Once heralded as a Democracy, depression descends on Zambia

Once heralded as a Democracy, depression descends on Zambia

The Zambian government does not like Zambians to say this, but the fact is that the country is in a freefall – at the very least, it feels as though it is in freefall.
The Kwacha, which for a long time exchanged at 2 to 1 Rand, recently touched par with the South African currency, a psychological barrier few thought could be crossed. This is not good news for the cost of imported goods that fill South African supermarket chains in our capital, Lusaka. The US dollar for its part, at the time of writing this article, was trading upwards of K15 as compared to 5 to 1 in 2011 when the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) first came to power. To be sure, it seems like so long ago when citizens’ biggest problem was a corrupt, but arguably functional Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) government, under which the economy boomed and Zambians, though resentful at the arrogance and graft, had a bounce in their steps. Well, at least for middle-class Zambians that was the case, but that is a whole separate story.
So angry were Zambians with former President Rupiah Banda – and especially with his sons who were accused of getting brazenly rich on public contracts – that they ultimately voted in the PF, which was led by ardent populist Michael Sata. He promised Zambians “people-centered governance” and sold the Zambian poor a few pies in the sky. Of course, Mr. Sata soon reneged on his promises, such as reining in Chinese influence in the country. He also filled his cabinet and diplomatic posts with kith and kin – and this, in a stunningly unapologetic manner. He then died while in office. And that is when the real trouble started.
Shortly thereafter, Zambians gave a sympathy vote to another PF candidate, former Minister of Defense Edgar Lungu, who even just a cursory interrogation would have shown to be, shall we say, less than suitable for the presidency. The result of that choice is why Zambia finds itself in a predicament today.
There is a power crisis that no one could have imagined a few short years ago when electricity was largely taken for granted by urbanites connected to the grid. Power cuts of upwards of sixteen hours a day are now the norm.
As for money, the fiscus is more hole than numbers with President Lungu recently forced to admit that only 10% of the budget is available to run the country. The rest of the money is going to government emoluments and to service a debt stubbornly contracted by a government which, by turns, ignored or insulted the cacophony of voices who rightly raised alarm at the country’s debt appetite.
In turn, no money means no medicine in hospitals. Salaries are routinely delayed. Add critical survival benefits have been withdrawn from students who have always depended on government support to access the education that is the only equalizer in an increasingly unequal country. Overall, today, Zambia is rated as the fifth hungriest country in the world.
In the midst of all this, government corruption and the mismanagement of state resources have flourished. Before the public can pick their collective jaws off of the floor about one scandal, another one breaks.
One may ask: How is the government of the Republic of Zambia responding to all of this? The simple answer is that it is at sea.
President Lungu is generally reticent, and almost never heard from. (Well, to be fair, Lungu did grace the country to a rare press briefing recently, after enough memes about his absenteeism had made the rounds on social media and elsewhere).
The Zambian police are one of very few sectors where the budget allocation has grown in the last couple of years. The government is quickly buying face masks and anti-riot gear, batons, and new armored vehicles in the name of “law and order.” It feels like the government is arming itself against the people. The newly well-equipped anti-riot police, unlike the president, are seen and heard from often. They do not like citizens to gather or to stand up and be heard.
So, today, Zambians are left wondering what happened to their country that not too long ago was touted as an “emerging democracy” — a Zambia that just recently was a declared middle income country and a winner of the African Nations Cup – buoyant on hope and promise.
Laura Miti is a commentator on Zambian affairs. She heads the Alliance for Community Action a civil society group that works to grow the capacity of Zambians to hold government accountable for public resource management. She was a long-term columnist for the Post Newspaper and the South African Daily Dispatch.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.

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