There is an apocryphal argument that Abraham Lincoln once said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Whether or not Lincoln uttered those words, which is highly unlikely, the words seem apt in a time when humankind is threatened by a marauding disease and people do not only hope to be saved by medical science but to be reassured, and even consoled, by their leaders. Leaders like Donald Trump have demonstrated comical vacillations and confusion in their clamour to comprehend COVID—19. The saving grace that Trump has is that he is supported by institutions of world renown such as the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that will skirt around his ignorance and charlatanism and provide scientific direction on the ongoing problem.
In my previous piece, I opined that perhaps the rest of the world should not hope for leadership direction that could be beyond the political and intellectual resources of the leaders of the world’s big economies. Indeed, South Africa has shown exemplary proactiveness in not only giving timely updates to a shaken country but offering advice and taking stern measures that are commensurate with the gravity of the circumstances. President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Health, have been the reassuring face of South Africa’s brave efforts to stem the advance of COVID-19. While the number of infections is alarmingly on the rise in South Africa, at least citizens appreciate the enormity of the situation and their leaders do not leave them in suspense. In a rare show of solidarity, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), joined hands with leaders of all political organisations to urge caution on the coronavirus. Even Julius Malema, Ramaphosa’s political bête noire, lent his voice to the chorus of adulation to Ramaphosa and Mkhize’s efforts and counselled all South Africans to hearken to governmental fiat. Everywhere in South Africa, the government’s presence and advice have been ubiquitous. Even Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who talks to his citizens as though he is an irritated teacher lecturing slow-learning students, is nevertheless visible to Ugandans in the same way that an obviously confused Donald Trump is to Americans.
A far-cry to what has been happening in South Africa is Zambia’s handling of the coronavirus. As of 25 March 2019, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Zambia was 12 compared to South Africa’s 709. While this might give the Zambian government some sense of security, that security is only chimerical. Zambia’s health sector is so dismal that untold numbers of economically fortunate Zambians typically rush to South Africa for medical treatment. Some are spirited out of the country under the auspices of the government. There is a long litany of Zambian politicians and elite that have died in South Africa while pursuing medical treatment. This is an indictment on the quality of Zambia’s health sector. It is thus understandable that Zambians have noted, with alarm, the inexplicable silence of the country’s government, more so from the republican president. For more than two weeks, social media and news outlets have been awash with speculation about how to interpret President Edgar Lungu’s silence on the ongoing virus. By delaying his response to the virus, Lungu unwittingly ceded his place of the national authority to his detractors who are all too pleased to see him blunder into yet another abyss.
Indeed, Hakainde Hichilema, the main opposition politician in Zambia, has taken the initiative and opportunity to constantly address Zambians, through social media and press engagements, offering advice on how the Zambian government and the people at large can ameliorate the advancing virus. Chishimba Kambwili, another opposition leader and erstwhile government minster in Lungu’s cabinet, has also added his voice to what the country is going through. These initiatives have only exposed Lungu’s silence as callous and cynical. Regardless of whether or not the opposition is opportunistic, the national president should shoulder the most blame. He has not used his power to show his mettle. He is aware that Zambians at the moment are anxious people, having experienced a spate of gassing incidents that left dozens of citizens dead. The least they need is another preventable malady to gnaw at their comfort, and least of all, what they need is a president who betrays them by silence in the face of grave danger.
After what seemed like an eternity, a tired-looking Lungu addressed the nation on 25 March 2020. However, the damage had already been done and the flagging morale of many Zambians will scarcely find consolation and safety in his belated address. The initiative is no longer his because Zambians have been injured, through this crisis, to act as though they do not have a president. Unlike in South Africa where the people and political parties are behind the government’s initiatives, in Zambia, the government is pitted against petrified citizens and opposition parties. Lungu is fortunate to have a determined citizenry that can withstand adversity. But he has failed to use his power to lead his people and allay their fears amid trying circumstances.
Emmanuel Matambo is a senior researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.