At the global level, the eyes of the world are trained on the tension between Iran and the United States of America, a consequence of Iran’s duplicity and America’s knee-jerk, irascible and impulsive foreign policy since Donald Trump became president. Predictably, the oncoming US election in November 2020 has also claimed global attention.
In Africa, the Libyan crisis is enjoying a lot of attention because Khalifa Haftar, an unabashed warlord who is humoured by powerful Arab allies like Egypt, is threatening to usurp the position of the Government of National Accord, a structure that is recognised by the United Nations. Haftar is using force for his advances. In the midst of all this global and continental intrigue, there is Zambia, an African country whose decline, in both economic and political terms, has gone largely unnoticed, except by diplomats such as the IMF’s Alfredo Baldini and America’s Daniel Foote who have witnessed first-hand this decline and have been victims of it.
It is politic to present a brief context to what is happening in Zambia, with Edgar ChagwaLungu as president. Lungu was first elected president in 2015, to see off the rest of the five-year term that his predecessor, Michael Chilufya Sata, could not finish due to his death. The contrast between the two, in terms of national appeal, charisma and political longevity could not be starker. WhileSata was a political veteran whose storied career goes back to the Kaunda years, Lungu was a virtually obscure lawyer, some would say with a dubious reputation. His rhetoric does not command the attention that Sata’s almost effortlessly did.
Indeed, Lungu used his inexperience, ineptitude some would say, to posture himself as a humble candidate during the bitter struggle to succeed Sata. This duped a lot of candidates into thinking that they would be comfortable with a humble president who, after Sata’s death had voluntarily handed over his temporary presidency to Guy Scott, who was Sata’s deputy. In his memoir, Adventures in Zambian Politics, Scott rues the fact that he stripped Lungu of his portfolios, thereby making a martyr out of a politician who would later emerge, after a bloody conference, as president of the ruling Patriotic Front, paving way for his eventual entry into State House.
Since being elected for the second time in 2016, with just over 200,000 votes more than Hakainde Hichilema, his closest contender, Lungu has presided over governance and economic blunders unseen probably since the presidency of Frederick Chiluba (1991-2001). The manner with which Lungu muscled his way to the party presidency was a portent of what is currently obtaining in Zambia. His followers were not averse to use force and violence to stem the campaign of those who preferred other candidates. It is also noteworthy that because of rank corruption and his readiness to unleash violent goons on his opponents, Lungu should rightly bear the responsibility of losing stalwarts of the ruling party such as Guy Scott, ChishimbaKambwili and Harry Kalaba.
In 2018, the United Kingdom and Finland among others froze aid to Zambia after more than $4 million of the social cash transfer went missing. Even though the government was quick to deny charges of corruption, Lungu fired EmerineKabanshi, the minister who was in charge of those funds. Secondly, Lungu demonstrated a fiendish disregard for the 2018 findings made by the Financial Intelligence Centre that from January to September 2018, of the ZMW 6.1 billion (about $520 million) that was lost through suspicious transactions, 67% (ZMW 4.9 billion) was lost through corruption and public procurement activities were cited for being ‘significantly vulnerable to corruption.’
Because of the haemorrhaging of public resources, the Zambian government has had to make frantic appeals for loans to China and the IMF. And that is how Alfredo Baldini enters the fray. As IMF country representative, Baldini was admirably bold in advising the Zambian government that its borrowing mechanism was not sustainable and could lead to debt distress. In lieu of taking heed, the Lungu administration responded by demanding that Baldini be withdrawn for being ‘too negative.” What compounds Zambia’s woes is that the current government seems to have very limited redeeming features.
While as Margaret Mwanakatwe, the previous minister of finance with a surprisingly impressive CV and an equally surprising degree of feckless fiscal wisdom, is no longer in charge of the national purse, Lungu still retains Dora Siliya as government spokesperson; this is a woman who gained notoriety, during her days as a minister in previous ruling party, for pouring scorn on Michael Sata, founder of the current ruling party and a man that Lungusucceeded. In 2021, Zambians will be going to the polls and more than anything, the choice that they will make will not only decide the endangered fate of democracy in Zambia, it might turn out to be a mental test for Zambians.
It should be noted that while Lungu is a steward, what is wrong in Zambia are institutions that the Lungu administration seems so skilful at undermining and destroying. Thus, even if Lungu were to be replaced next year, the rot he has wrought could only be corrected if the institutions that have been rendered impotent under his rule are set back on track and fortified. As things stand, Zambia is not only a thoroughly corrupt country; it is, as the 2018 Democracy Index notes, a hybrid regime, only one step away from an authoritarian one. To do away with the current malaise is not Zambia’s best option: it is the only one!