Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Do Governments Have, Or Have Not, Business In Business? By Andrew A. Erakhrumen

Industrial illustration of Nigerian oil wells (photo: deposit photos)

Do governments have, or have not, business in business? There are contending perspectival answers to this question used as a title for this article. Irrespective of the merits and/or demerits of any of those views, it is constantly said in the public domain that the main purpose of having a government – whatever way it is looked at – is for the security and welfare of the human beings that such government is set up to superintend over. It may, therefore, be assumed that the civil and human rights including legally allowed properties of those people, being so governed, should also be protected. Here, we are deliberately (but reluctantly) limiting our argument to societies built for only humans! We agree that “lower animals” do have their rights, too! In answering the question asked earlier, there is the tendency to take the approaches by the legalists or moralists and/or a blend of both! After all, we are simply talking about humans, here; this is where the issues are, worldwide! What are we trying to say here? As an example, let us use the investments of public resources by the State (we mean government) in business. In Nigeria, what became of such initially-flourishing investments, over succeeding years, are progressively progressive ruination while there are still such similar investments, by the State in some other climes, currently waxing stronger in productivity. As earlier-said, we are talking about human beings, here; same Homo sapiens sapiens.

Before we go far in this discussion, it is important that we clarify that every society has its history, and current realities, influenced by past experiences and current priorities. We will not digress far into the roles of followers and leadership types in the whole mix. Simplistically, there are many countries where public assets and investments are perceived as nobody’s and without reliable organic institutional framework/capacity to ensure their future survival. In such countries, the narrative “governments have no business in business” will appear logical, convincing and as an easy-way-out solution, when the cause of the problem (if it is seen as such) is deliberately shied away from. Consequently, several ideologies that clearly point to, and encourage, private acquisitions of public assets and investments, as the solutions to the ruins, we earlier alluded to, are advanced, mostly with inconsideratedness. This is unminding the risks of these acquisitions benefiting only a few; although, some of these ideologies have been positively exploited by countries with the ability to build enduring institutional capacities for protecting their people against an ever-increasing voraciousness for private wealth accumulation. To be fair to the capitalists, who are mostly legalists, all they see is statistics and how that is turned to (private) wealth. That is how they are wired or rewired; moralists may fault this attribute. Basically, a moralist tends to be a socialist.

It is, therefore, a collective responsibility of the people to get their priorities right and work towards ensuring enactment of enforceable laws, be part of, and insist on, supportive systems that entrench moral rectitude without loosing sight of the need to encourage and sustainably sustain the protection of public and private properties and investments. These properties and investments (including those resulting from public-private partnerships) are necessary for a forward-looking society that is interested in the security, welfare and development of its members. Unfortunately, this capacity is currently lacking in Nigeria not only because of “corruption” but also “poverty”. We do not want to engage in the arguments concerning which of the two is a causative factor of the other. However, we believe that both factors are important for solution-seeking in politico-economic discussions. Of course, the leadership cadre that is very much likely to support and power policies that benefit the majority is the one that is populated or firmly controlled by ‘statesmen/women’ rather than gluttonous politicians only interested in their stomach! As it is commonly said ‘statesmen/women’ think of the next generation while most present-day politicians in Nigeria think of the next election. The latter are strictly into ‘business’; Nigeria’s future does not matter to them! To prevent ambiguity in the use of qualifying terms, statesmen/women – as used here – are also politicians but they think about the possibility of making life better for the next and unborn generations.

Those in government are most likely a reflection of the society within which they operate; although, that may not be the whole story because the followers may be victims of state capture by those few. These victims may yearn for better living conditions, but without positive actions, that is where it ends! Talk is cheap. Now, back to the question earlier asked as the title of this article. It is the experience (even in those countries considered “developed”) that once public assets and investments are left without strong and constantly strengthened sustainable organic institutions that protect them, they are collapsed and ruined! Why will you blame those who come forward to acquire (legally) these ruined inheritances cheaply? Business is business! Well, in many of the ‘deals’ (like the current shameless politics being played in the country) laws and morals do not seem to have intersection, unfortunately! The institutions that are to protect public assets and investments, if available, do get deliberately weakened by successive crooks in public offices and eventually (through their cronies and fronts) they become beneficiaries of the resulting collapse and ruins we have just made allusion to. This is a sad reality! Once the people fail, or allow themselves to be incapacitated in order to be unable, to protect their good inheritances, then the argument “governments have no business in business” will be difficult to defeat! Moralists should take note of this! Nonetheless, “governments do have business in business” – in some ways – even in capitalistic countries! 

For instance, governments in the United States subsidise agriculture and energy in that country. However instead of tackling the massive “corruption” in its petroleum “subsidy” regime, the Nigerian federal government removed it abruptly in May, 2023. Who says “corruption” has now stopped as a result of local increases in prices of imported refined petroleum products? To us, it is all about increasing the price! It is now being insinuated that something like “subsidy” on petrol is back through the ‘backdoor’ in Nigeria as a result of the recent unpredictable but never-to-be-unexpected volatility in international crude oil prices! Where are those fictitious “market forces” being talked about in Nigeria? Is there the enabling environment for investments in local refining capacities by private entities? This is about the only crude oil exporting country without any working local refinery, thereby, importing refined petroleum products for its local consumption! This absurdity is supposed to be senseless; but this is Nigeria, a confused contraption, led over the years by groups of people with rentier mentality! Sensible Nigerians should be ashamed! We hope that the ongoing Israel-Hamas (Palestine) war will not worsen the current local challenges regarding stability in prices of petroleum products for local consumption. Whichever side anyone belongs to, in this kind of discussion, it should be noted that politics influences the economy. So, if good living conditions are desired by the majority, then their politics must be fixed to achieve this aim.

Erakhrumen, PhD, teaches at the Department of Forest Resources and Wildlife Management, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.

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