The Year of the King Cobra
Lusaka – It is a cliché, but President Michael Sata’s first year in office has indeed been a mixed bag.
Since assuming office on September 23, 2011, after taking over from Rupiah Banda ‑ whose Movement for Multiparty Democracy ruled Zambia for 20 years – President Sata has had his fair share of highs and lows.
The man known as King Cobra for his fiery temperament has, as expected, pulled a few punches in handling key issues of state regardless of what the critics say.
From his handling of the Barotseland secessionist threat, to tackling alleged corruption under Former President Banda’s watch, the King Cobra has lived up to his reputation as a no-nonsense politician.
Other key issues have been economic growth and development, getting the mines to contribute more to the national purse, employment creation and enhancing good governance as well as fostering gender equality.
President Sata promised sweeping changes in his first 90 days in office. Of course, that was a politician talking and believing that an economy can turn around in three months is expecting a little too much, even from the King Cobra.
The Graft Fight
In just about all anti-corruption crusades in Africa, there are always accusations of victimisation.
This too has been the case in Zambia, where President Sata’s government stands accused of decimating the former ruling party.
Inferences of graft have been made against Former President Banda, and his son, Henry, has even been actively sought by Interpol over an allegedly corrupt deal involving the sale of mobile probe services provider Zamtel to Lap Green of Libya.
Henry Banda’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, is on record saying: “These unspecified allegations against Henry Banda are politically-driven and without foundation.
“It is clearly not a genuine investigation…The bogus accusations levelled against Henry, which change from day to day, form part of a wider campaign to persecute the Former President, his party and the political opposition at large.”
The anti-corruption drive has also netted opposition MMD spokesperson, Dora Siliya, and other senior officials, with a couple of convictions being secured.
President Sata has typically been unfazed by claims that his government is politicising the anti-corruption fight; declaring that in a country that is beset by poverty he is prepared to lose friends and admirers so long as he ensures a few fat cats do not get fatter through illegal activities.
He has said the corrupt must “surrender their accumulated wealth to the citizens, many that are wallowing in poverty”.
President Sata has declared that as long as he has a breath in his body, he will hunt down those who have looted state resources.
The secretary-general of his Patriotic Front party, Wynter Kabimba, adds: “We promised the Zambian people that we are going to fight corruption. We are going to fight corruption outside the PF and within the PF.
“So our fight against corruption is not discriminatory; our fight against corruption is not selective; our fight against corruption is not political. It will cover everybody so that this scourge is eradicated from our society once and for all.”
Giving his inaugural address to the UN General Assembly this year, President Sata said: “Since my government assumed power in September, 2011, the country has seen reasonable improvements in our economy with an inflation rate down to 6.6 percent and a (GDP) growth rate in the region of six percent in spite of the low global economic trends.
“This has been attributed to the enhancement of the investment policy framework and improving infrastructure and human capital development.
“Despite these efforts, however, 60.5 percent of the Zambian people continue to live in poverty.”
It is this high poverty rate that is President Sata’s biggest challenge.
Unemployment figures remain high, empowerment of indigenous people is in limbo, housing conditions are generally poor and the state of infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired.
The successful floating of a US$750 million euro bond could go a long way in helping matters on the infrastructure and water supply/sanitation front.
But the 10-year bond comes with its own economic pressures.
With an interest rate of 5.5 percent, the government will have to payout no less than US$400m to subscribers at the close of 10 years.
The US$6.4 billion 2013 national budget is geared towards infrastructure development, and a US$5.6b road rehabilitation programme is sure to enhance this.
On mining, the largest contributor to the economy, the government has been trying to refine taxation policies to plug losses.
There have been reports that copper majors have fleeced billions of dollars over the years through leakages to Switzerland.
Further, local participation in mining remains rather low as the sector is dominated by Asian, European and North American enterprises.
President Sata’s government stands accused of not having clear-cut mining policies.
The GM of the Zambia Chamber of Mines, Frederick Bantubonse, has said: “We need a clear policy on mining and these contradictory statements coming from government officials are raising concerns on the companies’ security of tenure on their investments.”
Food security, though, has remained relatively good, as the country has recorded three consecutive years of bumper harvests of the staple maize crop.
Of course, not everyone is pleased.
Opposition MMD leader Nevers Mumba has threatened to frustrate the 2013 budget because “it lacks substance” and is “hollow in principle”.
Ordinary people, too, feel some measure of anxiety over the country’s economic direction.
“We are still trapped in uncertainty because the economy has become so difficult for ordinary people to manage their lives and we can hardly send our children to school or worse still meet various obligations as parents,” says Mutale Chibwe, a vendor at Lusaka’s Luburma Market.
“There is no money circulating freely on the market for our business to flourish, prices of food and other essentials have risen threefold since the PF took over office. Our hope of salvation under the PF is uncertain.”
There are some positives, though.
The Sata administration has overseen a reduction in the costs of fuel, maize meal and healthcare.
The Job Front
During the campaign days, the King Cobra promised to lower taxes, create more jobs and put more money in people’s pockets.
The unemployed and those in the informal sector, many of them young Zambians, answered to this rallying call and propelled him to office.
President Sata had promised to create a million jobs by the end of 2013, but – barring a drastic change in course – that target is unlikely to be met.
That is not to say the government has been sitting idle.
The King Cobra’s administration has set the minimum monthly basic wage of non-public servants at US$100.
Labour Minister Fackson Shamenda has said domestic workers should get no less than this figure, while private companies must pay their employees at least US$200 per month.
This has been met with resistance.
The Zambia Federation of Employers recently challenged Minister Shamenda’s directive in court, saying they could not afford to pay such wages, but they lost and so the minimum wage stands.
Workers are also not pleased with the government’s handling of Chinese and Lebanese employers, who they say engage in unfair labour practices.
Demonstrations have been held to this end, and Beijing’s Embassy in Lusaka has ordered all Chinese companies in Zambia to abide by the law of the land.
President Sata has embarked on rigorous local government restructuring by realigning districts from the previous 72 to about 88 districts as a way of decentralising bureaucracy.
And for the first time since Independence from Britain in 1964, traditional leaders have been given wider berth to participate in running affairs in their areas of jurisdiction.
The threat of secession by the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE) in Western Province has also been handled quite astutely thus far.
Recently, President Sata’s spokesperson, George Chellah, said the state would even protect the Litunga (head) of the BRE “from any attempts of aggression being fomented by a clique of misguided individuals”.
“This Government is committed to ensuring peace and stability in Western Province and views the Litunga and the BRE as an important part of that process.
“The Litunga and the BRE symbolises national unity and identity,” he quoted President Sata saying.
In addition, he has committed his government to SADC gender parity guidelines by appointing more women to decision-making positions.
The number of women heading ministries and other major parastatals is evidence to this. In the judiciary, two senior female judges hold the positions of Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice, respectively.
A new constitution is being drafted with US$20m so far committed to that matter.
Delivery of a new constitution was among the fabled promises of the first 90 days in office. And it is highly unlikely that a new supreme national law will be put before a referendum soon due to the squabbling around the drafting of the document.
A major difference of opinion has emerged over the government’s desire to ensure a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared President, as well as a stipulation that Presidential candidates must have a running mate who automatically becomes Vice President in the event of victory.
United Party for National Development leader, Hakainde Hichilema, has threatened to drag President Sata and the deputy Zambia Police Service Commissioner, Inspector-General Solomon Jere, to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for allegedly abrogating human rights and selective justice in the application of the law.
The government has responded saying Hichilema’s statements are embarrassing the nation because he “evidently” unaware of the ICJ’s mandate and jurisdiction.
The Catholic Church, the Law Association of Zambia and civic bodies like the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes have also accused President Sata’s administration of intolerance to divergent views.
The August deportation of a Rwandan priest who advocated more support for poor farmers has further strained relations with the Catholic Church, a key pre-election ally of President Sata.
And then there is the matter of the July 100 percent salary increment for top bureaucrats, including the President and deputy.
Critics say this flies in the face of promises to cut down on such expenditure.
<br /> International
The King Cobra’s sharp tongue has not been confined to domestic affairs.
Few can forget what he had to say to and about George W Bush and America when the former US President visited Zambia in July on a cancer-funding mission.
“The most interesting thing, previously there used to be four great countries: United States of America, United Kingdom, Russia and France. And you have all drifted away; you have abandoned Africa after taking all our raw commodities, our raw materials and build your cities.
“I mean, as far as you are concerned Africa doesn’t exist. And when we have a former colonialist like you coming back to pay back what you took out of this country we are grateful.”
And before saying that, an irritable President Sata fumed about being made to wait for W Bush, who was late for their meeting.
“I cannot be waiting here. He is a Former President; he is not the current President so I cannot be waiting for him. I’m not an American for me to be waiting for him, and I don’t intend to be an American.
“The young man is lucky that he is the first American leader to have brought money to Africa through his Millennium Challenge (Account); that’s why I’m standing here. Otherwise, if it was somebody else I would have handed him over to one of my ministers to meet him.”
That has not done much harm to relations with the US, which still considers Former President Banda its darling.
There were a lot of premature postulations that President Sata would “kick out” the Chinese on assuming office; postulations that were not premised on real politik.
But his first official appointment at State House was to accept the credentials of China’s new Ambassador to Zambia.
To date, China remains a key development partner.
President Sata has also remained true to his Pan-African bent, repeating calls for the lifting of illegal Western sanctions on Zimbabwe and emphasising that Africa should be left alone to resolve its internal challenges.
And his address to the UN General Assembly was met with a standing ovation.
Despite still being far from delivering on a lot of his promises, President Sata appears to retain the goodwill of those who backed him.
Patriotic Front secretary-general, Wynter Kabimba, says they are a work-in-progress and no one should expect miracles.
“No government in the world has ever fulfilled (all these) campaign promises in 12 months.”
On the whole, not a bad first year in office for the King Cobra.