Politics Sans Ideas?

THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE,   kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

By Kayode Komolafe

0805 500 1974

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” – John Maynard Keynes in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

This year’s political conjuncture is similar to those of some years in the last two decades of Nigeria’s experiment in liberal democracy.

To be sure, one undeniable success of this experiment is that it has been the longest period of civil rule in which regular elections have been held at the end of the constitutional tenures of elected officers.

One feature of this experience is that about a year to the elections, the personalities of political aspirants would be the topics of discussions. As it is today, so it was in the political ferment of 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. The symmetry among these years was that they were years before the years of the general elections: 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. The one preceding the year of election was invariably that of anxiety, permutation, wild speculations and realignment of forces.

During each of these years, which had its own unique events, politics meant just a little more than the discussions of the personalities of those seeking power. Big and small names come up for political analysis; but you don’t find many big ideas in the passionate discussions. You look for the ideas about which the political personalities are passionate in vain. All you would find is the geo-poltical calculus for or against the candidate; but that is very important in the current politics.

It has been politics of personalities and not politics of ideas.

So, as the political stability of the last 23 years is celebrated, the factor of ideas in political development should also be considered. Politicians and the general public alike ought to worry about the content of this politics that is hardly driven by ideas.

The other day, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had to remind politicians and their supporters that by its calendar, open campaigns were yet to begin.

Yet some political activists have carried on as if campaigns were already in full swing.

As a matter of fact, the emerging political culture is that as soon as the results of an election are announced by INEC, speculations begin to fill the air about the names of aspirants for the next election, which is expected to take place four years from the time. Democracy in the Nigerian context has been reduced to elections. Election has become an end in itself. Politicians invest more energy and time in thinking about how to “capture” power and less on what to do with the power.

This is certainly not the way of politics of development.

And the fact that this has been the dominant political trend is ample proof of why underdevelopment remains a great challenge facing the country.

Now, it is within the remit of INEC to caution political gladiators against non-compliance with the statutory time-table. Beyond premature open campaigns, however, due attention should also be drawn to the huge deficit of ideas in the content of the contemporary politics. This is a job well beyond INEC. It is actually a task for all those interested in the politics of development. Ironically, the existence of the task is not even acknowledged yet.

By the way, some “practical politicians” and their strategists and handlers reading this column are wont to chuckle and dismiss this proposition as “academic,” if not naïve.

They would claim to be adept in understanding the political reality of how elections are won without placing much premium on ideas. Yet, it is the lack of potent ideas informing programmes and policies that is responsible for the fact that poverty and underdevelopment define the political economy and society. Mass poverty is not an academic thing; it is a conspicuous reality on the street with all the ominous consequences for the polity.

The trend of downplaying politics of ideas is palpable again in the public sphere as political forces gear up their activities towards 2023. Instead of identifying ideas associated with aspirants, pundits would rather demonise the politicians they oppose while canonising those they are rooting for in the 2023 elections. Some public intellectuals don’t attack the ideas of politicians they disagree with on principle. Instead, some public intellectuals elect to insult and libel politicians by making unsubstantiated allegations. Hardly is any rigorous debate of policy options and strategies of development taking place. But falsehood and hate permeate through the public sphere in which the quality of discussions could hardly compare with what was witnessed four decades ago in the same country in the months preceding elections.

Take just a sample to illustrate this increasing contempt for politics of ideas. The Nigerian National Development Plan 2021-2025 was recently put together. It is instructive that the tenure of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari would end before the 2025, the last year of the plan. The proposed solutions to the major issues of the economy are embodied in the plan. Among other projections, there is the target of increasing the labour force to about 74 million by 2025. Given the enormity of the scourge of youth joblessness plaguing the economy , this aspect of the plan is crucial. The focus of plan is appropriately on the empowerment and engagement of the youth. In the plan government’s revenue is to be increased to 15% of the GDP. Infrastructural projects to be cited in the six geo-political zones are also part of the plan, which is produced in three volumes.
The development plan was launched about a year to general elections. Yet it was never a matter vigorous debates among the political parties, big or small. The socio-economic logic of the plan ought to be debated by political parties and other interest groups. But that was not case despite the government’s approach of setting up committees of “stakeholders” to produce the drafts. The truth, of course, is that certain ideas informed the philosophical underpinning of the plan. The tendency of government to abdicate the responsibility for economic management to the private sector was obvious in the process.

The duty of economic management (policy-making and designing of strategies and programmes) is squarely the business of government. A private sector – dominated economy is not synonymous with a private sector- managed economy. So it is strategically wrong to select some businessmen (who are in competition with others in a “free -market” economy) to draw up policies including regulatory ones. From America to China it is the government that manages the economy using instruments of policy informed by ideas associated with the parties in power. From Germany to Japan, the private sector elements are major players in the economy not as economic managers or policymakers, but as competitors in their respective industries.

The foregoing are the various issues that politicians ought to make the focus of their politics in the bid to generate solutions to the problems.

Political parties should not hold conventions only to nominate candidates or elect national officers. Parties are yet to develop the culture of holding policy conventions where the ideas driving governments elected on the platform of the parties could be debated by members across the ranks. A national development plan in a country faced with the socio-economic problems of the Nigeria’s magnitude should attract the interests of political parties. It is significant that a senior member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, recently called for a policy convention of its party. Neither the APC nor the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is currently planning a policy convention on the multi-dimensional crisis facing Nigeria.

The changes of party leaderships are not based on policy disagreements. They are often triggered by calculations towards the next election. It is assumed that you need to “control the party structure” as an insurance against the contest for the party ticket.
It has been proved in other lands that ideas matter a lot in politics and governance. As quoted above, this point is made in the famous 1936 book of John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Keynes ‘s focus is about how the ideas of economists of different ideological hues shape the policies of politicians in power. It doesn’t matter if the politician proclaims these ideas or not. Hence, Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal policies in the 1980s in Britain were influenced by the ideas of Austrian economist Friedrich Von Hayek while the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile was philosophically backed by the economic ideas of Milton Friedman of the Chicago School.

Keynes, whose ideas shaped the policies of many governments for decades in the last century wrote about the power of ideas, “right” or “wrong.” According to the liberal economist, the power of ideas is actually such that “ the world is ruled by little else.”
Political parties and politicians seeking power on their platforms should spell out the ideas that would shape policies if they get into power. This is important for public scrutiny. It is the duty of political parties to sell the ideas. It is a symptom of political underdevelopment that all that Nigerian political parties do is to provide the electoral vehicles for politicians to ride to power. Political parties should be defined by certain ideas. Does a party believe in government funding public schools so that the children of the poor could have access to basic quality education? Or does the party believe that quality education should be an expensive commodity as it is the case today in Nigeria? Should basic healthcare be an institution in the social sector? Or should it be a big industry to be patronised by those can afford it like it is done in the automobile industry as some brilliant experts are advocating at present? These are the ideas that should be debated at party meetings.

It is far from being utopian to suggest that the polity would certainly be enriched if men of ideas from various ideological backgrounds could partake in politics.

Consciously or otherwise the words and action of politicians in power are influenced by some ideas. It is an ideological reality. Confronted with the tragedy of dilapidated primary schools, a governor responded with the cliché that “ government cannot do everything.” He contemplated privatisation as the solution!

Hence basic education has become a huge business for mushroom private investors in a sector that should be decidedly social. You wonder what exactly a government can do if it cannot provide quality basic education for the children of the poor in the Nigerian setting?

Tendencies for politics of ideas should sprout in the political parties. The smaller parties should distinguish themselves by becoming parties known for politics of ideas.

When that happens, voting would not only be determined by personality, ethnicity or faith; the ideas for development would also be an important factor in making electoral choices.