Zambia: From Doom to Boom

By John Whitehead in England-When President Rupiah Bwezani Banda took over the reigns of power in Zambia, a small Southern African nation, the copper dependent economy went on its knees due to the collapse of the metal prices on the foreign market. Tens of thousands of jobs in the copper mines were at risk as the owners threatened to scale-down operations due to the global economic meltdown.

“Care and Maintenance” became an infamous phrase investors used as a cautious approach to put thousands of miners on the streets. But President Banda, 73, took a bold stance which is not usually common among many African leaders when it comes to dealing with investors – especially foreign investors with big connections to western capitals.

The first victim of the closure was Luanshya Copper Mine (LCM), an old dilapidated mine but which is the only mainstay for the poor people in Luanshya town on Zambia’s copperbelt – which shares a huge chunk of underground copper deposits with neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). President Banda flew to Luanshya and, in no uncertain tones, warned the owners that should they decide to place the mine under “care and maintenance”, they should expect a Government takeover in order to preserve jobs. At first it sounded like a joke! But as events turned out, President Banda stuck to his guns and had the mine taken over and sold to new owners – China Non-Ferrous Mining Corporation (NFC) of China.

President Banda

President Banda

The mine shafts are now rolling and many Zambians are getting back their jobs at this mine, which has a history of previous closures though.

The Presidential intervention in the mining crisis is understandable. The sector contributes about 70 percent of the country’s total foreign exchange earnings and currently employs about 58,000 direct jobs.

Therefore, Government had to take action and there was no better person than the Head of State to issue the warning against investors who planned to close-down the mines. The stance by President Banda sent shock waves to others in the industry who had also threatened to close down.

Most of them stayed the course and only discreetly and quietly downsized. But, in comparison to other mining countries such as DRC and South Africa, Zambia’s handling of the crisis has been above average.

Another mine, Munali Nickel, which was placed under “care and maintenance”, is also due to reopen following its acquisition by a strategic equity partner – another achievement by President Banda.

But instead of receiving kudos from the opposition and trade unions for his efforts, President Banda has become a subject of abusive attacks. The private media roasts him for a meal everyday! Even here in England where there is press freedom, you cannot read such uncouth editorials on the Queen or even the Prime Minister. Editors do use civil language to criticise the leadership. But not in Zambia!

The above notwithstanding, one has to stand on an ivory tower and watch what Zambia is going through in comparison with other African countries in similar situation.

By far, President Banda has provided a mature and steady leadership that was needed for a country going through such economic difficulties. Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – they rarely sing praises for African countries – has publicly admitted that Zambia weathered the economic meltdown unscathed, thanks to the leadership of President Banda.

The IMF said Zambia’s economy showed “considerable resilience in the face of the global economic crisis” and predicted a growth above the projected five percent. Inflation was moderating, due to softening of food prices and a limited reversal of the earlier depreciation of its currency, the Kwacha.

Moreover, the international lender said the revised inflation target of 12% by end-2009 was well within reach. The country is posed to register a bumper harvest in the 2009/2010 farming season following the personal intervention of President Banda in the early procurement and distribution of farming inputs – fertilizer and seed was distributed to all the 72 districts by August, the earliest it reached the beneficiaries in many years.

Another foreign watchdog, Transparency International in its latest Global Corruption Perception Index put Zambia ahead of many African countries – an improvement scored under President Banda’s one year of leadership (2008 to 2009 survey).

Equally, the Commonwealth Business Council at its recent meeting in Trinidad and Tobago rated Zambia’s ‘Cost of Doing Business’ as having significantly improved in just one year! African countries rarely score such goals within a year – indeed these achievements are attributed to a man on top.

President Banda’s credentials are equally impressive, in comparison with most African Heads of State.

He is a western trained economist (studied at the prestigious Lund University in Sweden) and had a stint at Cambridge University in England (Obtained his masters’ degree).

He served in lofty jobs at a tender age – Ambassador to the United Nations, Washington and Egypt before becoming Foreign Minister. He served as Minister of State for Mines as well as Chief Executive Officer of National Agriculture Marketing Board and the Rural Development Corporation.

One needs to visit many African countries to realize how luck Zambia is to have such a leader with such credentials. In fact, his critics say he travels too much – but history in Africa has showed that leaders who rarely leave their countries are undemocratic and corrupt and fear to travel because scandals maybe unleashed in their absence.Or least they are deposed! Even US President Barack Hussein Obama has traveled 20 times in less than a year since he became President – foreign engagement are part of the occupation of any leader worthy the name.

President Banda, maybe, he will be remembered after his term has ended – a truly Zambian way of honouring good leadership. This time around, they are all busy showering praises for late President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa (who passed on last year) for having been a good leader when in fact they used to call him “a Cabbage” when he was alive!

*The author is a London-based Independent Researcher specializing on African Affairs and Leadership. He has traveled frequently in Africa and studied the political leadership of many countries. He also works as a background researcher for Risks Consultancy Firms around the World.

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