Do we still really know our President

With the passage of one year plus in government, it feels natural to assess and engage all interested parties on how far and what direction our nation is going.

Why are we still arguing about Mr Michael Chilufwa Sata? When he was leader in opposition, engaged in an explicit campaign to transform Zambia in his own image as a prosperous nation where everyone would be happy, this was understandable. Mr Sata was seen a man who had appointed himself the public face of a new Zambia – who was determined to “be the change”and to declare himself at war (some times in very personal terms) with the traditional conception of Zambian party politics especially that of the previous regime(MMD) to which he once belonged. This stance, naturally made him the focus of attention.

What did he really believe? and what would he really offer to Zambia? Would he stand by the basic principles of democratic good governance he has been exposed to throughout his life or did he want to replace them? These questions have to be asked because he was, quite self-consciously, offering himself to the electorate as a new form of politics in Zambia to take us to the next millennium.

He is now not only the president, but longest-serving politician of any of the main stream party leaders. Mr Sata has not only served in all previous governments that have existed, but includes the colonial administration where he served as a police officer. Surely, we have had enough time to make an appropriate assessment about him. And yet, here we are, still demanding to know who he is, what he stands for, and what he really wants for the country. We – that is, Zambian pundits, MPs from both floors,(even from his own cabinet) and the general public are still squabbling among ourselves more about Mr Michael Sata himself than any clear specific party policy he is offering.. Or, as often as not, the argument about policy references to his leadership style, goals and intentions(or, increasingly, his competence). Of course politics is, like everything else in modern life, personality-led. But I do not recall a time when, one year plus in office, there was still so much open speculation over any of our past president’s basic objectives and character traits.

Its is as if, in spite being governed by him currently, and having held various positions in previous governments, we still do not know him at all. Is he an opportunist who maintains unfortunate connections for his own egoistic ends, or just a good man who is naively loyal to his patriotism. Is he really a solid believer in democratic good governance whose concessions to the rule of law that underpins democracy is purely tactical, or is he using the cover of ‘Dont Kubeba’ mantra to push his personal objective.  Does he have a great vision which he is deliberately keeping hidden from view because it is too radical for public consumption? Or have the most radical and innovative projects of his government rhetorical  statements (districts creation, social welfare, employment, and poverty reduction reform) come from other people – with little original contribution from him?

Those of us who find this vacuum unsettling and accuse the president of of lacking convictions or ideals have been confronted with an interesting line of defence in recent weeks. A number of sympathetic commentators (mainly from his ministers and on-line news media) with clear loyal intentions have risen to the challenge of filling the void: Our president’s apparent weakness is actually his greatest strength. Is it true to say he does not go in for visionary commitments or abstract values. That is because he wants us to see him as a down-to-earth, practical sort of person who believes that actions are more important than words. He, is therefore, largely uninterested in argument, preferring ‘common sense’ to logic. Version of this refrain have been popping up with such regurarity that many of us are tempted to think they are being prompted by someone at state house. But could Mr Sata actually be pleased with this dipiction of himself as some kind of  smug (self-satisfied), patriot (philistine ninny)?

Here is a man who at an early stage of his life had an opportinity to study in UK, ended up a locomotive train driver and a cop. His exposure to a developed society (though a colonialist) and his achivement at that time was a privilege only to the few. This, added to his long service in politics, are we expected to believe that he can not see the point of argument or logic? Is this supposed to endear Mr Sata to ordinary people (marketeers, street vendors, office workers or intellectual codswallop)? If so, its hugely, horrendously misjudged.  Ordiary voters know that their electral choices are based on the power of argument and – perhaps more subliminaly – on the logical consistency of what is offered to them. To refuse to engage those things that matter most shows contempt for them and for the electral process itself. What else were those election promises, pledges and prospects to Zambians of the 90 day ultimatum?. Without logical argument it would be difficult to convince Zambian voters and politics would consist of nothing but the chasing of purblind prejudices and not-worth-for vested interests. I am sure Mr Sata knows too that it is only through argument that you can test your own assumptions and beliefs, and that without logical examination political ideas would never progress. Perhaps it is not so much that Mr Sata despises argument in principle – but that he finds himself, at the moment embarrassed by his inability to offer any case to the argument. He seem to have lost the sense of zeal he had when in opposition which his government is supposed to be about, to such an extend that he is incapable of defending it with sound arguments and logical rigour. The zeal of up lifting the standard of living of majority poor Zambians with promises and pledges during the campaign seem to have gone in thin air within one year in office.

The much talked projects of social welfare reform  employment for the youth, educational reform – so courageously and creatively engineered by him are still a pipeline dream to many Zambians and in theory remain models for modern Zambia to be attained.

The president currently scarcely mentions them (except in one of his press statement blamed it on his ministers for not developing Zambia) that makes laughing unavoidable  A complementary strand of these reforms from his think tank were proposals for smaller government on the theme  “cost reduction” of running government outlining, how it would be possible for government to be both less expensive and more efficient:  how public services could actually be improved while becoming cheaper to run, reduce ministerial posts, where possible combine ministries and correspondingly reduce permanent secretaries posts. Certainly this rhetoric was more appealing to the general public in the wake of seemingly waste of government resources by the previous regime. Mr sata would pride himself on achieving this with practical results. As I recall, the president did make this notion as one of his campaign themes – of cuts in spending, avoid wastage to get greater value for money and spread benefit to ordinary poor Zambians.

But then, characteristically, he has left the idea undeveloped and undefended. Perhaps now that he has achieved his chief objective as head of state, he couldn’t be bothered to make the case – and to pursue it with the kind of tireless, obsessive thoroughness which it would require. Which is a shame:  if ever there was an example of “common sense” combined with logical consistency, this is it. An additive of the more recent revelations of corruption allegations within the government defiles the very fabric on which Mr Sata made a solemn stand, to “fight corruption” vigorously to which Zambians entrusted him with the governance of their nation. This turn of events makes the case of argument even more compelling on Mr Sata to prove his case, otherwise his win has made fools of us all.

MacDonald Dekhane Phiri

Quiet Observer – UK.

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