By KENNEDY LIMWANYA-THREE hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days ago, all eyes were on the one man who walked up the dais, lifted a copy of the Bible in his right hand and solemnly pledged to uphold the Constitution of the Republic of Zambia in the office of President.
It was a touching speech that he delivered on a sweltering Sunday afternoon at the National Assembly grounds, coming only weeks after the casket of his predecessor Dr Levy Patrick Mwanawasa SC had lain in state there.
He promised the nation that he would be “President of all Zambians.”
Mr Rupiah Bwezani Banda had just been elected fourth president of the Republic of Zambia in the country’s first-ever presidential by-election which he scooped on his very first attempt at the plum office.
It is safe to admit that for the most part of the year since that November 2, 2008 inauguration, President Banda has come under abnormally heavy bombardment of verbal and editorial spray. Some of it from a collage of strange bedfellows, only united into one deathly squadron by a common but morbid desire to unseat him, whatever the cost.
Confessedly, it has been a difficult first year in office, given the many seemingly insurmountable hurdles that lay ahead of the way with high priests of doom praying for the worst.
The global financial crisis that had emasculated even the strongest of the world’s economies did, not spare Zambia which, like most Third World countries, is heavily dependent on donor support for survival.
It was a trying season for President Banda; a period that would test his ability to provide leadership in the midst of an impending catastrophe.
While the government was busy working out solutions to the sagging economy, President proved to the world that he was a believer in team work by putting together a national indaba aimed at identifying the possible way forward for the country.
The two-day indaba opened in Lusaka on his 153rd day in office under the theme “Global economic crisis: a wake-up call for Zambia’s economic transformation.” It brought together more than 600 delegates from all walks of life, including a delegation from the Zambian Diaspora whose recommendations the Government has taken seriously hence the opening of a Diaspora Desk at State House.
The gathering was indeed a timely response to the call by World Bank vice-president for Africa, Obiageli Ezekwesili who had advised African governments to engage their citizens in finding solutions to the crisis that threatened to negate all the gains of the last few years.
She showed the World Bank’s confidence in Mr Banda’s administration by attending the Lusaka indaba which also attracted African Development Bank president Donald Kaberuka.
That was a critical period in which some opposition parties had been hoping that the donor community would abandon Zambia. It was a slap in their faces as this gathering came just four days after the cooperating partners, at a high-level policy dialogue in Lusaka, had pledged to continue supporting Zambia’s development programmes.
And President Banda has kept his development agenda alive and not departed from his inauguration speech in which he pledged to do all he could to ensure that all Zambians were empowered.
While some interest groups labeled him all sorts of names, Zambia attracted important financial institutions such as commercial banks from such countries as Nigeria and South Africa. The African Development Bank (AfDB) and the European Union (EU) among others provided considerable financial support for a variety of economic development programmes.
In the period when he was dismissed as a globe-trotting President with no concern for impoverished populations, he saw to it that the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) bought 175 330 tonnes of maize worth K228 billion at the price of K65 000 per 90kg bag from around the country.
It should be asked whether an incompetent President would run a Government that has signed an Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (IPPA) to facilitate the $210m expansion of Manda Hill Shopping Centre in Lusaka? And preside over investments such as the $160m world class shopping mall to be constructed on the Copperbelt and spark 1000 job opportunities?
What about the $1bn in investment attracted to the Chambishi Multi-Facility Economic Zone where he commissioned a new ultra modern smelter? How could an incapable President enable Government to pour K500bn into development programmes in Northern Province? The list is endless.
But then, one need not be a political scientist to see through the schemes which seem not to have a consistent premise of misrepresenting President Banda as they ogle the 2011 presidential and general elections, now about 25 months away.
They now want to align President Banda to all sorts of imaginary misdeeds and make him answerable to more questions than the number of days he has been in office.
It is a frightening indictment of the sharp descent that our politics have taken that politicians of all hues, and other Zambians who are generally expected to be better informed, shift their positions and fire barbed words only meant to derail the country’s progress.
To the doomsayers, Mr Banda has done nothing positive and they are determined to peddle that message, no matter how personally unconvincing it may be even to themselves.
They will say nothing about how in the first national budget under President Banda, Government has sought to raise productivity in agriculture by allocating K1.1 trillion to the sector agriculture sector while zero-rating tax on major agricultural implements to encourage local manufacture of the equipment.
Further, they are not prepared to agree that that the removal of windfall tax on copper incomes and retention of variable income tax were part of the cost reduction measures aimed at encouraging further investment in the mines and forestalling further job losses in the wake of the downturn.
Nor, in their parochial opinion, is there any good in the two national budgets presented in 2009 by Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane whose thrust has been economic growth while, at the same, time cushioning the effects of the global financial crisis.
Should it not matter that within the first one year in office, President Banda has presided over a government that has, at long last, changed the budget cycle to ensure that the financial year begins at the very threshold of the year?
It is the first time since independence in 1964 that this is happening and it must be noted that it takes firm but fair leadership to change trends that have almost become tradition.
There are still a lot of difficulties that need even more of President Banda’s time and commitment, but Zambia is not on its knees. By far.
None of the country’s problems, especially in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, can be expected to be solved overnight. This is one fact that has been acknowledged by International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn who has said that while the global crisis has taken a little longer to reach the low-income countries, the outlook for these economies has deteriorated dramatically and that a global recovery would be delayed into 2010, even if the countries adopted the right policies to fight recession.
Zambia is no island, and credit must, undoubtedly, go to President Banda’s pragmatism in handling serious national issues as opposed to pandering to narrow and short-term political gains.
In fact, is it not a phenomenal achievement that despite the current crisis, the Central Statistical Office has forecast a 6.3 per cent growth rate?
China, which is now a global leader in economic growth, is just below eight per cent while most developed countries are sub-zero.
Over the one year that Mr Banda has been president, Zambians have had the time to assess character and personality. RB, as the President is fondly known, is a friendly and likeable person who loves people.
This is the one man who, as is no longer unusual, often defies security restrictions to extend his hand to greet an ordinary Zambian in many of his travels around the country.
The last one year has provided an opportunity for the Zambian people to see the two faces of President Banda; one, as portrayed by his sworn opponents and all manner of image builders, and the other as actually seen when one gets to meet him physically.
He has that natural charm with which he makes audiences feel at ease in his presence. There are not too many presidents, least of them in Zambia, with the time to bow before an ordinary poor citizen. Yet this is almost second nature to President Banda.
He has not departed from the humility that he showed when he served as vice-president under the late Dr Mwanawasa and in the run-up to the October 30, 2008 presidential by-election.
A different president, considering what material the country has on the elections menu, would throw the nation into tense subservience. That high office would have no friendliness and no empathetic face.
A journey back to November 2, 2008 reveals streets of unwarranted provocative remarks from the media, opposition politicians and – rather oddly and even more destructive—former senior members of the MMD who have shown an eccentric bent for poisonous language.
In spite of the barrage of hot chillis, President Banda has remained patient and steadfast. Not just for biased claims’ sake, it is true that in RB, the country has a fatherly overseer whom opponents should oppose with a sense of goodwill rather than the vehement ill-will on display day in, day out.
The arrogance and high-handedness exhibited by some opposition political leaders is alien to President Banda who believes in team work, which is why he stands out among all candidates ahead of the 2010 elections. Accused of corruption, he launched the National Anti-Corruption Policy on his 299th day in office… proof of corruption indeed!
One might think that Zambians, after the loss of president Mwanawasa, needed a calming personage of reassuring demeanour ,such as RB has proved to be. This is the amiable man whom some political warlords would like voters to see as a monster.
Just under a month ago, when the shortage of petrol was beginning to bite, President Banda chose not to engage in the flip-flopping that has become characteristic of some of Zambia’s leading opposition leaders.
With a straight face, he apologised to the nation and regretted that the petrol shortage had inconvenienced many Zambians: and earned mockery for that.
All this was happening with one year of his presidency.
Yet Zambians know of some politicians who, eight years later, have still never apologized for shepherding a horde of machete-wielding hoodlums on a maiming spree in Chawama Township in Lusaka.
Eighteen years later, there has been no apology from those who commandeered bulldozers on a demolition exercise of poor people’s houses in Kanyama Township.
Some people may have forgotten these ugly episodes, but many still have bitter memories of the reign of those who now pretend to be the saviours-in-waiting.
Many Zambians are now living in squalour because of the manner in which the country’s mines were privatized while those who headed the privatisation teams are literally swimming in opulence and simultaneously firing hateful accusations.
They are too arrogant and proud to apologise. All they can do is use the wealth to mount a no-holds-barred campaign to get to State House, regardless of whether their partner is someone they described, not too long ago, as uneducated and uncivilized.
It surely appears that a man who stands for nothing will fall for anything. It is important for people, particularly politicians, to remember that life is lost at finding itself all alone. This is the advice from Jose Ortega Y Gasset in Revolt of the Masses (1930).
He adds that mere egoism, as exhibited by some new entrants on the political scene, is a labyrinth. To live is to be directed towards something; to progress towards a goal.
Leadership and pretence do not go together. The humility to show remorse when things do not appear to go well is a virtue that leaders ought to embrace at all times.
It does in no way mean weakness.
Despite Mr Banda’s obvious humility in harnessing every Zambian’s effort in charting the country’s course, the attacks – many of them personal – have shown no signs of petering out.
The attacks have even extended to President Banda’s grown-up children who, like any other Zambian, have the right to determine their own destiny. At his age, Mr Banda has educated and mature children who defined their own fortunes in life during his earlier years in Government, diplomatic service, business and retirement.
“When will President Banda visit Zambia?” mockers have laughed in jest.
His participation at regional, continental and world events has served Zambia well, for in this day and age every nation needs international recognition. He now chairs the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and is vice-chair of the SADC organ on politics.
Zambia is tangibly present on the world stage.
From that level to featuring as a special guest at the Chakwela Makumbi ceremony of the Soli people in Chongwe last weekend, President Banda serves as a unifying factor that it is time Zambians so recognized and appreciated.