Zambia’s poll of the economy

Zambia goes to the poll on Tuesday, January 20, to choose a new president after the death of incumbent “King Cobra” Michael Sata last year.

After a rancorous process for the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), the courts decided that Edgar Lungu would represent the PF as its candidate.

The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was also not spared the embarrassment when former president Rupiah Banda fought Nevers Mumba for the right to represent the party. The courts decided that the right belongs to Mumba.

Banda has now crossed the floor to endorse Lungu; the move divided the MMD further. The PF leadership has, for many months, been fighting and split along the camps of Lungu or acting president Guy Scott.

Zambia’s politics has been distracting the population from the issues that matter. There is little time and space granted to discuss the policy offered by parties. Instead, which big political name is endorsing which camp has preoccupied the campaign.

Defining poll
Yet this is a defining poll for Zambia. It is the second-biggest producer of copper in Africa, but has precious little to show for it among citizens – about 70% live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. The copper windfall has not resulted in an improvement in social services.

The incoming president has a huge task ahead. With a population of about 14-million, with half under 18, Zambia is under pressure to make its mineral wealth count for young citizens. The population is also growing fast and, by 2030, it is expected to have doubled.

Growing poverty is largely ignored. Though unemployment is pegged at 15%, it is difficult to verify the percentage classified as being in informal employment. A large portion of the population work on farms where wages are notoriously low. In fact, many people in the country are classified as “working poor” citizens because of severely low wages.

A 2013 World Bank economic brief, Zambia’s Jobs Challenge: Realities on the Ground, points out the problem of joblessness among young people. Many have limited education opportunities and are unable to move out of unviable home businesses. These youths have little prospect of moving into the formal job market, which the report says remains largely for children of the better off. There is little support for the self-employed.

Zambia has experienced a growing real gross domestic product of about 6% a year since 2012 and favourable foreign direct investments, especially in the extractive sector mostly from China, but there is tension in labour over alleged unfair practices in mines and fast-dropping copper prices.

Although United Party for National Development candidate Hakainde Hichilema has emerged as a favourite among business, the hostility between him and trade unions is unfavourable. He also has to shake off the perceived tribalism tag attached to his party, with critics claiming that he runs a regional party whose stronghold is only in the south.

Zambia’s new president must diversify the economy away from copper to tourism, hydropower, agriculture and other sectors to better the lives of Zambians.

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