Zambians lose hope as ‘King Cobra’ lives up to his nickname

He came to power on an anticorruption ticket, promising to use Zambia’s mineral wealth for the good of the nation and put more money into people’s pockets.

But 10 months after Michael Sata’s historic victory, in which the Patriotic Front (PF) swept aside a decade of rule by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), many Zambians are starting to wonder whether they made the right choice.

Economists are also questioning the wisdom of renationalising state assets such as the Finance Bank of Zambia – which had been sold to South Africa’s FirstRand – and the country’s biggest telecoms company Zamtel.

Others, meanwhile, are wondering whether the criminal charges laid at the door of MMD ministers and their family members, including Henry Banda, the son of former president Rupiah Banda, are really about fighting corruption or simply about revenge, especially when graft allegations against members of Sata’s camp are reportedly being ignored.

A recent spate of lawsuits against media houses, opposition figures and even ordinary citizens accused of insulting the president and the suspension of three high court judges has prompted comparisons to Zimbabwe and local website headlines accuse Sata of trying to turn Zambia into a one-party state.

Raising eyebrows
Sata’s warm friendship with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is also raising eyebrows among the international community. Relations with Western diplomatic missions in Lusaka are also understood to be under strain after the fiery 75-year-old – living up to his nickname “King Cobra” – delivered a tongue-lashing to foreign embassy staff for holding too many meetings with the MMD, even though his party actively pursued such discussions while in opposition.

On the policy front, mineral royalty rates have been raised from 3% to 6% for base metals and to 5% for precious minerals, though the government has stopped short of re-introducing the “windfall tax”, the abolition of which the PF challenged while in opposition.

Although there have been modest wage rises, the cost of living has not gone down and, although inflation is steady at about 7%, this month the price of bread reached an all-time high of 6000 kwacha (R9.50), heaping pressure on the two-thirds of the population living in poverty.

Labour unions are also growing restless following a recent fuel shortage that resulted in long queues at petrol stations in the capital Lusaka as well as recurring power outages, something the PF in opposition had pledged to tackle.

Father Leonard Chiti, the director of the country’s leading think-tank and social justice organisation, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, told the Mail & Guardian: “There is a great deal of disappointment among ordinary Zambians who are waiting to see the election promises fulfilled.

Resources management
“At the centre, we run a basic-needs basket study and we are finding people are needing to spend more and more money just to buy basic things.”

On resources management, a core issue in Zambia, the main export of which is copper, he said: “Zambians still don’t feel that they are benefitting enough from the country’s vast resources and [think] that we don’t charge high enough taxes to foreign companies compared to other countries in the region.”

Edward Lange, Zambia co-ordinator of the Southern Africa Resource Watch, is also sceptical, particularly about policy positions relating to Chinese investors who have large stakes in the country’s copper mines and who in the past have been implicated in labour and environmental violations.

“We have seen a worrying change of position towards the Chinese investors from this government,” he said. “It seems like just the name of the party has changed, but in terms of behaviour and approach to issues, there is no difference.”

Said Lange: “We welcome the new draft constitution that is being discussed.

Broad-based consultation
“It came later than the promised 90 days, though we always knew that was an ambitious target, but overall we feel too much is being done from Lusaka and there is not enough broad-based consultation.

“We don’t feel the government is aligned enough to the people or thinking enough about compensation or resettlement policies for those communities living in mining areas.”

Vice-president Guy Scott, a long-time Sata ally who helped him to form the PF as a breakaway from the MMD in 2001, defended his government’s performance.

“I think we are making steady progress,” he told the M&G. “The trouble is that we inherited a very corrupt country and there is a lot to untangle.

“The economy was not in a good state and there is a lot that needs to be done.

“We are restructuring in many areas and investing in agriculture and manufacturing, but these things take time. You cannot deliver instant results in eight months.”

Defending Sata’s relationship with Mugabe, Scott said: “We have a policy of good neighbourliness and President Mugabe is a neighbour. We cannot castigate him; we have to work with him.

“South Africa also maintains warm relations with Zimbabwe.”

He declined to comment on the judicial suspensions or on the corruption allegations involving the new director of public prosecutions, Mutembo Nchito, and the claims that Sata is protecting him and others.

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