AT the start of his administration, President Jakaya Kikwete told fellow citizens of his concerns about the increasingly cozy relationship between politics and business in the country’s budding multiparty democracy. Of course, he was stating the obvious. A combination of economic reforms and political liberalization during the 1980s and 90s has produced some interesting trends in the working of political systems where there is no clear demarcation between the two. There is doubt that the president raised quite a pertinent issue that could turn out to be an important factor in the proper functioning of Tanzania’s infant democracy. The issue here is whether or not this is an idea worth pursuing and what it entails.
On the one hand, after nearly three decades of socialist policies and public ownership the economic reforms-cum-liberalization unleashed immense entrepreneurial forces among Tanzanians that had been dormant during the period. The subsequent period witnessed the emergence of the economic elite, the ‘nouveau riche’, the new generation of Tanzanians whose business successes had led to unprecedented accumulation of wealth. Means and ways of such accumulation is not the issue here. The important thing is that Tanzanians have woken up to new economic realities in the rapidly globalizing world.
On the other hand, the advent of multi party politics opened a window of opportunity for a more inclusive and/or participatory political process. This is evidenced in the mushrooming of political parties and the emergence of what can be described as the new political elite vying for a chance to provide ‘leadership’ to fellow Tanzanians. Of late their actions or behaviours have become feedstock to national tabloids as side-switching and backstabbing are now familiar features of the system.
The most interesting development during the period, however, is the rapport that has emerged between politics and business thus raising concerns in some quarters. The economic/business elite perhaps after years of bankrolling other people and/or political parties saw it fit to get directly involved in the political process. Indeed, they had more than enough financial resources at their disposal to make it happen. What is not very clear though are the real motives for such a move by the business elite and, more important, the long-term implications on the political process. At this point in time one can only speculate as we attempt to do here.
On the political front, the country has witnessed more people getting engaged in the political process as leaders and party members. More interesting, however, has been the tendency to associate holding of political office with wealth. On the one hand, one must be wealthy to ascent to political leadership as Councilor, MP or President. On the other hand, political leadership which is supposed to be service to public is seen as an opportunity for one to amass wealth. In other words, the ‘public servant’ is no longer what it used to mean. Either way, politics and wealth are seen as inseparable entities.
Perhaps it is this distorted view of politics or the political system that has attracted the business elite into politics or the political elite into business. The two are now mutually reinforcing: use acquired wealth to get into politics and once in use the system to acquire more wealth or protect what you already have. Under such circumstances, the incentives to get involved are too attractive to be ignored. The question is: can the two be separated? This is a million dollar question whose answer can be as controversial as the question itself.
To start with, it must be pointed out that politics and business have never been strange bedfellows and they will never be. They have always lived off each other and in the process they have both prospered perhaps at the expense of some sections in the society. On the one hand, the political world has relied on businesses for financial support to conduct their affairs especially when it comes to elections, given the fact that elections are quite expensive affairs (just think of CCM’s 40 billion plus shillings price-tag for 2010!).
In fact, the Americans, considered a ‘mature’ democracy, have the most expensive political elections in the world and where politics-business interface is a hot policy issue. On the other hand, the business community has looked upon politicians or political parties for policies more favourable to their businesses, that is, lower costs and higher profits often at the expense of the larger society.
The problem, as Tanzania is faced with now, is when the politician and the businessman or woman is one and the same person. People hold political offices and do business at the same time. Of course, one cannot deny the fact that a business person, like any other citizen, has a constitutional right to vote and be voted into public office. This right cannot be taken away from him or her and any attempt to do can be challenged in a court of law. This being so, why talk about separation of politics and business especially considering the fact that nowadays it seems every Tanzanian is a ‘mjasiriamali’ of some sort?
The point is even though politics and business are considered as soul-mates there is always the inherent danger when the business elite decides to get into politics where decisions of national interest are made. For example, consider someone owning a mining company or with substantive interests in it and the same person is involved in making laws, policies, rules or regulations governing the mining industry?
Or someone with an interest in transport, construction, communication, energy or the tourism industry and makes decisions regarding the same. One cannot rule out a common human failing: conflict-of-interest. That is, making laws or policies that are favourable to a company or industry where one has got interest. In other words, public offices are used for private or personal gains.
How can separation of politics and business be accomplished then? Again, this is a tough million-dollar question. In a situation where information about who owns which business leaves much to be desired; where the informal sector abounds; where transactions worth billions of shillings are sometimes hard to trace, separation of politics and business can only exist in our imaginations.
In fact, if anything it will be discriminating against those few whose businesses or other interests are public knowledge and favour those with multimillion ‘underground’ businesses. Perhaps what is needed is a well-thought out system with not only binding but enforceable laws, rules and regulations which would task business people who double as politicians on one hand and politicians who engage in business on the other.
All in all, the situation we are faced with is such that any thought about trying to separate politics and business is likely to be met with some degree of skepticism and for good reasons given what we know. We have reached a dangerous point where ability to provide effective political leadership is being equated or linked to wealth.
On the other hand, wealth is also being equated to human intelligence or wisdom. That one must be really smart to amass wealth and such cleverness can be applied to handle or manage political affairs. Such thinking, crooked as it seems, goes against the spirit of the proposed separation. Therefore, the starting point should be sustained efforts to change the mindset that being wealthy does not mean the ability to provide effective political leadership.
For now let us just wait and see.