Kenya question

February 12, 2008

Has anyone been nerdy enough to compile and publish a total tally of the votes in the parliamentary elections by party ?

Even nerdier, why isn’t anyone working on maps ? At the constituency level, I mean.


A bad idea from Kenya

February 5, 2008

Via Global Voices, Oscar Obonyo says:

Judging from events of the just concluded presidential polls I opine that Kenyans ought to change the existing electoral laws to subject the holder of the Office of President to elections only after a straight term of ten years.
Why cant we face it? That an African President “cannot lose” an election and revise our electoral rules accordingly.

I agree that the possibility of reelection for incumbents in countries with a strong executive is a recipe for meaningless elections. And it does make sense to set up term limits accordingly. What I don’t understand is why Obonyo proposes a single ten years term and not just a single five years one. May be he simply doesn’t know that some countries did or do set up limits on consecutive terms. As a matter of fact, most latin american countries have during the past century adopted such a measure to prevent election-related troubles and the rise of life-presidents. Venezuela from 1959 to Chavez, Costa Rica since 1948, Panama since 1989, Colombia from 1910 to 2005 all have experienced stability and peaceful regime changes (and even economic growth) thanks to it. Mexico went even further as it bans any previous president, even provisional ones from assuming office a second time. Why don’t we learn from those examples ?

I also think the talk about term limits is a bit overrated. For one, changing the president is not changing the regime, as the long rule of CMM in Tanzania, BDP in Botswana or the even longer PRI rule in Mexico has shown. And even in real competitive set-up, nothing prevents the incumbent from rigging elections to favour his hand-picked successor (Preval’s first term in Haiti and the most recent Nigerian election come to mind). And I’m really surprised designing systems that would limit presidential powers is never part of those debates.

A good interview on Oil in the Gulf of Guinea

February 4, 2008

A Second Hand Conjecture has a nice interview of John Ghazvinian author of Untapped: The Scramble For Africa’s Oil. I usually stay away from most discussions on oil in Africa because most are not about oil or Africa but really about Bush or China, but I liked this one. Here’s one interesting quote:

Oil, as I keep trying to say to people, is not by itself something evil. It’s just a black substance that comes out of the ground. It’s what we do with it. What I try to point out in this book is that there are a lot of reasons why it makes life more difficult in struggling African countries. The first step is awareness of what some of those issues are. How we actually resolve those? I’ll be the first to throw up my hands and say I don’t know.

One of the things I’ve been talking about a lot as I talk about with the book, is the importance of job creation and the importance of creating stakeholder economies in the same way we have in the West around the oil boom. The real tragedy of oil exploration is that it’s capital intensive and skills intensive, but it’s not labor intensive. It doesn’t create a lot of jobs. Even the few jobs it does create are generally done by expats.

I don’t understand why the multinational oil companies –at least the Western ones that claim to want to help– don’t come together and create something like an African oil university somewhere in Nigeria or Angola, where they can train locals to become petroleum engineers. One of the really interesting things about the oil industry is that they are constantly complaining about a shortage of skilled petroleum engineers. This is an aging industry, most petroleum engineers are now in their fifties, they’re not being replaced quickly. They desperately need skilled labor and it seems like a very obvious place to try to train some of that labor would be in Africa.

Hat Tip Omodudu

FYI: there’s a nuclear reactor in Kinshasa

February 3, 2008,,1954795,00.html

Weird and complicated story involving Uranium deposits, the nazis, Einstein, Hiroshima, some american payback, a non-proliferation deal, economic/strategic sabotage, Mobutu love for prestige projects…

Anyway, the western news outlets who reported the story were all concerned about Al-Qaeda or whatever getting their hand on enriched uranium but I’m a bit concerned for the risks the people in Kinshasa (and Brazzaville) are facing.

Savimbi is confusing

February 1, 2008

Between this quote:

“I am not communist because it serves no purpose. Nor am I a capitalist. Socialism in this country is the only answer. Those who led the country to independence cannot become the exploiters of the people. We want a socialist system, but which? There is the orthodox one and the extremist one. We want the democratic one, social democracy.”

and this one:

“I am against nationalization; it is a disease which saps the strength of a national economy. The real question is the renegotiation of allowable profits. Foreign companies need their profits, they would not invest without them. But the people of Angola need their share. When Angola is independent the investors must know that the people will have a greater share.”

Add his Maoist roots and his attacks on the conservative FNLA for being “western imperialist stooges”, and I’m really wondering why this guy was the Heritage Foundation’s and Reagan’s darling.

The Cold War was indeed a weird period.

African libertarians need to revisit their classics..

January 31, 2008

Franklin Cudjoe, editor of African Liberty, a CATO-sponsored african libertarian platform offers us yet another of those convulted long essays mixing up a bunch of different arguments in order to attack some government policy. The policy, a plan to directly give $8 to $15 every month to the poorest Ghaneans, is described as a “centrally-planned waste”.

See, as far as I know, the libertarian critic of central planning is that markets, the sum of individual decisions, are the most efficient way to allocate ressources. And that’s why, if there has to be social policy, poverty-alleviation measures, direct cash transfers are usually prefered to more market-disrupting measures. School vouchers, for instance, are considered a better way to provide education to the poorest than public schools. After all giving vouchers or money directly to the poor is trusting individuals to make their own decisions instead of governments inefficiently allocating ressources. That’s why I’m confused when I read:

How much of all the money sourced above and the one for merry-making every other month will go into agricultural reforms? Would it ensure secure land tenure for farmers to enhance large scale production? Train agric extension officers to advise farmers on best farming practices, provide soft loans, reduced prices of agricultural inputs, support infrastructure to facilitate storage and movement of goods, so that our energetic rural youth will not flock to the cities in search of absentee jobs?

My guess is not much. But then again, that’s because I’m one of those socialist/collectivists/statists Cudjoe is supposed to rant about. One who think that government intervention, via infrastructure, via education, via fertilizer subsidies, would work faster and may be better than market-based allocation. However if you value freedom, liberty and all that, why would one be concerned about how the money is used. And why would one think the energic rural youth would flock to the cities and not use their cash to buy agricultural inputs, build storage facilities, roads or invest in training ? Isn’t that the magic of the market ?

So yeah, I’m disappointed. Can’t the western libertarian network find smarter and more principled writers and thinkers to promote their cause in Africa ? May be, we’d get some interesting debates and may be one or two good policy initiatives could be squeezed out of it.

PS: to be fair, most of the article is dedicated to describing make-work schemes, utilities subsidies and other programs that are more deserving of libertarian attack but I did call it a “convulted long essay mixing up a bunch of different arguments” for a reason.

So is it happening ?

January 25, 2008

Nyassa Times suggests that my doubts about the Malawi fertilizer program were not unfounded:

Malawi’s ‘governing’ Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has hatched a plan to entice chiefs in the eastern region to work as agents of membership mobilization for the party in readiness for 2009 general elections.
“The chiefs are being palm oiled with government money to peddle the DPP political strategy. They will support DPP and frustrate their subjects from associating with opposition parties, of particular target is UDF which has a strong base in the targeted zone,” said the source.

Of course, it’s possible that these allegations are false. And nothing in the article connects the bribing of the chiefs with the chiefs being responsible for the subsidy distribution but I do.

criticizing the results of one’s own actions…

January 21, 2008

Every now and then, for laughs, I quickly browse the website of the Republic of Congo’s semi-official pro-government newspaper, les Depeches de Brazzaville. Its publisher, the french political consultant Jean-Paul Pigasse writes those hilarious editorials ranting about neo-colonialism and french arrogant involvement everytime there’s a negative mention of his boss in the french media.

So while looking for my funny irony fix, I stumbled upon something even weirder. This article (in french), beautifully titled “Minister Criticizes Cement Price”, discusses the speech Minister of Industrial Development and the Promotion of the Private Sector Emile Mabonzo gave at the official annual ceremony its ministry (and others) organizes to exchange new year wishes or something (i have a really hard time translating the concept, but yeah it’s stupid and wasteful and pointless and stupid). He apparently attacked cement traders and retailers for charging high prices in Brazzaville and in rural areas, particularly the enclaved North. Current prices apparently (loosely transpated quote) “don’t guarantee peace and social egality those populations are entitled too” and traders were encouraged to “provide cement to Brazzaville, be fair and equitable, ask the right price for cement, show solidarity with your countrymen“.

What’s really interesting is that in Congo-Brazzaville, cement production and importation is a (semi-private) monopoly and so is transport to Brazzaville. The northern rural areas are dependant on air transport from Brazzaville and some recent decisions didn’t really help reduce transport costs.
And guess what ? Our smart minister says “huge parts of the nation’s industry has suffered and keeps suffering from CFCO’s (the railroad) troubles. The slow delivery of cement to the cities helps a frightenning and shameful speculation on a basic product” and adds “our production has been limited to 40% of its capacity due to a lack of fluidity between input importation and production areas, cement production areas and cement sale areas.“.

Now let’s get it right. Because of “difficulties” in the government-owned and managed railroad, production of cement is low. Delivery to main cities is irregular for the same reason. On top of that, non-existence of roads and railways makes more expensive air transport the only choice in some parts of the country. But then air transport itself gets irregular because of recent policies. That’s without mentionning the fact that the option of importing cement through other sources is made impossible. And with all that, our dear minister blames traders and their shameful and terrifying speculation for rising prices ?

See, that’s why the talk about corruption and swiss bank accounts and missing oil money bores me to death. Incompetence and ignorance of basic economic concepts is a much, much better explanation.

Is it the audience ?

January 17, 2008

The Bayesian Heresy (approvingly) quotes my post on Ayittey and adds:

I think another way to think about it is that his main audience is western not African– his talks are geared to the style of those of his main audience.

I have doubts about such causality but most importantly I’m really not sure the West is his main audience. Ayittey does have an African audience, if not on the continent, at least within the immigrant communities. I do get the feeling that most of it is young, western-educated (if not living in the west), technology-friendly and rather prosperous but it’s not impossible that, in anglophone African countries, or at least in his native Ghana, a bigger (and less-priviledged) audience that I’m not directly aware of is reached by him through local newspapers or any other form of intervention public intellectuals use. And that’s not counting the fact that Ayittey has a certain stature among africanist scholars.

I would bet that both audiences validate each other. The African one viewing the western audience as proof of expertise and the western one viewing the African audience as a authenticity/legitimacy signal. Not that it really matters to what I’m trying to say.

If you really want to play the signal game and guess who is Ayittey targetting instead of assuming he says what he says because that’s what the hell he thinks, I’m still not sure the West is his main target.

Yes, his position on aid does look like part of the West would like it. But then again, the debates on aid to Africa in the West are always framed in a very particular way. Either one wants to save poor helpless Africans or one thinks it’s too expensive or useless or that Africa needs to save itself. Ayittey’s position somehow doesn’t exactly fit. He’s not asking for less aid, he’s asking for smarter aid, he’s not saying “Africans are hopeless” or “farewell to alms”, he’s arguing against “No Dictatorship (or mismanaged economy) Left behind”, he’s asking for a different sort of ties to the aid instead of arguing for or against tied aid. And on top of that, one shouldn’t ignore the fact that both aid itself, or the recent campaigns (form and content) aren’t as popular among Africans, especially middle-class Africans, as westerners usually think. It’s seen as humiliating and useless at best and racist and a-tool-of-neo-colonial-imperialism-domination (*breathes*) at worse.
Yes, Ayittey uses a lot of free-marketer/pro-capitalist/libertarian/economic right vocabulary and one could see how his ideas about the lack of economic freedom in Africa would be attractive to the IMF, the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation but then he does something no self-respecting western right-wing or libertarian would do or like: he talks, a lot, about political freedom and ties to economic freedom. I suspect his african audience wouldn’t very receptive to Bryan Caplan-like arguments against democracy or to one that would replace Pinochet with Museveni or Ian Smith or Houphouet-Boigny and argue that a pro-market dictatorship is a good thing.
And then you have little details like Ayittey’s distrust of multinational corporations, foreign investment in natural ressources and other things one would expect western audiences to like a lot (and libertarians to find refreshlingly counter-intuitive). Honestly, who is really supposed to get excited by the idea of “small-scale indigeneous people-based market solutions” to Africa’s economic woes ? And what kind of non-african is supposed to be moved by his attacks on colonial, post-colonial, western (mostly french) and chinese economic involvement in Africa (good example) ? Had the western audiences been so important, he would probably have written something called “In Praise of De Beers (or UMHK or Zambia Mining Agreements)” with arguments parallel to those of Paul Krugman’s famous piece and mentions of the economic performance of Botswana or pre-independance Katanga.
And finally, Ayittey does argue again and again that contrary to what Nkrumah, Senghor or Nyerere have argued, pre-colonial African societies were not socialist but free-market and capitalist. Here too, I have a very hard time imagining anyone but Africans thinking that whatever pre-colonial societies were has any relevance on our societal choices. (and if you want my opinion, anyone who thinks that somehow all the economic or political systems in pre-colonial Africa perfectly fit into modern western categories like socialist/capitalist/freemarket/statist/democracy is at best wrong, at worse a crank. And Nyerere would have been the closest, had he added more market interactions, more voluntary settlement and more political decentralization to his villagization scheme.)

So in short, no matter I disagree with Ayittey, I don’t think his western audiences have much to do with it. Unless we decide that they really really love long detailed anecdotical tales of high-level corruption in Africa. But then, Hollywood would have produced more “King of Scotland”-like movies. Whatever happened to Oliver Stone’s project on Mobutu ?

Question about migrant labour in apartheid South Africa

January 17, 2008

There’s something I have trouble understanding: why did apartheid South Africa import labour from Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in such big numbers (we’re talking about millions of workers here) ?

Usually, such migrations have something to do with shortages of labour as the local population moves up the social ladder (as it happened in Europe or in the Gulf) and happen in situations with minimal unemployement. But from my understanding, there has always been unemployement (and therefore a labour reserve) in the black south african population.
Then it could have been about wages, labour from Lesotho or Botswana being cheaper than local workers. But with a system designed to depress black wages, with the black workers having little political or union power, with limitations on black freedom of movement, with residency tied to employement (continuous AND in the same firm) in cities, I have a hard time picturing an inflation of black worker’s wages. Unless… such a rise managed to slip through the cracks because black workers were that productive or the demand for labour that high or labour somehow pressured for it through (illegal) strikes or other political actions.
The other explanation could have been that imported labour was used to depress the cost of labour even further. After all, foreign migrant workers had even less chances of organizing themselves as they had even less rights than south african blacks and probably felt little solidarity with the plight of the locals (and local labour most likely had little sympathy for them). Divide and conquer basically.

Other suggestions ?

(This is also a nice way to find out if I have southern african readers.)