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Africa, Governance, Leadership, Zambia

Michael Sata: Promises Unfulfilled

President Michael Sata, elected decisively in late 2011 by a clear majority of Zambians fed-up with the Movement for Multiparty Democracy’s (MMD) twenty year rule and thirsty for real change, has succeeded in underwhelming, disappointing, and confounding many of those who voted enthusiastically for him and his government.

Everywhere I traveled in Zambia on a visit this month and last – Chipata, Mfuwe, Livingstone, Kalomo, and Lusaka– local people from a variety of backgrounds were disaffected. “He promised so much,” they said, “and has not delivered.”  There are no new jobs, no new houses, and no new opportunities. The schools still remain under- resourced and hospitals and clinics likewise.

Sata has even backtracked on his opposition to the overweening role of Chinese business operatives in Zambian industry and commerce. While campaigning for election in 2011, Sata promised to rein-in the Chinese, especially in the copper mining industry. He (and Human Rights Watch) accused Chinese state-owned and private firms of discriminating against Zambian workers on the mines, of operating copper and coal mines with very inferior safety standards, with failing to issue necessary ventilating and other equipment, and with running enclave (“ghetto”) compounds that kept Zambians separated from Chinese. Most of all, Sata (and many others) decried Chinese firms’ refusal to employ Zambians en masse instead of transporting workers fromChina– even for manual labor tasks in construction.

Sata now says that he was unaware of the full range of Chinese activities in Zambia. He also has implied that China is too important to Zambian prosperity to annoy. Immediately after his election he dispatched high-level envoys to Beijing to smooth relations. He also went himself to Beijing after China agreed to replace an ambassador who had been close to the out-going MMD administration.

But despite these overtures, there are still issues for Zambia:  Market traders resent the fact that unregistered Chinese merchants are industrious enough to enter the urban trading centers (such as Soweto market in Lusaka) earlier than they do, and without paying proper fees. Then they undersell Zambian chicken traders, furniture sellers, and the like. One senior Zambian told me that ordinary resented the Chinese because they were “selfish.”  Sata’s government is doing nothing about this threat. It has now decided to ignore the China question about which Sata railed last year and in 2006 and 2007.

President Sata’s government is poised, however, to crack down on twenty years of inherited corruption. At least that is the “talk” of State House and Lusaka.  But as to keeping his own regimes, corruption free, President Sata would do no more than to promise to pursue allegations against any “rogue” cabinet members “with vigor.” He said nothing about redoubling efforts to prosecute wrongdoers within his party, only to investigate suspected peculations by former President Rupiah Banda’s administration.

A related issue concerns three senior judges who were sacked by Sata for being “corrupt” after they had participated in a ruling against associates of the president. Subsequently, the High Court stayed their dismissal and the judges are again in their courtrooms, hearing cases and issuing judgments pending an official inquiry and a ruling as to whether Sata’s actions were or were not ultra vires according both to legislation and to the constitution.

President Sata is very much concerned with strengthening Zambia sense of national identity. That might be a good impulse, but last week he decided to pursue such strengthening by artificially attempting to bolster the national currency, the kwacha. Suddenly, his regime upended the tourist industry by decreeing that all transactions withinZambiawould have to be in kwacha. No longer could tourists pay internal airport departure taxes, say, in dollars (as before). Overnight it became illegal for anyone to pay Zambians in dollars, pounds sterling, rand, and so on.

Sata told me that this change was essential to “strengthen” the kwacha against other currencies. Only with a strong kwacha, he said firmly, could Zambia itself become strong. He also wants to end payments for copper, Zambia’s only important export, in dollars after copper is loaded onto ships — the industry’s long hallowed practice. President Sata waved aside any explanation of how a strong kwacha would disadvantage Zambian exports.

Inconveniences to the tourist industry, to mining companies, and to all of those Zambian concerns long-accustomed to billing in dollars, appear to be of no account. President Sata brushed aside all such concerns, saying that even a small country like Zambia could afford to emphasize its own currency and thus its national identity. “Kwacha can’t be used in Washington,” he explained. “Why should dollars be used inside of Zambia?”

Ordinary Zambians also scratch their heads in puzzlement over President Sata’s overt support of President Robert Mugabe’s anti-democratic rule in neighboring  Zimbabwe. Almost every Zambian knows how once-powerful Zimbabwe has fallen to its economic and social knees thanks to Mugabe’s misrule since at least 1998. Few can understand why Sata praises Mugabe publicly at every turn and visits with him frequently.

President Sata told me that Mugabe could conceivably be easier to influence if Zambia were “constructively engaged” with his government. Talking warmly to the autocrat might therefore bring results.  Mugabe might listen to criticism from friends more than hostile enemies even though, so far, there are no positive results from this approach.

President Sata also believes firmly that there is no alternative. No one else who is tough and resolute is available to lead Zimbabwe. Most of those opposed to Mugabe were “jellyfish.”  They lacked the strength to take over from him. Even many within Mugabe’s own Zimbabwe ruling party were too weak to replace him.

Zambians throughout the country expressed criticism of their new president over these central, possibly misguided, policies. More generally, they also were frequently bemused and embarrassed by his reported idiosyncratic behavior in foreign capitals – on a state visit to Botswana, on a visit to Britain, by his frequent unexpected jokes and questions with important state visitors such as former President George W. Bush (last week), and by his willingness to act single-handedly, without much consultation with the voters or with his own divided parliament.

President Sata is decisive, not deliberative, and prides himself on not dithering – sometimes to the consternation of his close associates and the mass of Zambians. He busily signs a stack of official papers at his desk in State House, and then mutters darkly about the inappropriateness of Zambia’s head of state continuing to work in and reside in a building that once housed Zambia colonial governors.

Whether Zambia prospers in the months and years ahead may well depend on President Sata’s personality and personal whims more than the governmental structure within which he reigns.

{This post was published in an edited version in on July 16, 2012 under the title: Zambia: King Cobra Disappoints and Confounds}




One thought on “Michael Sata: Promises Unfulfilled

  1. Realist
    July 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm
    Well with all your life time experience Mr Sata, what qualities have shown apart from ineptness in economic policy issues and governance. If HH stole, why don’t you arrest him, please stop regurgitating the same baseless accusation over and over again.
    ~by Realist in Zambia Reports

    Posted by Realist | July 25, 2012, 6:52 pm

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