Apr. 9, 2014
Jim O’Neill – the Goldman Sachs banker who in 2001 coined the idea of a Brazil-Russia-India-China ‘BRIC’ serving as “building bricks of the 21st century world economy” – has another bright idea. He recently announced a new fascination with the Mexico-Indonesia-Nigeria-Turkey countries, which “all have very favourable demographics for at least the next 20 years, and their economic prospects are interesting.” O’Neill is now completing a BBC series on the MINTs, and no doubt will profit handsomely from investments made in these countries’ financial assets, the way any scurrilous marketer does when, brandishing an insider-trading portfolio, he draws naïve consumers to a product with limited shelf life.
MINT economic prospects are ‘interesting’ insofar as Goldman Sachs makes enormous profits from churning investors’ funds through new markets, using whimsical rationales based upon silly acronyms. As Matt Taibbi described the firm’s philosophy in Rolling Stone five years ago, “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Goldman Sachs is a useful barometer of stupidity, since it brought the world economy to its knees in 2008 by creating infinitely-toxic financial products. For example, what was just a decade ago a supposedly glorious group of high-growth European countries led by ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland, became financially-cancerous ‘PIGS’ once Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain melted down seven years ago, in the process wiping out hundreds of billions of dollars in paper assets. O’Neill has also tried out the ‘Next 11’ and ‘CIVETS’: Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa.
The rationale behind acronym subterfuge? According to O’Neill, his customers “are still scared of these places.” That means, as the Christian Science Monitor interpreted, “financial firms use colourful nicknames to push investments,” and O’Neill is “using the power of language to try to make investors feel more comfortable about putting their money into these places.”
And now, just a year after the Durban BRICS summit, you are more likely to find Brazil, India and South Africa described as leading the “fragile five” emerging economies, and Russia now also under increasingly severe financial attack the more it attacks the border demarcations on Eastern European maps.
MINT is as silly as BRICS when it comes to genuine economic prospects. To illustrate, Nigeria this week became Africa’s biggest economy measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But it is also Africa’s fastest-shrinking if measured by wealth, which I take to incorporate the depletion of oil, degeneration of land, and departure of financial flows to offshore hideaways.
Nigeria’s ThisDay newspaper acknowledges that local elites are attempting quite a scam with their GDP ‘rebasing’, a project that aligns national income account statistics to international norms: “The exercise was shelved in 2000 in order to pursue debt relief from the Paris Club [of Northern donor countries] and multilateral lenders. The thinking of the economic team then was that a revised GDP for the country would have pushed the economy into the category of the medium income economies.”
That move, according to ThisDay, “would have made the country forfeit its eligibility for access to aid and grants from international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank, as well as debt relief or forgiveness which was being considered at the time by the G8 group of industrialized nations. The strategy of delaying the rebasing worked as the Obasanjo administration’s pursuit of debt relief was successful.”
Finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who during the 2000s also served as a World Bank managing director, was so successful arranging the deal that her South African counterpart Pravin Gordhan nominated her to be Bank president two years ago (she lost to a US citizen, Jim Kim, because Washington and Brussels maintain their apparently permanent grip on the Bretton Woods Institutions).
However, the fake-GDP scam and 2005 debt relief were not viewed so flatteringly by everyone, with experts like Nigeria Jubilee leader Rev. David Ugolor complaining: “The Paris Club cannot expect Nigeria, freed from over 30 years of military rule, to muster $12.4 billion to pay off interest and penalties incurred by the military. Since the debt, by President Obasanjo’s own admission, is of dubious origin, the issues of the responsibilities of the creditors must be put on the table at the Paris Club.”
Remarked the Global AIDS Alliance, “The creditors should be ashamed of themselves if they simply take this money. These creditors often knew that the money would be siphoned off by dictators and deposited in western banks, and the resulting debt is morally illegitimate. They bear a moral obligation to think more creatively about how to use this money.”
The next step in the scam was for Obasanjo to agree to the reimposition of neoliberal economic policies. According to ActionAid’s Soren Ambrose, “The Paris Club requires that countries applying for relief be under an IMF program, but the prospect of agreeing to one is political dynamite in Nigeria. The Paris Club was however under great pressure to complete a landmark deal with Nigeria, where the legislature had threatened to simply repudiate the debts.” The IMF snuck in through the back door as part of the debt deal.
In short, the long-standing economic swindle was actually perpetrated against the Nigerian population by Washington financiers and allied local elites, especially Okonjo-Iweala. Later, in 2012, her neoliberalism catalysed a national ‘Occupy Nigeria’ strike that nearly overthrew the government because of a dubiously-formulated recall of a petrol subsidy, under direct pressure from IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.
The final stage of the rebasing scam was Sunday’s announcement that Nigeria has risen from a GDP of $262 bn in 2012 to become, after new counting techniques, the largest economy in Africa with $491 bn GDP in 2013 (compared to $384bn for SA), when in reality it is the fastest-shrinking in terms of wealth.
The term ‘wealth’ is critical to interrogate because in addition to the financial assets, productive machinery, real estate, and ‘human capital’ (educational accomplishments and skills) of a people, even the World Bank concedes that we should add ‘natural capital’, i.e. resources such as Nigeria’s untapped oil and minerals, forests and agricultural land.
Here we can spot the difference between bogus ‘Africa Rising’ rhetoric as GDP increases thanks to raw materials exports, and Africa crashing in terms of fast-shrinking wealth, especially in resource-cursed countries like Nigeria and South Africa. To fail to acknowledge the distinction is to import from malevolent Northern economists what University of Pretoria political economist Lorenzo Fioramonti calls a Gross Domestic Problem. It means ignoring women’s unpaid labour, pollution, social ills and a variety of other variables that should be measured as losses from net income. The biggest of these GDP-blind factors in Africa is the depletion of natural resources, which when mined or drilled out are only counted as GDP credits on the income accounts, but not as debits, as they should be since a source of future income is now gone.
It’s as if you have several generations’ worth of your family jewels locked away but your drunkard nephew steals the key, sells the jewels for a song, and boozes away the proceeds. Like Pretoria (or Washington for that matter), Abuja has seen lots of drunkard-nephew types exercising power, aided and abetted by multinational corporations like Shell Oil which infiltrate and underhandedly manipulate critical parts of the state.
Nigeria shrinks because natural capital is being stripped out of the Niger Delta by foreign oil companies without the kind of compensating investments that resource-rich Norway, Canada and Australia can brag, because their mining and oil companies are headquartered at home there.
The Bank’s 2011 book, The Changing Wealth of Nations, provides the latest available comparative data: in the year 2005 (when oil averaged $50/barrel), the average Nigerian lost $280 – or in sum, 140 million Nigerians lost a net $39 billion – because the depletion of natural resources far outstripped the income gains from exploiting petroleum. (In 2005, each South African lost $245 of wealth on average, and four other oil-stained African countries had higher per capita – albeit lower absolute – wealth shrinkage than Nigeria: Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Chad and Mauritania.)
This was not a one-year fluke, it amplified a trend the Bank observed for at least a decade earlier: “wealth in Nigeria declined by 15 percent.” During the 14 years prior to 2008, say Changing Wealth of Nations authors, “clear trends emerge, with Adjusted Net Savings as well as per capita wealth increasing in Asia and ANS declining in Sub-Saharan Africa. In both instances, a few countries dominate the trend: the stellar performance of China and, more recently, India drives the positive trends in Asia, and the poor performance of Nigeria and a handful of other countries outweighs the positive performance of many other African countries.”
Accurate updates are not available, but as oil prices rose to $145 per barrel through mid-2008, crashed to $32 for a short while later that year, and then rose to the $80-100 range since 2010, Nigeria’s wealth shrinkage became even worse. If all other factors remained roughly constant, 175 million Nigerians would have lost around $80 billion net, last year. Rebase that, Abuja.
What can be done? There is an obvious case from the standpoint of climate change to ‘leave the oil in the soil’, so as to avoid not only the looting and all that goes with it in political, economic, ecological and public health degradation, as Saro-Wiwa’s successor Nnimmo Bassey explains in To Cook a Continent – but justice would demand that in compensation, the North pay a climate debt to ordinary Nigerians not venal politicians running the state. The superb group Environmental Rights Action makes this case.
The outflow of wealth was slowed decisively on one occasion, five years ago, when activists of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) sabotaged pipelines so often that by the end of 2008 oil production was cut to half the prior year’s level. This followed a period of turmoil after Ken Saro-Wiwa’s non-violent fight against pollution and underdevelopment a quarter century ago ended in his execution in December 1995, even though Nelson Mandela had personally intervened against the then dictator Sani Abacha.
I was asked to write the Foreword to a brilliant 2013 book about MEND, Temitope Oriola’s Criminal Resistance, which uses social psychology as well as political economy to unearth why oil generates such intense resistance. By all accounts, forces posing as MEND more recently degenerated into opportunistic activity, in contrast to the politically-‘liberatory’ kidnapping of the early years. Their former leader, Henry Okah, got a 24-year sentence from a South African judge for supporting car-bombing terrorism in 2012 and he tried to escape a Pretoria prison twice in the last two months, including last week. And although an amnesty led to substantial MEND disarmament once Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan (a Delta native) came to power, this year has witnessed a resurgence of kidnapping and sabotage, which in the last two months disabled Shell and Agip pipelines that carry more than a fifth of Nigeria’s crude to ships.
MEND and the Islamic extremist movement Boko Haram have created the most intense battlefields within the MINTs and BRICS. In contrast to Nigerian guerrilla and terrorist attacks, leftists have been active the past few weeks in Mexico, where mass anti-privatisation protests addressed energy and education. A frightened Newsweek reporter last October reported from Mexico’s ‘streets of fire’, as protests “have become more frequent, volatile and violent, analysts say, a response to major domestic policy shifts and growing alienation among the young and unemployed.”
Indonesia recently witnessed two million protesting workers demanding 50 percent wage increases, while activists in Turkey competed with Brazil for the largest take-overs of public space in major cities last year. The potential destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park was just as important a symbolic statement of crony-capitalist power as Sepp Blatter’s politically-destructive relationship with Brazilian Workers Party president Dilma Rousseff, herself prone to neoliberal tendencies such as raising public transport prices beyond affordability.
Russia has witnessed mass protests, many very courageous in that authoritarian context: a democracy movement in late 2011, a freedom of expression battle involving a risque rock band in 2012, gay rights in 2013 and at the Winter Olympics, and last month’s anti-war protests. Indian activists shook the power structure over corruption in 2011-12, a high-profile rape-murder in late 2012, and a municipal electoral surprise by a left-populist anti-establishment political party in late 2013. And Chinese activists protest tens of thousands of time a year, at roughly equivalent rates in urban and rural settings, especially because of pollution, such as last week’s throughout Guandong against a Paraxylene factory.
Millions hate these kind of repressive relationships in the MINTS and BRICS, exemplified by the ‘toxic collusion’ – so named by Marikana mineworker victims’ lawyer Dali Mpofu – uncovered in emails between Cyril Ramaphosa, other Lonmin bosses and South African politicians and massacre-ready police. But South Africa’s diverse protests, probably numbering far more than the 12 399 (including 1882 violent ones) that minister Nathi Methethwa counted last year alone, still fail to link up. Indeed, many have xenophobic tendencies (like yesterday’s in Maake, Limpopo), pointing out how structures of power stay in place through divide-and-conquer.
That doesn’t mean they won’t, and if Occupy Nigeria could emerge from nowhere to win a dramatic victory against petrol price hikes in early 2012, then a higher GDP figure will not distract the masses with false pride. Likewise, many increasingly radicalized South Africans will continue the long, slow struggle to replace neoliberal nationalism with something more durable, and in doing so will have to reiterate to the society why it’s not appropriate to be count the decline of natural resources as a positive contribution to GDP, when the resource curses continue.