Too many irksome uncertainties

Local Politics: Do Not Digress

The world we live in has moved away from the system of trade preferences which prevailed until some years ago. It has become a tough platform on which you have to fight it out every inch to gain an edge. We have to be fully concentrated on issues which matter, be it in our diplomacy and international trade, attracting investors who could help to expand our economic scope, raising our human and other resources continuously to be up to fierce international competition and consolidating sectors so that they do not get pulled down at the whiff of a simple wind.

Our priorities could include professionalizing ever more our productive sector. This in itself is not going to be an easy enterprise. It calls for a lot of gravitas on the part of our decision-makers, whether they belong to the private or public sectors. Much of this reconstruction work will have to be done hand in hand by all stakeholders, so challenging it is in the modern framework of global exchanges.

In this context, the question to ask is: can we afford to distract our attention to unnecessary matters? Several governments have come and gone promising to clean up the “Augean stables” left behind by their predecessors. The fact that this is still a running theme of politicking implies that that kind of mission was not concluded to any successful degree. The better thing to do would have been to make the rules so strong that they cannot be defeated by successors to power.

Focussing on those who have allegedly done wrong can help perhaps to show that the new government means business and will not tolerate anybody who had exceeded the bounds of law. This is what was stated by the Prime Minister at last Sunday’s meeting in Vacoas. No one should be above the law, true. Why should those who are entrusted to see to it that due processes of law are complied with not deal with any such matter themselves, in the normal course of business?

There is a risk that we may lose the ship for a half penny-worth of tar if we persist along this path. The perverse perception could be created in the process that the government would be engaged in political feuding. Besides, there is the risk also that one’s action may end up giving finer credentials to the party being targeted.

The problem with this approach is that it diverts energies of both those who have been put in charge and the people as a whole towards initiatives that add not a single iota to GDP. Yes, everything does not boil down to bread and butter considerations. But, does it help if martyrs are created in the process who can use this status to further their own agenda at the next round? So, who will be to blame if the political merry-go-round were to keep repeating itself much the same, little attentive to crying issues confronting the country?

Another risk with this approach is that other some office holders in government could replicate and make this kind of quest – hunting down wrongdoers not belonging to the fold and indicting them – as one of their major pursuits in office. They would tend to forget that more important issues are awaiting them towards the fashioning of their ministries for a modernising country. They risk going on an altogether different mission than the one entrusted to them.

One would very much wish that we gave ourselves enough self-control so as not to drift into avenues that lead to nowhere as far as the country’s superior goals are concerned. It would be sad to dash burgeoning hopes of a pointed way to address national issues, which is what the new government incarnates in the eyes of the people.

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Russian interference in Ukraine and the oil price drop

At $54 to the barrel this week, the falling price of oil is a signal that things are not going well, at least for certain oil exporting countries. Not that we bother too much about the super-rich among them who have ample reserves to fend for themselves until the oil price escalates again. Among the oil producers, there are some vulnerable countries. They are vulnerable either because they depend too much on oil in their total GDP or because they are inefficient high-cost producers that cannot survive with oil price less than, say $90 to $100 dollars a barrel.

In the case of Russia, it is heavily dependent for its economy on its exports of energy. So, such a sharp fall in oil price has sent the economy into recession. The Russian President has stated that Russia will recover nevertheless in two years’ time. It means the oil price situation has impacted seriously into the Russian economy.

Some consider that the sharp drop in the price of oil on international markets during the past six months is part of the strategy of the West’s sanction regime against Russia in retaliation of the disturbances it has been creating in neighbouring Ukraine. No matter if the geopolitics of oil is also at play in the circumstances, the Russian rouble which once used to trade at 30 roubles to the dollar, crashed to 70 roubles to the dollar last week only to pick up to 60 in later trading.

This has severe impact on the cost of living of the Russian population, on the one hand. On the other hand, Western sanctions against Russia and Russia’s retaliations against them forebode that a solution is not now at hand.

We have to bear in mind that falling oil prices could bankrupt oil producers like Nigeria and Venezuela. Debt defaults could take place in such an event. That would add to an observed generalised slowdown of the pace of economic growth in several countries from China to Europe. Prices of coal, iron ore and oil have already halved due to falling global demand in the context of morose global economic growth.

As individual countries’ currencies depreciate sharply due to this situation, as in the case of Russia, investors may take their funds out of several emerging economies. We are not yet there. But risks to global economic stability are increasing.

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Cybersecurity

Countries the world over have connected to the Internet. The resulting interconnectedness of companies, institutions, households and individuals has changed the world of communications and business dramatically. Internet and all that it has created in its wake – and keeps creating every other day – have become such an integral part of our existence that it is hard to imagine a world without it.

In 2007, the US and Israel opened up a new theatre of war – the war of cyberspace. They employed a computer worm to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Since then, Internet security has deteriorated. It is only recently that regular intrusions being made since decades by the US National Security Agency, going as far as to eavesdrop on the cell phones of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Dilma Roussef, the Brazilian president, came to light.

The world of the Internet contains vast promises to entire swathes of populations over the planet. But it also carries a number of risks. The common saying is that you should not be caught up walking naked on the streets of the Internet. To avoid this kind of predicament, anti-viruses and several cyber defence systems have been put in place not only by major companies of the world but also by governments to conserve securely the oceans of data floating on the World Wide Web. Do they actually live up to expectations? Not really.

This week, computer hackers breached the US firm Sony Pictures’ computer systems when it was getting ready to project the première of a film called ‘The Interview’. Apparently, the film is about the assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Claims started being made that it was North Korean hackers who had made the breach. The North Korean regime has retaliated and used hard words against the US. This is just an example of how porous the cyber frontier is despite all precautions taken to ward off intruders. It is also an indication as to what type of small incidents could push countries into war against each other.

It is not surprising therefore that there are predictions now about a cyber-war in the making involving nations. In other words, countries would, as a line of defence, disrupt each other’s Internet connectivity. They could even go to more micro levels. In 2007, the US and Israel meddled with Iranian centrifuges, wasting uranium and damaging equipment, slowed the uranium enrichment process and hence the country’s nuclear weapons programmes.

Today, everything is so interdependent on technology that domestic systems such as train lines, water-treatment plants, electricity grids and generators are extremely vulnerable to severe intrusion. In 2008, a 14-year old boy derailed four trains in Poland by interfering with the computer control system. The paradox is that it takes a lot of time, money and resources to develop nuclear weapons but the cyber-warrior needs only a computer and an Internet connection to wreak havoc.

 

* Published in print edition on 24 December 2014

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