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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: E-Letter To BBC and Briony Hale Re: Can Nigeria's elections benefit the poor?

I "saw" your article coming two years ago. Really three years ago. The answer to the question presented as the title of your article is emphatically no! We took that same position relative to the recent elections in Kenya and received some criticism for that stance. To be honest, I think that for the vast majority of African nations the answer to this question is the same. No, elections cannot benefit the poor, under current conditions.

Your article"Can Nigeria's elections benefit the poor?" opens up much and even deepens my thinking on the matter.

Of course the basis of my view is not that elections or politics are inherently meaningless. Rather, my opinion rests on the reality that elections aren't worth even their costs, if they do not result in the elected representatives having power to make policy once in office; much less good policy, or those policies, for better or worse, that the citizenry favors.

Without the power to elect representatives that truly govern a country, elections are more like a parade or pageant than an exercise of civil society's communication with the state, or the manifestation of its power to govern itself. It is the height of symbol without substance.

You provide much of the reason for this in your column in the references that you make to Nigeria's crippling debt and the voluntary conditionality that Nigeria must place upon itself in order to "qualify" for aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help it out of said debt(s). I made reference to this reality two years ago in an E-Letter to the Washington Post, Re: "Nigerians' Hopes in Elected Leader Fade". We can never forget that the IMF, for three years now, has been behind much of the country's economic planning.

All of the points you raise in your column - from the country's dependency on oil, to its unique ethnic strife and religious dynamics - are part of the problem. You are pretty much accurate. And I think you make an important and fundamental juxtaposition when you write, "While economic development is not an explicit part of the election campaign, the more effective distribution of wealth is the one thing that almost everyone is hoping to see." You are absolutely correct and it is that fundamental expectation that makes change through politics so difficult in Africa.

The electorate in a political context, usually favors wealth redistribution to economic development or growth. It is easier to tax the "rich" and spend on the poor than it is to cut taxes on capital in a society and open markets and make the necessary economic arguments to explain and support how it all works. The electorate is conditioned to not have time for such discussions and too few politicians are articulate enough to communicate the powerful ideas and policies associated with economic growth. Of course one must consider the shallow but effective manner that politicians, in campaigns, like to aggravate emotions and existing tensions and leverage envy and jealousy that exists between different segments of the populations - whether along religious, ethnic, class or geographical lines. Also it should be considered that politicians are adept at using rhetoric to deceive people into voting for them on the basis of a promise to enact fundamental change, only to hypocritically obstruct that promised change in order to reward the "machine" that is responsible for providing resources during the campaign, and to distribute patronage to key supporters or family members.

Under dire circumstances the electorate doesn't care what the vehicle is to an improved quality of life - whether it is a dictator or dominant executive leader, vested with full legal authority by coup or succession; or whether it is leadership selected by free and fair elections. The goal and mandate is usually the same - wealth redistribution in order to make amends for a past history of wealth hoarding and/or exploitation. Unfortunately where Africa has been concerned, interested political "liberals" and "conservatives" - domestic and foreign - fail to see colonialism as an economic contraction that requires the response of indigenous economic growth and capital markets and matching not just "free markets and fiscal discipline" (the conservative rhetorical approach) or "increased regulation and more spending" (the liberal rhetorical approach.) Both approaches ultimately end up crying for increased foreign direct investment (fdi) in order to "save" Africa, while domestic sources of capital are woefully underdeveloped. All that is matched is the financial capital of a foreign interest with the physical capital of the African nation. The human capital of the African is an impoverished spectator or midwife to the wealth that is born.

The problem today is that wealth redistribution, in the electoral-political context, is almost always viewed in terms of physical and financial capital. Virtually nothing is said of human capital and its greatest form - intellectual capital. And very little is said of how important justice, enforcement and accountability (enabled by a fully-functioning judiciary) and contract law (property rights - whether communal or individual) are to this fundamentally economic event.

In the more cultural and economic context, the electorate does not want wealth redistribution simply to get out of poverty or to exact revenge on the wealthy. It wants wealth "redistributed", really developed, so that it can match all of the society's forms of capital in order to produce prosperity in the present and future tense. The electorate is seeking to extract rights from an entrenched establishment that is disrupting a truly free market through its monopoly on capital, taxation, and the de facto or de jure right to make markets. In earlier decades it was overtly White colonists from Europe who were this entrenched establishment. Today it is more closely identified, in the minds of the people as authoritarian Black male dictators - whether generals (and the military or "police" who accompany them) who rule as a result of coups or duly elected individuals (and the cronies and partisans that accompany them).

This entrenched establishment which was at first a White economic and financial elite in Africa, now has a Black political organ which comes to the people in the name of independence, democracy or brute force justified and rationalized by a poor understanding of socialism or nationalism, promising what it can't deliver - freedom, justice and equality. And the primary reason it (the Black political organ) can't possibly deliver on its lofty promises to the people is because the markets of the nation are severely limited or closed by the combined monopoly on capital, industry and law-making that foreign multinational corporations (Phillips Petroleum or Shell) and multilateral institutions (WTO, IMF and World Bank) and their Black junior partners (through government contracts, tribal control and patronage) have on industry, policy and law-making in these countries.

Under this environment, where the unbridled ambition of politicians is manipulated by external forces, every policy or proposed law must be "approved" by the power nexus of the Black junior partner cronies (as a dear Pan-Africanist friend of mine refers to elite Black business interests involved in "joint-ventures" or partnerships with foreign comanies on the continent) the multinational corporations, and multilateral institutions. And,the multilateral institutions are often, directly or indirectly the stalking horses of a foreign political power. So, there is quite often a fourth force - a geopolitical and ideologically-driven hidden hand - that is guiding affairs of African nations through the other three.

The meaningless election-time promises, whether to guarantee primary education, fight AIDS, build roads and hospitals cannot be fulfilled through an election that elevates a personality from the masses but does absolutely nothing to change the power dynamic. The fact that President Obasanjo is not campaigning on economic development is a sign of how bad things have gotten. He does not even care to pretend or make a false promise in that category. The people know better. His empty words on "economic policy" would not be seen as credible. As a result, the election becomes an exercise in venting and freedom of speech that should have already been taking place through a national dialogue and freedom of the press. It is interesting to note what the press endures in Nigeria, even though the country is home to the most indigenous-owned publications in Africa.

What to do? The best political means by which African leaders can truly empower their citizenry, under the current conditions, is by supporting political reforms that undermine the disproportionate influence of the power nexus and the associated erroneous policies, rigid bureaucracies and systems of patronage. Individually the leader must voluntarily opt out of the post as head of the Black junior partner exchange system with the multinationals and multilaterals, which is essentially a form of welfare, patronage and bribery that abuses power; greases the skids of nepotism and cronyism; enforces the capital and industry monopoly; and appeals to greed and ambition. Specifically, African leaders should support the enactment of the institution of meaningful initiative and referendum that would allow the electorate to continue or discontinue; increase or decrease expenditures or taxation, for example.

Waste and error can easily be reduced through this process. This would be more meaningful than personality-elections alone, as it would give the electorate the first and last word on who runs the country as well as whether or not their decision-making has been persistently in error - in between terms. Properly administered initiatives and referendum in Nigeria would also help to make the maze of federal, state and local forms of government there more accountable. In addition, the issues of currency stability, the judicial system and contract law have to be addressed, from the bully pulpit and inviting dialogue, by an Nigerian leader if change is to happen. A return to fixed exchange rates (a West African currency board), independent judges and the syntax of property rights (individual and communal) are key to giving the electorate the rights they crave in order to match all forms of capital available in society.

Certain issues, including some of the latter, are best handled by African unity, and in concept the new African Union is best positioned for that. No single nation is strong enough in Africa to totally alter the relationship between itself and the WTO, IMF and World Bank. Negotiations regarding the continent's external debt with Western creditors, conflict resolution (the AU is the best functionary of the idea and effort to get tribes in Africa to think "nation"), and the issue of uniform tax policy and monetary union can best be handled by a "United States Of Africa". Unfortunately, that body has lost its momentum of just a year ago and seems to be more interested in becoming the "Black junior partner" of the United Nations, than it is in establishing the most awesome example of political and economic union in modern history.

See, now, what I mean when I say no , Nigeria's elections can't benefit the poor?


Cedric Muhammad

Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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