The Sun News

Using force to push down food prices

In the past one year, the Federal Government has made some economic policies on the run. Owing to the impulsive nature of the policies, many businesses have gone under. Many more are on the edge of collapse. When government throws its hands in the air and says the global economic crisis is the cause of business closures or the source of suffering in the land, it shows the government has no hard-headed policy to deal with our economic predicaments.

Indecision, lack of comprehensible policies, and lack of clear national development objectives underscore why the government resorts to all sorts of inappropriate measures to deal with serious national problems. Consider, for example, the decision by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) last week to set up a panel to force down prices of foodstuff.

I have never seen where any government used or contemplated using sheer force or direct intimidation and threats to intervene in a free market economy. Strange as it appeared, the FEC decided to do the unthinkable – to set up a task force to push down the prices of food items. To complicate this amazingly extraordinary decision, the task force was given a deadline of one week to submit its report. Just like that? There is no better way than this muddled action to demonstrate this administration’s mechanical approach to governance. The anaemic state of the economy has exposed the government’s predilection for rolling out extraordinarily hasty policies.

By giving the task force seven days to submit its report, the FEC has shown it does not understand the fundamentals of economics or the primary ways that market forces operate. The FEC wants the task force to perform a miracle and to come up with recommendations that are based on fiction rather than facts. This is nothing but economic management by impromptu decisions. Policies are improvised, unplanned, and are not based on verifiable evidence. When you have a problem, the first thing you do is to try to understand that problem. It is not too difficult to understand the underlying causes of high food prices in an import-dependent economy. If you import most of the foodstuff consumed in the country, you cannot force sellers to sell at your preferred prices.

Did the FEC ever ponder how this short-sighted initiative could be achieved? Or whether it is achievable? How could food prices be restrained or shackled with iron chains to remain stable in a free market?

Anyone who understands the way a free economy works will tell you that no government can successfully force down the prices of food items. You apply strategic policy to improve the economy that subsequently will lead to a fall in prices. You cannot push down prices of foodstuff when you do not produce the food items. The prices that buyers pay are, therefore, subject to forces in the market. Prices of imported food items will always be dictated by the forces of supply and demand. That is basic economics. You don’t need professors of economics to tell you this.

One missing link, indeed a surprising character of the task force that was rapidly set up by the FEC is the non-inclusion of military officers, wielding guns that would have given the task force that coercive force, if you like, that extra teeth to bite sellers so they could be compelled to reduce food prices. Those sellers who refuse to reduce their prices should be shot execution-style. This is no time to mess with the Federal Government’s rapid response to economic difficulties. I would suggest that top army generals should be included in the task force if the government wants immediate and astonishing results.

Already, criticisms by civil society have started to trail the FEC decision. Yinka Odumakin, spokesperson for Afenifere, a Yoruba social-cultural group, presented the most impressive and penetrating critique of the decision. In a news report published in The Sun newspaper of Friday, 3 February 2017, Odumakin wondered whether the task force would “send soldiers into the streets to force people to sell goods lower than the price which they bought them?” He said further: “I do not understand what the job of the task force would be. What is the task force going to do? Are they going to flog people to fall in line like they did in 1984? If Nigerians are looking for the definition of cluelessness, they have found it in this administration.”

This is an apt criticism. Odumakin has captured public sentiments over this controversial and ill-informed decision. A similar sentiment was expressed by Bismarck Rewane, chief executive officer of a finance outfit who told The Sun last week that food prices were set by market forces and not by panels or committees. He said: “The committee will achieve nothing because it is a total waste of time.” He made the point that meaningful policies will achieve for the government what the task force will not achieve in a decade of committee meetings. His words: “It is policies that will bring down prices of food. Committees will take sitting allowance and achieve nothing.”

When the All Progressives Congress (APC) won national elections in 2015, no one expected the Federal Government and the ruling party to commit so many policy summersaults so soon after wresting power from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that had been in power for 16 years. For the past 21 months, governance at the federal level seems to be driven by ad hoc responses to national problems. Sometimes, you get the feeling the APC was not prepared for office before it was voted into power. Or, perhaps, the party was rushed into office before it had the time to articulate and roll out some of the best policies in response to long-lasting problems that seem to defy solutions.

As the government approaches the second anniversary of its inauguration, there is a sense the country is floating like a rudderless ship in the middle of an ocean, without a clearheaded and farsighted captain, who has the capacity to lead. No one knows for sure how long the ship would remain in this uncertain state. No one knows where the country is headed. No one can identify specifically some productive policies the government has developed to confront the recession, the hard times that people have been experiencing, and how long citizens would have to endure the suffering, pain and difficulty of accessing basic services, including three decent meals per day.

Democracy, the philosophical foundation on which the government was elected, is currently under threat. Citizens are often denied their right to free speech. A musician campaigned to lead a peaceful protest in Lagos on Monday this week to convey to the government various messages, comprising public frustration with the quality of the government they elected, public disappointment with the government’s inability to articulate policies that will end the recession, and deprivation of citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Rather than find solutions to the numerous socio-political and economic difficulties, the government seems to be interested in propagandising, hoping that speechifying would do for it what it cannot achieve through hard work. Nothing persuades citizens as strongly as clear evidence that the government is working hard to alleviate poverty and to improve their socioeconomic conditions. No amount of pointless pontificating would win for the government the people’s favour. Everywhere you look, you are confronted with that feeling of ennui, the atmosphere of helplessness, righteous anger, and worse of all, irritation over lack of leadership. During election campaigns, people were promised many things. Two years on, no one has sighted evidence that the government has fulfilled some of those promises.

In the past one year, the government adopted knee-jerk economic and financial policies that made things difficult for businesses and indeed for all citizens, all in the pretext that it was responding to the recession. The multiple exchange rate systems fashioned for the badly wounded naira showed the extent to which our economic planners are confused and at odds with reality. How can a country have several exchange rates that serve different purposes for just one currency? 

To achieve some kind of stability in the exchange rate of the naira, the government in collaboration with the Central Bank must aim to reduce the existing exchange rate variability, including the irregularities that have continued to weigh down on the naira. But the government is unwilling to do so because it does not listen, and it does not believe that democracy is a good thing. It operates on the misguided philosophy that government is the source of all knowledge. That, indeed, is a rigid viewpoint that undervalues and diminishes the capacity of all citizens to contribute to national development, including citizens’ ability to engage in deliberative democracy. When government treats everyone like a second-rate citizen, who lacks the capacity to think, you get that feeling we are being governed by authoritarians.

Let me make this point clear. A government that subscribes to the totalitarian view that all power belongs to rulers is autocratic. An elected government that believes it has the divine right to rule without considering the views of the wider society is living in Fantasy Island. 


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