An economic downturn has taken the shine off Lungu rule. By Benedict Tembo, Lusaka
WHATEVER HAPPENS at election time later this year, supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) point to what they call its infrastructural legacy. Come August 11, they hope that the PF’s massive development programme will help return Edgar Lungu to power despite the country’s current economic woes.
Since the PF swept to power in 2011, the country has spent billions of dollars developing roads, consuming more than 10 per cent of the budgets for 2015 and 2016, as well as building more power plants, schools and hospitals. However, the economy has in the past year received a battering, due in part to an unfavourable global market, and Lungu faces a tough batde to stay on top.
He was sworn in as president in January last year by a narrow margin in an election called after the death in office of Michael Sata. Once again, he will have to see off the challenge of his main rival Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND), and also that of the Democratic Front, a new party which has split from the PF and is led by the Sata’s nephew, Miles Sampa. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which was once the dominant political force, is now a shadow of its former self following the decision of its former leader, ex-president Rupiah Banda, to back Hichilema.
Over the last decade, Zambia experienced rapid economic growth as Africa’s second largest copper producer after the DR Congo. The mineral accounts for three-quarters of export earnings and a quarter of government revenues.
But the country has been hit by falling global commodity prices, a situation exacerbated by the current economic slow down in China. It was Beijing’s thirst for minerals that helped fuel Zambia’s expansion, but now Chinese investment has slowed. The
London-based Fathom Consultancy ranked Zambia top of an index of African nations most exposed to China’s downturn. In 2012, Zambian exports to China amounted to about 4.3 per cent of GDP while Chinese foreign direct investment was 7.5 per cent of GDP. During the boom years, mining attracted billions of dollars of investment, malting the sector a key driver of the economy, with an average annual GDP growth of 6.4 per cent over the last decade, one of the world’s fastest growth rates.
China accounts for more than 40 per cent of the metal’s global consumption and the current scenario highlights the vulnerability of resource-dependent countries like Zambia. Following the Chinese slump, the local kwacha currency plummeted against the dollar and several mining companies had to either suspend operations or lay off thousands of workers. In the meantime, inflation soared. For ordinary Zambians, matters were exacerbated by severe energy crisis that led to daily power rationing.
“I meet Zambians from all walks of life who share their frustrations with me on the on-going load-shedding [power rationing], and how this is negatively affecting their lives and businesses, whether big or small,” commiserated President Lungu when he opened Parliament last year. “No one is spared, not even myself — a few days ago I was in the Heroes Stadium when there was a power failure.”
He added: “I know how it feels to come back home and find that there is no electricity, or to see children who cannot do their homework because there is no electricity, or a mother who has no access to alternative sources of energy to prepare a meal for her family.
“I am also aware that the current power shortage has negatively affected those running small businesses like salons, barber shops, welding workshops and bakeries.”
He announced a series of “short term measures” to minimise the demand for electricity. These included the use of energy saving bulbs and alternative sources of energy for cooking and heating.
Longer term solutions involve partnering with Zimbabwe for the possibility of developing a 1,800 MW power station at Batoka Gorge by 2019, which will be an addition to the 750 MW Kafue Lower Hydropower Plant, which is set to be completed by 2018.
Other power projects include increasing the capacity of Chishimba Falls in Kasama in Northern Province and Musonda Falls, which is about 60km north of Mansa in Luapula Province, as well as the Lusiwasi hydropower project in Serenje in Central Province.
Lungu won last year’s election on a promise of wanting to continue with the infrastructure development agenda of his predecessor Sata. Few would have argued with that. “We think that the programme that President Sata started in infrastructure projects has begun to transform Zambia with respect to the transport sector,” said Engineering Institution of Zambia head Bernard Chiwala while laying a wreath at Sata’s burial site in Embassy Park, Lusaka, in December 2014.
“With all he did in roads, we were becoming a hub of development in the region. This vision has to continue with a new president.” He went on to point out how the country had now effectively been opened up to its eight neighbours, thereby facilitating cross border trade and commerce.
He added: “This is what investors are looking for; they need a strong infrastructure backbone before they can make a decision on investing, and Zambia.”
However, with two thirds of the population officially living below the poverty line, grand schemes like the Link Zambia 8000 and Pave Zambia 2000 may not be enough to see Lungu re-elected. Lungu beat the UNDP’s Hakainde Hichilema by just 27,000 votes last time round, leading Hichilema to denounce the election as “stolen”. Decrying the violence against UNDP supporters and party members during the campaign, as well as irregularities in the counting process, he accused the electoral commission of manipulating the results to favour Lungu.
Hichilema, or ‘HH’, as he is popularly known, is a self-made businessman, marked out by his energetic persona and youthful looks. Now looking at his fifth shot at the presidency, he is bound to mount a strong challenge against his opponent, making the most of Zambia’s gloomy economic picture under Lungu. While the PF argues that the country’s problems are a result of external factors beyond its control, the UNDP insists it is as a result of Lungu’s incompetence and the government’s lack of fiscal and monetary discipline and excessive waste. A severe drought and Lungu’s own physical frailty — he collapsed in public in March last year - do not help the president’s case.
In response, Lungu has turned to the constitution to help him out. The Constitution of Zambia Bill, which was passed into law earlier this year, requires that a winning presidential candidate should secure a minimum of “50 per cent + 1”. This could change the political landscape quite radically as it would require parties like the PF and UNDP, which do not enjoy outright national support, to enter into coalitions with other parties in the first or second round of an election. Although Hichilema benefitted from MMD support in the last election, this may well have been illusory. The MMD is riven by factionalism and Lungu might well be the beneficiary if one of its leaders decides to throw his lot in with the PF to stoke his own political ambitions.
On the other hand, the PF also faces a bigger electorate following the Electoral Commission of Zambia’s announcement in December 2015 that it had added 1.4 million new voters, mosdy youngsters, to the national electoral roll. Since the voter registration exercise continued on from there, this number is likely to rise.
In view of the fact that young people are the hardest hit by unemployment and the economic downturn, the majority of them are likely to vote on economic concerns rather than ethnic or party considerations. Given Lungu’s poor record on the economy, such a scenario favours Hichilema.
In a recent online posting, Sishuwa Sishuwa writes: “One of the important features of the 2015 poll was that voter turnout, on average, was higher in UPND than PF strongholds. Another was that Hichilema, despite accusations of regional iclination, generally fared better in the PF constituencies than Lungu did in UPND bases.
“If both trends are repeated in 2016, Lungu, who will not have the benefit of a Sata sympathy vote at the next polls, may be in serious trouble.
In the new constitution, a member of parliament who crosses the floor cannot recontest that seat until that parliament is dissolved. This aims to stop the trend of MPS ditching their parties without due regard to the electorate that voted him or her into office.
In the meantime, the new constitution also allows dual citizenship, a development that now allows Zambians in the diaspora as well as those at home to acquire citizenship in any country without losing the citizenship of Zambia.
The idea is to encourage that Zambians, especially those living in developed countries of the world such as US, Britain, France, and Germany, to begin investing in their country of origin because they will now enjoy the full citizenship rights of Zambia.
It is hoped that foreign investors will setde in Zambia and become citizens thereby keeping their money in the country.
However, holders of a dual citizenship cannot contest the republican presidency nor be elected as speaker of the national assembly.