/ 25 January 2015

Edgar Lungu: Zambia’s youthful president

Zambia's newly elected President Edgar Lungu
Zambia's newly elected President Edgar Lungu

Zambia’s sixth president Edgar Lungu rose from obscurity to Justice and Home Affairs Minister then to President in the space of just over three months, winning by one of the narrowest margin ever in Zambian politics.

At his inauguration, Lungu the candidate of the incumbent Patriotic Front (PF) party, he pledged to continue the legacy and vision of his late mentor, President Michael Sata.

But Lungu has a minority mandate. Less than half of the 5 million registered voters turned out on the day of the polls. Also, the time available to him to fulfil his rather ambitious and numerous promises is limited. The constitution allows him to only complete the remaining 18 months of the late Sata’s term of office. He has to face fresh elections by the end of 2016.

Lungu, like third president Levy Mwanawasa is a lawyer. Mwanawasa is famous for having clamped down on corruption including arraigning his predecessor late Frederick Chiluba before a London court for alleged corrupt practices. Mwanawasa is also fondly remembered as a defender of the judiciary.

Lungu has not promised to follow Mwanawasa’s path.  Instead, he glossed over corruption at his many rallies. All he said was that he was a servant of the people and that politicians were driven by personal motives.

“We are there as personal beings who want to advance themselves as we provide a service,” he said at one of his final rallies.

Another issue that Lungu will have to deal with is the rising crescendo among civil society groups for a new and more democratic national constitution. During the campaign though, Lungu said he would not make that a priority of his presidency in the midst of high poverty levels, poor communication and road infrastructure, and low educational standards.

He was one of only two candidates, out of the eleven (11), who refused to commit in writing to the Grand Coalition for a People Driven Constitution by the end of 2016.

At his inauguration he only promised to work towards the new constitution “in line with the road map that we released a few weeks ago.”

He however acknowledged the high cost of frequent presidential by elections; the disturbing outcomes of narrow margins between losers and winners; and the need to have an arrangement that these should never happen.

To spur on the constitutional road map, he uncharacteristically appointed a confidant and fellow lawyer Ngosa Syambakula, during his inauguration speech. A few hours later, Lungu announced that cabinet had been dissolved. This faux paux means that even ‘newly appointed’ Siyambakula was no longer a cabinet minister.

During the campaigns, the 58- year Lungu made a pot purie of promises. Apart from assurances to continue with Sata’s “vision” and development programmes, he said he would reduce fuel and staple food prices.  The Zambian staple is mealie meal, which is always a political hot potato.

Lungu also promised increased access to education; expansion of social welfare cash transfer schemes to all rural districts; act on allegations that non-Zambians get richer much more quickly than locals; and ease land acquisitions by Zambians.

He also promised to protect media freedom and to continue outlawing homosexuality.

Lungu has no conceivable competencies in economics or business management. This has raised concerns about his abilities to ably turn the Zambians economy around. Zambia is listed among the 48 poorest countries in the world in spite of its rich mineral and other natural resources. Its foreign debt burden is reputed to have reached $7 billion from about $3.5 billion three years ago.

However, Lungu’s lack of economics’ knowledge or expertise has not stopped him from promising tough action on mining taxes. A few months ago, Zambia reformed the mining tax regime, forcing the mining companies to calculate tax based on production rather than sales. One large mining firm has declared a dispute against the government.

In an apparent response to the mining company which has reportedly threatened to close its operations in Zambia, Lungu at his inauguration warned that companies operating in Zambia should pay adequate taxes to enable the government provide services to the people

“In case some people do not understand this, they should know so,” he said as he departing from the prepared speech.

Lungu also wore the hat of populism made famous by his mentor, Sata. He claimed he would not drop criminal charges against former republican president Rupiah Banda. But then, he also profusely lauded Banda as having “delivered’ him the presidency when Banda campaigned for him instead of Banda’s party the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) candidate Nevers Mumba.  

Critics however suggest that Lungu entered into a secret deal with Banda. In exchange for Banda’s support, Lungu is expected to drop criminal charges against Banda, restore Banda’s immunity from prosecution and reinstate Banda’s pension and other benefits which were blocked when Banda challenged Lungu in the early days of the campaign.

Zambia’s former presidents are paid 80 percent of the reigning president’s salary for the rest of their lives. They are also provided with security, office space and equipment, cars, air tickets for holidays anywhere in the world and mansions built in variety of places,  anywhere in Zambia. All these are at the state’s expense.

Lungu like his competitors promised to end tribalism and nepotism in government. He is expected to fire Sata’s relatives who have bloated Zambia’s diplomatic missions abroad.  

He has also claimed that he will act against tax dodgers and those who have failed to pay debts owed to government-aligned banks. This is in direct reference to the privately owned Post Newspapers which has allegedly failed to pay an USD13m debt owed to the Development Bank of Zambia (DBZ). The South African development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) owns shares in the DBZ.

Most importantly, Lungu has promised to honour all his campaign promises.

But that might be difficult. Delivering where his predecessors have failed would need creating new and difference competencies. There is not much room for manoeuvre. He has inherited members of parliament, ministers, senior civil servants and party officials chosen by his predecessor and whose loyalties lie elsewhere. 

He announced a cabinet reshuffle on his first day in office. However, critics say moving around the same faces will not get the job done.

Health and competence
Having had two sick presidents die in office within a space of eight years, Zambians pay special attention to Lungu’s health. During the campaigns there were loud calls for medical examinations for all candidates. This is to stem the high public costs for presidential health care and resultant state funerals.

In 2012, Lungu collapsed at State House during a swearing in ceremony. Speculation has remained since that he is diabetic and has kidney problems. He has publicly denied this.

What he has failed to ‘kill’ are suggestions that he may have a drinking problem. Photographs have been published on the internet showing him in stupor or various states of inebriation. In a published secret recording of Sata’s uncle Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda, the minister is heard complaining that Lungu “made decisions when drunk.”

A Zambian journalist rejoined: “I hope we have not put a Boris Yeltsin into State House.” This was in reference to the Russian leader who was at the helm of the superpower from 1991 and 1999. Yeltsin was known to have a drinking problem.

Lungu does not have any conceivable oratory or people skills. He is accused of having no vision of his own for Zambia. These accusations were compounded when Lungu boycotted two consecutive television presidential candidates’ debates. His handlers claimed he was “too busy campaigning” on both occasions. Critics argue that that he cannot articulate issues unaided.  

However at his inauguration, Lungu promised to improve his engagement with the public. As president, he would be the “man of the people’’, regularly holding “ Katwambas,” or weekly meetings, with the media  and government officials.

The media in particular are quite expectant of these regular meetings as Sata never held any press conference or meeting in three years, up to his death.

Feminist and political activist Sara Longwe doubts whether Lungu could minimally deliver on his promises. She says however, that he would be forgiven somewhat  if he can deliver on just the  constitution.