Beyond convictions, the politics of the free market, By Uddin Ifeanyi


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Is there a difference between a shotgun marriage and a union in which both parties come together out of a shared conviction? The tension between the freedom to choose and the inconvenience of another’s options being forced down one’s throat suggests that there ought to be. If in the affairs of states, we find that societies are healthier where citizens get to weigh in freely and regularly on the conduct of the affairs of the commonwealth, then by extension one would imagine a union freely entered into superior to a forced one

however noble the cause(s) on behalf of which wills are subverted in the latter. This, however, is not to ignore the possibility of the odd shotgun marriage turning out successful.

Yet, in politics, more than in marriages, belief is the one ingredient that is in limited supply. We see growing evidence of this, today, in the rise of populist politicians in the advanced economies. In those experiences, politicians are increasingly minded to hitch their fortunes to whichever hobbyhorse is to hand. The illiberal democrat’s belief that the contradiction, imagined or actual, between “real” citizens and “others” (usually immigrants) who would nick their countries and or its values is the more prominent of this trend. On the face of it, no conviction appears stronger than that which drives paranoid nationalisms. If nothing else, true believers seem willing to stint on no sacrifices in their pursuit of its goals

including murder and martyrdom. Still, the shifting definition of parties, and the threats they pose, give the pseudo-convictions involved here away.

How different from this are the conditions of our local politics? Even here, the tension between “us” and the “others” is evidently no less real. From Jihadist Islam in various parts of the North, through the resurgence of a new type of irredentism in the South-West, all the way down to the increasingly clamorous demand for a separate (and national) identity in the East, large portions of our local populations, goaded by politicians of different persuasions, are finding irreconcilable differences between themselves and supposedly minatory non-self-others.

Despite the clear threat to the country from these fissiparous tendencies, the more threatening absence of conviction, the one, indeed, that one may blame this salmagundi of paranoid nationalisms on is in the conduct of the nation’s economic affairs. How to interpret this? All of a sudden, the price mechanism is in vogue. The Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration has tried to free petrol price and the naira’s exchange rate. It has, apparently, bitten a bullet that has stymied just about all its predecessors. And it has earned accolades from those who believe that the allocative efficiency of the domestic economy will improve were freer rein given to the forces of demand and supply

and a regulatory environment emplaced that prioritises freer markets (the removal of barriers to entry and exit of suppliers) and consumer (choice and) welfare.

What, however, is the full measure of the current federal government’s convictions on the husbandry of the economy? As governor, and later as kingmaker in Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s policies were more mercantile (for want of a more concise characterisation) than pro-free market. Include the caginess of our political elite in expressing their views about anything, and you struggle to establish when the incumbent president and his administration completed their transition from their previously mercantilist weltanschauung to their new free market convictions.

Ought we then to worry about how skin deep the latter convictions are? From the mid-1970s, successive Nigerian governments have responded to straitened economic circumstances with a colourful vocabulary: “belt-tightening”, “home-grown alternatives to the structural adjustment programme of the IMF”, etc. Through all the measures that these describe, the default message has been attempts to free the fiscus by shifting large cost elements on to consumers. Only for a while, though. For no sooner do crude oil prices rise in global markets, and the now infamous “accretions to the external reserves” resume, than our governments return to their default state

providing nanny and concierge services to select sections of the citizenry.

To make this argument differently, one need ask the question: Is the Tinubu government’s embrace of free market solutions a belief thing

or did it take one look at the exchequer (emptied by the louche policies of its immediate predecessor) and conclude it had no choice? Nigeria’s medium-term outlook rests on the answer to this question.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.








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