By Gilbert A. Phiri
We have lately been inundated with news of a very public jostling for the Presidency of the Movement for Multi- Party Democracy (MMD), which is now the biggest opposition party in Zambia. Electing a leader of a political party is an onerous responsibility. For an opposition party, it is probably the most important job that it will ever undertake. To get the question of leadership wrong is fatal to an organisation such a political party seeking to govern a nation.
It is a truism that political party loyalty in Zambia is very fickle. It is always a comical affair to perennially witness alleged loyalists of a political party unashamedly defect to the ruling party at the drop of a hat. With declining loyalty to political parties by alleged members, the most important asset of a party remains its leader. Therefore the question of leadership should never ever be trivialised. A lot of emphasis is sometimes erroneously placed on party policies and manifestos as tools that win elections. In Zambia, one would not be so wrong to suggest that the average electorate does not bother to read manifestos. The average electorate is not given to spending prodigious amounts of hours comparing and contrasting the manifestos of political parties before deciding which one has the best written document!
Having put the imagined importance of policies, manifestos and programmes of political parties in their place, it is suggested that the character, likeability and personality of the party leader is a variable that any ambitious party should not lightly overlook. The fortnues of a political party can be greatly enhanced by the magnetic personality and the likeability factor of its leader. Tony Blair (British Labour Party), Barack Obama, Bill Clinton (USA, Democratic Party) and Nelson Mandela (ANC, South Africa) spring to mind as cases in point. To some extent, the incumbent President Michael Sata also fits the bill in his Patriotic Front. He is plainly viewed as a people’s politician. He has a simple disposition which endears him to the simple man and woman on the street. He has an unbelievable knack to distill complex theories into simple doses for the most illiterate electorate to understand. His strength lies in the practical message he carries. Should he even implement a quarter of his pro-poor electoral promises then he will have raised the bar that opposition politicians need to climb even higher, come the 2016 elections.
The MMD is at a stage where it needs to seriously reflect on the qualities that the aspirants for the presidency of the party bring to the table. MMD has the benefit of reflecting on the history of political succession in Zambia’s party politics. The post- Kaunda UNIP failed to choose a leader of this continent-wide respected liberation movement. UNIP seemingly got it right when they elected the late Kebby Musokotwane president but what came thereafter is not even worth any analysis. Kebby Musokotwane had captured the nation’s imagination when in his 30s he had become Zambia’s youngest Prime Minister. As a youthful Minister of Education he distinguished himself by making unannounced impromptu stops at schools and making an effort of putting to shame slumbering headteachers. He had also served in the prime position of Minister of Finance and later as Zambia’s High Commisssioner to Canada. When Dr. Kaunda retired from active politics, finding someone to fill his oversize shoes was never the stuff of rocket science. Musokotwane was a natural successor, despite not having been a member of the Central Committee of UNIP at the material time. His tribe was never an issue, he had earned his stripes.
Allow me to venture to suggest that the simple reason why UNIP might never regain its pride of place at the top table of political parties in Zambia is because it has yet to address the leadership question post-Kaunda. On similar lines, the United Party for National Development (UPND) has lacked the testicular fortitude to restructure a leadership that has led it to three general elections defeats in a short period of six years! Since the demise of its enigmatic leader Mr. Anderson Mazoka, its fortnues have declined and it has ceded its influence in the Western and North western regions of Zambia and has only been posting positive electoral results in its traditional stronghold of Southern Province. The failure by the UPND to boldly answer the question whether a leader that has presided over three general election defeats should be given a carte blanche mandate at the helm is a pointer as to why it might never rule Zambia. The electorate do get fatigued over having to repeatedly vote for a candidate who might never win an election due to the fact that their personality and character does not resonate with them. If the UPND is immune to leadership renewal, then it must pray that the electorate’s view of their current leader drastically changes before the next general elections in 2016.
Arising from the foregoing, the MMD needs to take stock of history before electing their next leader. The leader that they choose must have the requisite character, likeability and personality. The MMD is already in its death throes and only by electing a charismatic leader who can capture the nation’s imagination can they hope to ever revive their fast ebbing political fortunes. With arbitrariness becoming the norm in governance since the Patriotic Front swept to power, and civil society still grappling to find its voice, a void needs to be filled by the biggest opposition party by installing a leader who can galvanize the opposition and eloquently stand up to providing checks on the governing party. From the aspirants so far revealed, only one name stands out, but that is for the MMD extraordinary assembly to decipher.