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Zambia’s Sata: Man Of The People?

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It is just over a year since President Michael Sata and his Patriotic Front came to power. While the government is quick to point out its successes, the opposition disputes their claims. Reginald Ntomba reports from Lusaka.

Man Of The People? How Sata's Zambia Is FaringThe election promises were mega and so were people’s expectations. The settling down has been chaotic, characterised by ministers differing on policy, and President Michael Sata’s frequent reshuffles and bundling and unbundling of government agencies. While critics see this as a sign of unpreparedness to govern, admirers say it is the right thing to do to put in place a working formula.

But, all the politics and economics combined, nothing is more vexing than the issue of unemployment. Zambia has an employable workforce of six million. But the formal sector can only accommodate around 700,000 jobs. Everyone – from the president and his ministers to the opposition – is describing the lack of jobs as a “time bomb”.

Over one million first-time youth voters were crucial in swaying the vote in the Patriotic Front’s (PF’s) favour. They were promised jobs. Their impatience is palpable. Last August, angry youths, demanding jobs, openly confronted President Sata (popularly known as “King Cobra”) as he toured stands at a trade fair in the capital, Lusaka, with his guest Robert Mugabe. A month earlier, thousands of youths lined up for 800 spaces in the army, to which Sata remarked that: “When you see children fighting over recruitment in the army, it means they are warning us. If we are not careful, these young people will beat us one day.”

The government has called for patience, saying it has formulated a National Strategy for Industrialisation and Job Creation, which prioritises four major areas in the next five years, namely agriculture (550,000 jobs), tourism (300,000 jobs), manufacturing (90,000 jobs) and infrastructure development (20,000 jobs).

Kenneth Kaunda, 1970

“We need a determined and bold assault on unemployment as a moral equivalent of war,” says Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda. How much they deliver on this promise will be crucial for their 2016 report card. But the opposition is not convinced. Elias Chipimo, leader of the National Restoration Party, has accused the government of being “almost clueless” on unemployment.

Critics accuse the government of lacking “a clear policy direction”. This is on account of ministers issuing contradictory statements on policy matters. Another issue that caused concern was the frequent merging and unmerging of ministries. In the last one year, ministries have frequently been created and recreated and what started off as a lean government has steadily grown. PF secretary general Wynter Kabimba admitted his party still had a challenge of transforming itself from an opposition party to a ruling party that can deliver on its promises.

Six months into power, the government “quietly” raised salaries of the president, ministers and parliamentarians. The increase itself was controversial not least because it was done secretly but also because the PF was critical of the same while in opposition. The finance minister defended the increment, saying the president’s salary (slightly over $5,000 a month) was not extreme. “Some of us from the private sector have significant companies. We are not in government for salaries. We are here to serve the people,” he said. Critics see this as contradictory, given that the ruling party identifies itself as a “poor people’s party”.

Not surprisingly, the PF’s own assessment of its performance is upbeat. It lists the reintroduction of the “abuse of office” clause in the Anti-Corruption Act, which was removed by the former government, as one such achievement. “This is no mean achievement as corruption has mainly been responsible for the lack of social services such as access to good health, clean water, food and education for the majority of our people in the last 20 years [of the MMD],” the party said. Under the anti-corruption campaign, several former government officials are already appearing in court.

‘We WILL look global’

In line with the government’s promise of “social justice”, Zambians earning $400 a month are now tax exempt and the government introduced a minimum wage for low-income earners. This, the government says, is in an effort to bring dignity to the people and increase their disposable income.

Last September, the government embarked on a roadshow that successfully sold a $750m bond on the international market, against a target of $500m. The government was elated at the oversubscription of the bond, attributing it to “the confidence the international business community has in the PF government”. The money, according to the treasury, will be spent on infrastructure such as energy ($255m), roads and railways ($430m), rehabilitation of hospitals ($29m), finance to SMEs ($20m), with the rest going to transaction costs.

The PF’s once-upon-a-time-strong anti-Chinese rhetoric has quickly fizzled. It is hard to tell this was a party that was vehemently opposed to the Chinese. But who can ignore the world’s second largest economy? On Day One in office, Sata met Beijing’s ambassador and called for a win-win situation.

Zambians try to catch a glipse of the new Pres...

Zambians try to catch a glipse of the new President, Michael Sata at his inauguration ceremony in September 2011 (Photo credit: Commonwealth Secretariat)

The Chinese continue to dominate infrastructure development projects in the country. They are building the country’s most expensive road in the west of the country, at over $200m. As the government has launched a programme called “Link 8000” aimed at tarring 8,000 kilometres of road over a five-year period, the Chinese are set to continue to enjoy the large chunk of these contracts. Several senior party and government officials have frequented China since coming to power, although Foreign Minister Given Lubinda downplays any suggestions of a “Look East” policy. “We will not look north, east, west or south. We will look global,” he said.

Dealing with secession calls

On the political front, the biggest headache the government has to deal with is the demand for secession by the Western Province. Before Zambia’s independence, the Western Province was a separate British protectorate called Barotseland. Five months before independence, then Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda, the king of Barotseland, Sir Mwanawina Lewanika, and British Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys met at Lancaster House in London and signed what is known as the Barotseland Agreement of 1964. They agreed that Barotseland and Northern Rhodesia would merge to become Zambia.

The agreement provided for some semi-autonomous status of Barotseland. But in 1969, five years after independence, the government enacted the Local Government Act, which outlawed the agreement. Despite pressure from traditionalists in the area, successive governments have over the years skirted the issue. When Sata was campaigning in 2011 he promised to restore the agreement. After winning, he appointed a commission of inquiry, whose recommendations he now is “reluctant” to implement. In what was widely seen as an attempt to placate the people of the area, he recently announced plans to construct a university and a stadium. While such infrastructure would be welcome for any part of the country, that is unlikely to calm the traditional hardliners. Sata himself revealed in November that some people in the area were recruiting for an army to destabilise the government. If true, it underlines the complex nature of the problem.

A house divided

After he won the election, Sata appointed some legislators from the former ruling party, MMD, as deputy ministers. According to Sata, this is aimed at promoting “an inclusive government”. But his opponents see it as nothing but a ploy to increase his numbers in parliament. The MMD has so far resisted the temptation of expelling its legislators to avoid costly by-elections, but much more it fears losing the legislative seats. The MMD is swallowing its own medicine as it started the system of appointing opposition legislators in 2003.

But there are bigger problems for the former ruling party than the “annexing” of its MPs. In May, the party elected Nevers Mumba (former vice-president and ambassador to Canada) to replace the retired Rupiah Banda. But in December things took a dramatic turn when Mumba and his secretary general Richard Kachingwe wrestled for the control of the party. There were ugly scenes at the party secretariat as Mumba’s supporters hounded Kachingwe out of office after he announced that Mumba had been expelled.

Kachingwe contends that Mumba’s candidature was flawed because records at the Registrar of Societies show that Mumba is a leader of another party that he formed when he was expelled from the MMD in 2005. At the time of going to press, Kachingwe had filed an injunction in court to stop Mumba from being party president. Wherever these intra-party battles end, one thing is for sure: the party has some learning to do about sticking together outside government.

Elsewhere, the leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainde Hichilema, is appearing in court for alleging that the government sent some youths to train as a militia in Sudan. The opposition condemned his arrest and accused the government of intolerance and stifling dissent. But the government has warned that while it promotes free speech, it will not condone lawlessness.

Going forward, interparty relations are expected to remain explosive. While the opposition is breathing heavily on the government and is determined to keep it on its toes, the government on the other hand is keen to show it is in charge and will not allow itself to be undermined.

Old dog, old tricks

Given that Sata’s closest ally in the region is his southern neighbour, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, of whom he has been an admirer for many years, his close ties with Harare took no one by surprise. Just after Mugabe visited Lusaka in August 2012, an MDC delegation was in Lusaka, too, to seek support for Zimbabwe’s planned elections in 2013. But Zambia’s foreign minister denies his government has a bias towards Mugabe. At a SADC meeting in Angola, he said that Sata told both ZANU-PF and the MDC to resolve their differences at home rather than going to the SADC, which would appear to be their “new colonial master”.

On other occasions, Sata’s off-the-cuff remarks have raised eyebrows at home and abroad. For example, he told visiting former US president George W. Bush: “The most interesting thing, previously there used to be four great countries: United States of America, United Kingdom, Russia and France. And you have all drifted away; you have abandoned Africa after taking all our raw commodities, our raw materials and building your cities.

Woman Selling Dondo City Markets Lusaka

Woman Selling Dondo City Markets Lusaka (Photo credit: radio continental drift)

“I mean, as far as you are concerned, Africa doesn’t exist. And when we have a former colonialist like you coming back to pay back what you took out of this country, we are grateful.”

But Bush refused to lie low and argued that America was never a colonial nation and fought for its own freedom too.

“Mr. President, I don’t want to argue… France might have been a colonial nation, Britain might have been a colonial nation, but not the United States of America,” Bush countered.

When Sata was criticised for lacking diplomacy and etiquette, his handlers attempted to put a positive twist on it, claiming it was a “lighthearted remark” and that Sata and Bush often joked. Yet that was only the second time the two had met.

At a SADC summit in Maputo in August, Sata took delegates by surprise when he said Zambia was ready to welcome refugees if Malawi and Tanzania went to war over a border dispute. These repeated gaffes would seem to suggest that his handlers have to brace themselves for damage control.

In response to an opposition parliamentarian who asked about the president’s impromptu remarks, Vice-President Guy Scott got Parliament laughing when he said: “In English, they say ‘you cannot teach an old dog new tricks’.”



  1. It’s nice to read these comments.

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