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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Energy sector reform and working class conservative role

14th January 2012

One of the most pernicious untruths of 19th century radical social thinking, predating Marxism and largely informing the Marxian streamof analysis (though often taking the gown of anarchism which is confused with Marxism) is that working class struggles are progressive and bourgeois (capitalist) positions are negative to progress, or reactionary.

This outlook is tied up with the conception that being positive to change or negative to change is based on the position one occupies in society, in which case the rich (owners) hinder progress, while the poor (employees, workers) are usually progressive.  This

kind of outlook is usually tied to distribution images of ‘progress,’ the sort that are now engulfing most Western countries, whose point of dispute isn’t just the lack of ‘decent jobs’ but also the growing gap of the rich, poor.

To a considerable extent this is also what is animating most groups trenchantly opposed to government policies or berating economic realities in Tanzania as well, if not all of Africa – and structurally animated the Arab Spring that is still captivating many in North Africa and the Middle East.

They see in this economic reality or environment the twin elements of corruption and privilege among those at the top – whom Nobel laureate in economics, Stanford professor Joseph Stiglitz, calls ‘the top one per cent.’ Where they can, they obtain their advantages by fiat, like raising the sitting allowances of MPs from 70,000/- per day to 200,000/-, and when they can’t (especially when it is an individual matter that cannot be covered by legislation or changing regulations) they bribe to get what they want; common people chalk up the bill.

In that case the thrust of global protest movement, whom TIME magazine has lately picked as ‘person of the year, the protestor’ – the top personality in that context being Mohammed Bouaziz, the Tunisian youth who touched off the Arab Spring with immolation – is a working class demand, to reduce inequalities.

This matter also colored or clouded celebrations of one century since the founding of the South African ruling party, the African National Congress, as analysts were at pains to point out, either that the situation is worse than during the old apartheid regime, a fanciful concept, or that little has changed as the gap is wider between rich and poor. Yet what matters in economic terms isn’t a gap of rich and poor but if anyone really goes hungry, without food, shelter and clothing – and here it isn’t easy to say yes.

The problem that arises in relation to these movements is the lack of ‘decent jobs’ or the lack of jobs generally, and here the situation in Tanzania is as good as any outside, that in the past a Form IV leaver would have a careers adviser at school to choose what sort of job field he prefers.

At the same time, hardly has there been as much initiative at a private and institutional level, like credit offers from banks or microfinance institutions compared to the present, in which case there is a problem of productivity, or values where some things are highly paid and some others are lowly paid, or formal employment is a problem but opportunities for initiative seem to be widening, though success is far from assured. The general working class outlook is to demand secure jobs, not the bother of patchy self-employment, initiative.

Given the fact that these demands taken on a political character, it becomes unavoidable that their solutions are sought within the ambit of politics, where their popular expression determines the sort of solutions being pursued, namely, placing restrictions that curb privileges or prerogatives of the rich. In the United States and to an extent in Europe, especially on the basis of a recent euro-zone pact on harmonizing bank sector operations, this involves curbing to a considerable extent the risk taking activities of banks, or in

structurally separating bank investment activity from deposit administration or savings functions. It is the same as saying that those who deposit their money in banks should say if they want it to be used for investment-cum-speculative activity, or merely lent to safe areas like Treasury bills, or government bonds – where the answer is of course obvious; on that premise there will be little cash available for investment if regulations are followed.

In that case if banks in western countries were as properly controlled by depositors and working class oriented organizations like consumer protection bodies, there would be no investment funds for nearly everything that a country like Tanzania offers in terms of foreign investment attraction.

Some activities would still be undertaken like oil exploration, but given the amount of money and persistence in terms of false trial wells and trying elsewhere, plenty of exploration for mines or oil would also cease; in sum working class protest seeks security by curbing risk taking, not realizing that this is precisely what distinguishes capitalists from workers. The former take risks and are often rewarded with large profits, while the latter prefer the safety of pensionable employment or guaranteed contract, and shout at ‘huge profits.’

In a democratic environment, the damage that comes from a workers’ orientation at the level of policy is the sort of economic ruin it surely brings along within a short period, in which case Labour or Democratic governments, or Social Democratic governments elsewhere in Europe succeed to govern only if they optimally use liberal ideas.

Their own privileged area, where they obtain their proper legitimacy, lies in ability or inclination to optimize civic improvement, in social goods like health, education and welfare, or for that matter economic goods like roads, energy etc while creating conditions of greater affordability for the working class. Yet it is in so doing that the undoing of radical policies usually comes – but after a period, as people forget for instance what was wrong with Ujamaa, radicalism is given another chance.

Different from the slogan of reducing the difference between the rich and poor, proper progress in history usually lies in changing the hands holding property, from indolent and incapable hands or forms of ownership, to dynamic hands that propel economic transaction or exchange.

That is why the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to wholesale privatizations and onerous liquidations of sclerotic state companies or economic units of government surreptitiously called companies, as they retain the fictitious ability of capacity for suing and being sued, while in actual fact that is only marginally the case, and finally it is the state that is being sued as in the Dowans-Tanesco issue. Hardly any of these changes were supported by the working class. To this day the name Mikhail Gorbachev sparks anger in Russia; he ‘wrecked socialism.’

Nigeria is at present facing a formidable challenge of the same sort, namely the uphill task facing Federal President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan in battling a massive wave of working class protests to protect the subsidized petrol prices, which irate opinion in Nigeria says it was the only ‘dividend of democracy’ that they could enjoy.

If one could talk in a theological context, it would be suggested that this is the moment that the Lord would release snakes into that country, incapable of appreciating democracy as freedom of speech and assembly, without fear of state goons arriving at 4 am knocking and taking away the father of the house – a desperado, never to be seen again, for making bitter remarks on the government, talking to strangers in a bar. Saying indolent subsidized fuel is concomitant with democracy is to abuse liberty.

While the Nigerian government will not say so, it is apparent that the trigger to the massive shift in policy wasn’t merely the fact that the World Bank will have pointed out in studies going back 20 or 30 years that the subsidies are unsustainable, but a practical need for money that can’t be ignored.

The subsidy business was excellent for Nigerian democracy as everyone was satisfied; the local motorist as well as passenger paying low fares, as well as a vibrant smuggling business across borders to sell oil at market prices and bring into the country refined products sold at market prices if there are shortages. Since all politicians depend on public support to be elected or win re-election, it is hard to see what would have been the source of a change as radical as the removal of subsidies, without gargantuan pressure arising.

This is the point that was being missed in analyses of the situation and evidently in how President Jonathan explained the position in a nationwide address, focusing on the non-sustainability of the subsidies and the need to remove them so as to get more social goods, in health, education and welfare.

He forgot to say (as Marx would have caustically added) that he needs to confront the widening revolt in the northern part of the country where a repeat of 1966 events is taking place, of torching churches and demanding that southerners leave the north – which at that time led to a military coup and secession, sorted out by a civil war of two and a half years.

Only by doubling the price of petrol can Dr Jonathan amass enough revenues to redistribute to provinces and create social outgrowth to curb desperation – or let society explode, the southern provinces seek secession from the hostile north which is in dire poverty despite holding the reins as military rulers were based in the north.

The Boko Haram revolt is a relic of older military rule and northern hegemony; it now forces the Nigerian state to rationalize oil economy, and hopefully an investment outlook using more of local space will spread to the north, to industrialise it.

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