“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to keep government out of business,” says he to a chorus of knowing laughter.
They say you laugh because it is funny and you laugh because it is true. Those words on a hot day in Kigali were the proof of that pudding. It is one of the great stories of Africa; how can government’s step back to allow business to roll up its sleeves without abandoning its roles as a representative of the people? Many in business believe government should concentrate on regulation – although not too much of it – and tax collection – again, not too much and filling the gaps that the market can’t.
Most business people you talk to in Africa think government should simply get out of it. The free market rebuilding exercises in countries like Rwanda and Mozambique show that, given the chance, private money can build a lot of the infrastructure needed if it is left alone.
“We want them to take over,” Rwandan Finance Minister Claver Gatete told me the other week in Kigali when I asked him about any unease the firm hand foreign investors have taken in his country.
It is all good stuff that I am sure the investors and bean counters in New York would want to hear. A tribute to the ‘unseen hand’ of business, written about by classical economist Adam Smith, that sorts out everything from transport problems to hospitals. All will be well if you just leave alone – or laissez faire and the economists have it.
But the big question is: are the governments of Africa going to swallow this whole? Will they give up the so called commanding heights of the economy – fought for in many bloody campaigns for independence – I say not easily. In many countries, government still lords it over business with all the perks of power and patronage that it brings.
I think maybe there could be a tipping point in Africa when governments feel threatened and start to roll down the shutters against foreign investors with belligerence and maybe draconian legislation. On that day, I believe, the continent, its business will poorer for it.
Maybe, it is time to bite the bullet and let the free market have its head in Africa. Surely, we have seen how the central-controlled economies of Africa have failed.
Maybe, it is time for a miracle on the continent. A time to ease the camel through the eye of the needle.