Can we avert a move towards an inextricable situation?

It is not the politicians from the different parties who seem to have lost the way now. It is the voters themselves

When things don’t work out well for us with our long standing economic partners, we are advised to engage more closely with the nearby African continent. This is believed to be more sustainable economically due to our proximity and assumed keener knowledge of the political and economic environment which obtains in Africa. It is considered that such a change in the direction of our trade will compensate us enough for lost market shares in goods and services elsewhere. The argument is appealing. But let us consider what we actually have on our hands.

Geographically united, economically disunited

Less than five years ago, Africa was one of the fastest growing regions of the world. With the fall in commodity prices in the past years and the slowdown of the Chinese economy, it has become one of the slowest. This contrasting situation reflects the lack of depth and resilience of the concerned economies. In fact, most of Africa’s trade is carried out with the world outside, not within Africa. Intra-African trade is estimated to be no more than 10 to 12% of its total trade. Not much value-adding takes place indoors. Africa is not a homogeneous economic or political entity.

The lack of integration of the continent with itself is evident from this figure. Compare this with the 40% intra-trade figure for North America and the 60% intra-trade for Western Europe. In fact, 80% of Africa’s trade is with the European Union, China and the US. For decades now, intra-African trade has barely moved from the 10 to 12% threshold. Complementary productions within the group have hardly been exploited. So, iron ore is taken from Africa to China for further processing into iron and steel, machinery and equipment over there, not to another African country with the required competitiveness, know-how and market reach.

Stagnating regional interactions within Africa are due to a complex amalgam of often politically conflicting states on the continent, making economic interactions as difficult as possibly they could. Add to this equally complex trade rules (esp., non-tariff barriers), cross-border restrictions and one of the world’s worst transport networks connecting the economic hinterland. Not surprisingly, potential Asian and other partners we persuade to use us as a connecting corridor to Africa, on account of our privileged connections with the continent, listen to us with only half an ear.

Economically damaging political cultures

A 2015 Survey of Sub-Saharan Africa (which includes Mauritius) by Freedom House, a US think-tank, and the World Bank, has found that of the region’s 991 million population, there are 379 million “voting” in states which are “Not Free”, 497 million in states that are “Partly Free” and only 115 million in states that are “Free”. The latter includes Mauritius and seven others (Cape Verde, Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa) out of a total of 48 countries. Seychelles which recently elected to power a coalition of its opposition parties for the first time stands a chance to graduate to the “Free” category.

It is the characteristic of states qualified as “Not Free” and “Partly Free” that the majority of them have neither a meaningful middle class nor a well-diversified economy. An undiversified economy with its wealth concentrated in natural resources tends to produce a leader who has absolute control over the state. He becomes thus the sole custodian of the cash needed to maintain himself in power. The army is often a consensual enjoyer of power in such a state when it is not itself in command. The economy remains in a primary condition of under-development and extensive poverty.

Losing an election in such places implies being weaned away from the spoils of power for ever. Leaders therefore manipulate the voting system so as to cling to power, by way of dynastic succession when necessary. The population is silenced. Nothing of the “benevolent dictatorship” here. Pure dictatorships install themselves, often for very long, at the helm of power.

Learn the lessons from Africa

Voting patterns in such places operating below their economic potential is engineered along tribal or clan lines, fracturing the electorate in a manner as to never allow a majority to be formed outside of such parochial self-interested considerations. The political platform is swayed solely by clannish considerations, not by political ideology or class considerations associated with economic uplifts of those being left behind in the process. Mauritius is not fully exempt from this trivial game. “Winnable” candidates, irrespective of personal ability to contribute to advancement of the national agenda, are placed in safe constituencies.

Although we in Mauritius have not made significant economic breakthroughs from our association with several countries in Africa, we should look to those among the countries which are “Free” or “Partly Free” to consolidate our engagement with the dormant giant next door. With which special skills and advantages we’ll do so? We don’t seem to know. It will take time but it is the way forward for our more sustained growth.

We must learn the lesson however that when a single clan clings to power for long, it ends up debilitating the country and its economy in particular. It overlooks real challenges. Politicians are comforted in such a system that even where there is an alternation of power, they will somehow be in control of power, taking turns. They will then prioritize the seeking of power instead of concentrating on making profound improvements in the economic structure to make it more productive and sustainable for the long term.

They will “fragilize” institutions of the country for consolidating self-serving objectives. They will tamper with the Constitution to extend their terms in office. They will serve themselves and their cronies generously at the state’s expense. They will demonize the opposition to secure and stay in power and stack the electoral system with the same objective of perpetuating themselves at the top. Africa holds out these lessons.

Voters unhappy at swings of the pendulum

The abuse to which democracy has been subjected through a milder form of the type of excesses seen in Africa has made voters disgusted with the usual establishment candidates in the “Free” countries. Not only have abstentions been increasing in the best known democracies of the world. Negative voting has also been strongly colouring the past sober and responsible conduct of the electorate.

It is for this reason that a Republican candidate like Donald Trump is tipped up to succeed at the forthcoming US presidential polls by huge numbers of his supporters. The more sober Republican establishment, though, must be holding him privately in contempt for his lack of wisdom and depth in the governance of a globally leading country such as America. Bu they can’t prevent the catastrophe.

Embattled by under-performance of succeeding governments, Mauritian voters have swung from one coalition of political parties to another in past decades. Without getting the overturning outcomes they were looking forward to. None of the parties coming to power of late have delivered the expected centrist social market economy.

By now, voters appear to have tried and tested all possible combinations in the quest for something performing at the national level. Short of being able to pick up a credible alternative to what they have been traditionally served from one swing of the pendulum to the other, like other voters in Africa and advanced economies, they risk getting off the tangent and take a leap in the dark. It happened in 1982 and in 2000.

It is not the politicians from the different parties who seem to have lost the way now. It is the voters themselves who don’t seem to know where next they could meaningfully throw their weight for the country to steer clear of the huge amount of chaos their politicians have wrought.

Anil Gujadhur

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