the report. The committee found out that the situation of those enterprises had gone “from bad to worse” as more than 80% of the privatised enterprises had become moribund. So no jobs were created and no taxes were paid to government from the privatised enterprises as promised by the proponents of privatisation. In some cases the stories have been those of asset-striping and liquidation of the enterprises sold by government at give-away prices. A good number of these privatised public enterprises have been run down by their incompetent private sector owners. In some cases the expected injection of capital, managerial competence and technology to make the enterprises profitable have proved to be a mirage. The economy is yet to benefit from the fortunes expected from most of the privatised companies.
When policy thinkers wax lyrical on privatisation as the solution, they are often silent on why the privatisation of the Nigerian Airways failed woefully and while the liberalisation of the aviation sector has not turned Nigeria into an aviation hub many years after the exercise.
Perhaps the sharpest query on privatisation should be issued in the power sector. Almost after a decade of privatisation of the generation and distribution segments of the industry, the Nigerian economy continues to be run on diesel-powered generating sets. It is obvious that with this policy cul-de-sac, critical review of the sector which began with the enactment of the Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005.
Yet, some of the candidates are promising to even privatise the transmission of electricity. Imagine asking those who went into the business of distributing electricity without the capacity to even make meters available to consumers being asked to add transmission to their portfolios. It is an incredible policy proposition!
This uncritical approach in designing strategies and policies is a thing that should worry all enthusiasts of people-centred development. It is indeed a conceptual problem. Most of the experts working on the various plans of political parties and candidates are ideologically fixated on privatisation even when it is not working in the Nigerian context.
However, elsewhere in the world a lot of rethink is taking place since the global crisis of capitalism as manifested in the 2008 financial meltdown. The nature of the ideas that inform the making of policies should be scrutinised as we await the 2023 choice.
For as Professor Paul De Grauwe of the London School of Economics puts it in his book entitled “The limits of Market: The Pendulum Between Government and Market,” the fundamental question really is as follows: who is in charge of economic management? The scholar puts the matter like this: “The Old discussion as to whether the market is more important than government or vice versa is pointless. The only question worth asking is how the division of labour between market and government can best be organised. This division of labour must start out from the ideas… that both market and government have their limits.”
Those who are committed to building a working capitalist political economy in Nigeria should ponder this pertinent point as they prepare to be in charge of governance.
*Kayode Komolafe, journalist, labour activist and public affairs analyst, wrote this originally for Thisday