Zambia President Hakainde Hichilema
After the 2021 political transition, the strength of Zambia’s civil society, which served as a check on power since the early-2000s, has been gravely undermined by two major developments. The first has been the mass recruitment into the government of the most influential elites from civil society who spoke truth to power under the Patriotic Front (PF). When former president Edgar Lungu undermined democracy, for instance, the actions and words of certain individuals – from academia, professional associations, churches – helped shape public opinion and held him to account.
The most outspoken civic leaders and public commentators under the PF included Pamela Chisanga, Judith Mulenga, Felicity Kalunga, Chama Fumba alias Pilato, Laura Miti, Fr Emmanuel Chikoya, Musa Mwenye, Bishop John Mambo, Pamela Sambo, O’Brien Kaaba, McDonald Chipenzi, Nicholas Phiri, Elias Munshya, Chibamba Kanyama, Rueben Lifuka, John Sangwa, Linda Kasonde, Muna Ndulo, Brebner Changala, and Telesphore Mpundu. Following his election, President Hakainde Hichilema moved to appoint the first 14 of these 20 prominent individuals to diplomatic missions, the civil service, parastatals boards, and other public bodies. While this may have benefited the government, the mass recruitment of experienced non-state actors has significantly weakened the capacity of civil society. A few of these former activists now overly praise Hichilema and defend government decisions at every turn.
The second development is the failure of the remaining civic organisations to effectively hold the government to account. Except for a few forthright and principled actors such as Changala and Archbishop Mpundu, many of the civic bodies and commentators who challenged Lungu and the PF are now willfully silent, even when the same wrongs or injustices they previously criticised occur. The rest speak with a new purpose: shielding President Hichilema and his ruling United Party for National Development (UPND) administration from responsibility or blame. Where they attempt to offer criticism of government actions or Hichilema’s leadership, the criticism is so lukewarm that even its target probably sees it for what it ultimately is: flattery or kowtowing of the elite variety.
Zambia’s mainstream civil society has become severely compromised. Nothing best demonstrates this point than a statement issued by a collection of civil society organisations on the cost-of-living crisis dated 2 August 2023. The statement is so hollow and poor on all accounts that silence by its nine signatories would have been golden. To avoid misinterpreting what the civil society organisations said, it is worth quoting and scrutinising their statement on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. The organisations start with a heading of their statement and the subject of their concern.
“JOINT CSO PRESS STATEMENT DATED 2ND AUGUST 2023 ON THE RISING COST OF LIVING IN ZAMBIA
We, the undersigned Civil Society Organizations, note with concern the rising cost of living in Zambia.”
This section is very important. We learn from it that the statement addresses the burning issue in Zambia today: the cost-of-living crisis. We also learn from here that the signatories to the statement represent Zambia’s foremost civil society organisations. The undersigned are nine institutions that include a church mother body and the country’s numerous and geographically diffuse women’s organisations housed in the Non-governmental Gender Organisations’ Coordinating Council (NGOCC). The signatories to the statement are ActionAid Zambia, Alliance for Community Action, Bloggers of Zambia, Chapter One Foundation, Centre for Trade Policy and Development, Council for Christian Churches in Zambia, Transparency International Zambia, NGOCC, and Zambia Council for Social Development. I cannot imagine any collection of civic organisations in Zambia today that would beat these in terms of stature.
When civic organisations that represent the best of Zambia’s civil society movement come together to issue a press statement on the cost-of-living crisis, their action is significant and deserves to be taken seriously. This is because a statement from such eminences is supposed to enlighten us about the history of the crisis, the current state of the crisis, and how the country should confront or resolve it. So, what exactly have these civic eminences said in their statement?
Civil society: “The cost of living as measured by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflections’ (JCTR’s) Basic Needs and Nutrition Basket (BNNB) has been on the rise reaching a mid-year average point of K9,126.40 in Lusaka, while the national average basket stands at K6,466.04 for a family of five. The rise in the cost of living has been on account for several factors including the rise in commodity prices such as mealie meal and retail fuel pump prices.
Inflation has remained in its double digits at 10.3% in the month of June 2023 keeping it outside the target range of 6-8%. Similarly, the Kwacha has continued to depreciate against major global currencies averaging K19.05 per US Dollar in the first half of the year. The cost of the country’s staple food, mealie meal, has increased to a record level of K300 per 25kg bag in some parts of the country. Just yesterday, the retail pump prices of petroleum products were equally increased. Petrol was increased by 2.57% while low Sulphur diesel by 6.81% and they are now selling at K25.57 and K23.36 per litre respectively.”
This eclectic assembly of statistics from the JCTR on the Basic Needs Basket, the rate of inflation and the prices of the core variables in Zambia totally conceals the actual conditions of life of most ordinary Zambians. One would expect these august organisations to have intimate socioeconomic knowledge of the everyday life in the communities they purport to serve. Official figures show that 8 out of 10 adult Zambians are not in any gainful employment. Half of this lot stopped looking for work long ago. The other half is young and the dream for a formal job has not yet been snuffed out of them.
The age dependency ratio of working-age population in Zambia stands at 80.52 percent. What the country is facing is not a crisis of youth unemployment. It is a crisis of employment, as over 80 percent of the population is below the age of 35. We do not have a significant old population. Additionally, 97 percent of Zambia’s economy is made up of small and medium enterprises, which contribute 70 percent of GDP. Instead of prefacing their statement with a scientific description of the concrete conditions of life for the average Zambian, the civic bodies chose to hide the actual social crisis.
We expect these groups to remind us that Hichilema was elected to power in August 2021 because the conditions of life for most Zambians had already deteriorated to unbearable levels. It is those conditions that have worsened over the last two years. Why have these eminent civic organisations consciously concealed this? Given their combined experience, wisdom, and access to data – since they purport to be working in our communities – why have they robbed us of an analysis of the horrible conditions of life in Zambia today, where mass unemployment and informalisation of economic activity has meant that ordinary people are removed from the small formal sector that is dominated by foreign entities?
A careless assembly of a few statistics is not what Zambians are interested in. They are interested in seeing that the cost of living is lowered and that their basic needs are guaranteed. The core ingredients both in economic and domestic life of any people are electricity, petrol, diesel, rent, transport, and food. The statement from the civil society organisations tells us absolutely nothing about what has happened to these fundamentals between 12 August 2021, when Hichilema took office, and now. Why?
Civil society: “As Civil Society, we are also concerned with the way Government is undertaking the process of removing vendors from the street. While we are in support of the actions to remove vendors from the streets and re-allocate them in designated marketplaces, it would have been important for Government to adequately sensitize the vendors on the merits of this process. The majority of Zambian’s are in the informal sector, hence removing them from the streets without clear adequate alternative spaces would make their lives quite unbearable.”
There is a fundamental contradiction here. On the one hand, the eminent civic organisations declare their support for the removal of ordinary Zambians from the most concentrated site of economic activity – the street. On the other, they acknowledge the absence of ‘adequate alternative spaces.’ Why are civic leaders supporting the elimination of poor people from the street when they themselves are not sure where these ordinary Zambians will end up? There is something wrong about this kind of civic activism. Removing or not removing the traders is not the issue. The issue is that it is unacceptable for the government to take away poor people’s source of livelihood without first creating a superior substitute.
Some of these civic organisations are supposed to be defending our constitutional rights. The primary right we all have is the right to life which is connected to economic activity. To support the killing of the sites of portent economic struggle for impoverished Zambians, before adequate alternatives are provided, amounts to committing economic genocide against the poor.
For the majority of people who eke a living from the street, the micro capital they have cannot support or sustain them in the formal market, where they are required to buy a stand. These civic institutions should know this, since, going by their names, they deal with grassroots life and communities.
Civil society: “The soaring cost of living is already causing great hardship to many Zambians, the majority of whom are just scraping a living. The situation may be worsened by the removal of vendors from the streets without alternatives as it leaves a handful of them without trading places and ultimately with no incomes to support their livelihoods.”
Here, the key psychological phrase is a handful of them. By deploying the expression, the civic bodies are attempting to minimise the number of those affected. It is not a handful of people who are affected; it is a mass of poor people who operate in the informal sector. In Zambia, the formal sector is the anomaly; the informal one is the normal. According to the latest official labour force report, 73 percent of the employed Zambian population work informally. Since 1991, Zambians have collapsed into a heap of undiluted poverty, mass unemployment and extreme inequalities. The portion of the population that is involved in genuine systemic and structural employment has dwindled to almost an insignificant percentage of the actual total labour force, most of which is either unemployed or eking out a miserable living from the street or from tilling the land.
Arguably, there is a very tiny capitalist class, largely of the ‘businessman type’, which however is incapable of giving Zambia any ‘national character’ complete with the liberal claptrap about ‘rule of law’ and ‘respect for the constitution’, let alone any semblance of morality, especially in the public domain and in politics. This social base is grown on the ever-shrinking real economy. Zambia is an impoverished country, materially and culturally, notwithstanding its natural wealth. We Zambians have absolutely no control, whatsoever, over our country’s economic life. Foreign capital reigns supreme. Some of the members of the middle class and politicians survive on getting kickbacks from representatives of foreign capital.
This is the wider economic and social context that has condemned many ordinary Zambians to vending on the street. Poor people are working on the street not out of choice but lack of better options. The reality is that the government has not created sufficient and life-affirming formal markets across the capital city and the country more generally capable of accommodating everyone if they left the street. In other words, market stalls are inadequate, even if available vendors will be required to purchase or rent them from the civic authorities and asked to pay daily levies when they make a pittance from their sales.
And the cost of living is not soaring. It is an acute crisis. Acute because it was worse when Hichilema, who promised to reduce the price of mealie meal, fertiliser, petrol, diesel, paraffin and cooking oil, and the general cost of living, was elected. Since then, the cost of all these things has gone up and life has become impossibly hard for the majority Zambians.
Civil society: “We also note that the high cost of living in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria have led to civil unrest. Indeed, economic hardship provides fertile ground for populist and authoritarian expressions to take root in the country. Zambia has just emerged from a long period of economic and democratic decline which ordinary Zambians are still paying for today.”
To confidently assert that Zambia has emerged from a long period of economic decline suggests the corner has been turned, that things are better now for ordinary people. Consciously or unconsciously, this was a very good public relations campaign by our eminent civic actors for Hichilema and his friends in government. No! The truth is that things in Zambia are bad, really bad! There is no ‘emerging’ when it comes to the cost-of-living crisis. The intolerable conditions of life for majority Zambians have worsened over the past two years, pushing many poor people closer to the grave than they were in August 2021. This is extremely unjust. It is, in fact, undemocratic. Hichilema and the UPND must be grateful that Zambia has a non-militant and non-combative population. Elsewhere, the worsening living conditions since August 2021 would have seen people peacefully take to the streets in exercise of their right to protest.
The importation of examples of what happens when most people cannot afford to meet basic needs is a passive way of concealing the rising anger and frustration among Zambians. We have enough examples at home to understand what happens when a government starves or fails to feed millions of its population. When Kenneth Kaunda, in the 1980s, presided over terrible conditions – some of them instigated, like now, by International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies – that made Zambia a tinderbox, the majority poor protested. Even after Kaunda abandoned the IMF prescriptions, more food protests occurred, some turning deadly, and he was ousted from power at the next competitive election in 1991.
What is perhaps shocking is that today’s generation of Zambians, who have known so much misery at the hands of this and previous administrations, are not responding to these government invitations to rebel against our sub-human existence. What kind of human beings are we, Zambians? Elsewhere, the people will rise to peacefully protest in the spirit of defiance, fight with limitless courage in pursuit of a better life and happiness, in order to reclaim their dignity. Our civil society – and the UPND government whose anti-poor terrible policies it is supporting – should thank Zambians for our passiveness – while it lasts. If the assorted civic elites do not want people to rise against Hichilema, they should demand that the president and his friends in government must create conditions that make it possible for citizens to actualise their full potential, to enjoy their freedoms and lead meaningful lives. Unless drastic measures are taken now to arrest the cost-of-living crisis, civil unrest cannot be ruled out. Where we are coming from and where we are now is as clear as where we may end up.
Arising from an extremely weak understanding of the crisis of poverty in Zambia affecting the majority, civil society’s suggested recommendations of what needs to be done to address the issue are as shocking as the preamble of the statement. This is precisely because the premise from which the civic bodies are rising conceals the debilitating poverty that assaults the average Zambian. Let us look at the individual recommendations from our civil society on the question of what is to be done.
“We therefore call on the government to –
- Meaningfully and effectively communicate with the Zambian people on the state of the economy and outline measures they are undertaking to address emerging challenges from the social and economic reforms currently being undertaken.
The suggestion here is that Hichilema and the UPND have sustained us in a state of ignorance about the supposedly good things they are doing, for us. To remedy this problem, they need to communicate to us ‘meaningfully and effectively’ about the state of the economy. The implication is that what Hichilema needs to do is to dismiss Minister of Information Chushi Kasanda and the relevant officials at State House who are failing to communicate the wonderful things he is doing for us. Once the president finds better liars, our problem would be solved; we will no longer suffer. There is something extremely patronising and quite insulting about this.
The problem is not the lack of communication. Neither is it Chushi Kasanda or Clayson Hamasaka – notwithstanding their many failings. The problem is that Hichilema is failing to honour what he promised: lower the cost of living and of doing business. Why is this collection of our august civil society organisations failing to call him out on this straightforward issue? Zambians do not need to be told ‘meaningfully and effectively’ that they are suffering. They know and understand their misery better. What they want is simple: concrete solutions to their everyday problems, which include expensive petrol, diesel, fertiliser, ‘saladi’, mealie meal, transport, food, and other basic services.
Zambians elected Hichilema because he – not Kasanda, Hamasaka, or anyone else – undertook to reduce their hardships, their suffering. Two years down the line, the prices of essential commodities are all rising faster. We do not want any explanation for this. We want the prices to go down. The primary responsibility of the government is not to explain our problems; it is to solve them. Urgent measures need to be taken to lower the cost of living, now.
Instead of worrying about how the UPND is communicating, civil society must demand answers from Hichilema on why the prices of essential commodities are not going down. Recently, the president said the prices of basic services will “stabilise” soon. In case Hichilema does not know or he has forgotten, we did not vote for him to stabilise prices. We voted for lower prices, and Hichilema graphically showed us how he would reduce them. He looked and sounded brilliant then. Where has that brilliance gone?
- “Government should consider further activation of the Zambia National Service and the Zambia Correctional service to get on board and contribute towards maize production, this will help alleviate the rising costs related to mealie meal, further to that, it will create new job opportunities for the young people;”
There are two problems with this section. The first is the deliberate attempt by civil society to indirectly offer a justification for the high prices of mealie meal: shortage of maize. Their suggestion makes it look like the problem confronting Zambia is the low supply of maize. This is false. The government has told us that we have too much maize and consequently must export lots of it to needy African countries.
If the issue is about scarcity of maize, shouldn’t the civic leaders be advising the government to immediately stop the export of maize – as opposed to treating it like any other commodity – in order to meet domestic needs? Shouldn’t they take issue with Minister of Agriculture Mtolo Phiri who recently announced that the government will soon kill agriculture in rural areas by stopping the Farmer Input Support Programme – the very facility that sustains Zambians in mineral-lacking rural areas and one that has contributed to national food security, thanks to hardworking rural farmers?
The second problem is that the proposal to activate national and correctional services to start producing more maize ignores the urgency of the issue at hand: the fact that Zambians are hungry today and want their hunger to be attended to, now. It is mockery of extreme insensitivity to tell a hungry person that they should wait for food in the unknown future. Zambians are not interested in the methods the UPND will use to reduce the price of essential commodities. What they want is affordable food, now.
Our civic leaders should have advised the government to take drastic measures such as subsidising mealie meal production to calm the rising domestic prices. Recently, India, a top rice exporter accounting for 40 percent of the global trade in the cereal, banned the export of rice to calm the escalating prices at home. The government of India, a country with a huge prison system, did not ‘activate’ the Indian prison services to produce more rice. They acted decisively because they understand that the protection of the domestic food market is the primary responsibility of any responsible government.
In contrast, the Zambian government has just exported one million tonnes of mealie meal to the Democratic Republic of Congo! At a time when the major institutions of the world such as the World Food Programme, Food and Agricultural Organisation, and Oxfam are telling everyone that we are headed towards a huge global food crisis, Hichilema and his friends in government are celebrating taking out of the country a commodity that is out of reach for its starving population.
- With regards to clean up exercise on street vending, while this is move is welcome, government will need to provide the assurance on the adequacy of alternative trading spaces, this calls for improved and reliable communication on where those alternatives are, and on the carrying capacity of those trading spaces;
Here, the civic bodies are referring to the recent decision by the government to remove, on sanitary explanations, informal investors from plying their trade on the streets of Lusaka, despite lack of evidence that the affected can all be accommodated in formal stalls. Here is the actual problem: why should assurances of adequate trading spaces be provided after removal? Isn’t the job of civil society to stop the government from acting until it has guaranteed adequate and open alternative sources of livelihood to the poor? Zambia needs new civic actors to protect the poor from these civic institutions whose only response to the state-instigated hardships on vendors is that the state should communicate in a reliable fashion. Poor Zambians should have no illusions about whose interest these civic bodies serve. This is civil society for the minority: those in power and the tiny formal sector. It is important for the poor in Zambia to see all the organisations that signed the statement for what they really are to them: their real class enemies.
It is worth noting that when it comes to their class, Hichilema and his friends in government have failed to raze down the houses in the controversial Forest 27, as they promised during campaigns. Instead, they have regularised the constructions because those affected can easily put up a legal fight. But they have no problem with disrupting the lives of the poor vendors since they know that they are defenceless. The UPND Deputy Secretary General Gertrude Imenda is now telling us that the government can do as it pleases to these vendors because they are a dispensable and insignificant voting constituency. It is a mark of Zambian discipline – or lack of collective political consciousness – that the poor have not risen to peacefully demand the exit of Hichilema from power the same way he has removed them from the streets.
Anyone who still harbours lingering doubts about the callousness, extreme cruelty, and selfishness of the ruling elite in Zambia today should simply listen carefully to the government’s response to the statement from civil society on the cost-of-living crisis:
“The cost of living has not risen at all…Who says because of removing street vendors, then the cost of living has risen? That’s total nonsense…. There is no hardship. People are used to easy life like they were doing it in PF where people were getting money anyhow and throwing it away. This time, work hard and get your money. The president wants people to be doing something.”
Here, we see a very senior government minister communicating to two targeted audiences. One is the suffering majority whose hardships he contemptuously dismisses as merely a figment of their poverty-impaired imagination. For things are okay in Zambia – anyone who says anything to the contrary is playing cheap politics! The other targeted audience is our civic eminences, whose assertion that the problem is lack of communication is rejected as invalid. The problem, according to the government, is that majority Zambians are hungry and poor because they are lazy, do not work hard, and are simply used to cheap, free things. This nasty trashing of the poor shows that the UPND are so arrogant that they cannot distinguish friendly fire from enemy fire: to them, all fires must be repelled, no matter how harmless. The only language such politicians understand is electoral defeat or loss of power.
- Consider convening an economic indaba, this will greatly help in communicating to the citizens the state of economic and social affairs in the country, it will equally help citizens better understand measures government may be exploring to address challenges related to their livelihood; and
This is a classic elite, USAID-like, response to problems: convene a workshop! Here, our prime civil society organisations are returning to the theme of communication. According to their civic eminences, the problem is not extreme poverty nor the anti-poor policies of Hichilema and his UPND. It is that the hungry citizens have not been provided with communication that is good enough to calm them down, to persuade them to accept their status. The measures being taken by the government to address their plight – measures that we are not told – are good. The real problem, according to the nine-member group, is that Hichilema and his friends in government are failing to communicate to this hungry mass of ignorant bodies.
In other words, the assumption by our civil society is that the poor are stupid and ignorant, and that they need to be brought in one place – possibly at the Taj Pamodzi Hotel – and fed with a carefully prepared statement that explains their degrading and lowly existence. Once this is done, they would happily return home, satisfied with the newly-found understanding of why they must remain poor and not sell things on the street, or of ‘the state of economic and social affairs in the country’. I do not think even the public relations team of the ruling party could have managed to put up this perfect excuse in order to shield Hichilema and the government from blame or criticism.
If a house is burning, the solution is not to call for an indaba on fires; it is to put out the fire. Zambians do not require an indaba or debate forum. They want solutions to their immediate problems: the skyrocketing prices of mealie meal, ‘saladi’, fuel, transport, sugar, and food. Before the election, Hichilema presented himself as a genius at solving those problems. Let him solve them now. The task of civil society, as is the responsibility of the rest of us, is to hold him to account based on the promises he already made.
I do understand though – and I am even sympathetic to – the primary impulses that are causing individuals including those in civil society today to betray public interest and identify themselves with the ruling elite. In an impoverished country like Zambia where the state is the dominant employer, the ability to stay alive requires association with the government of the moment. The price of dissenting, of challenging the government, of being in the minority, is very high. I know this from personal experience under this administration and previous governments.
It is a grave mistake, I think, for the government to weaken civil society by conscripting most of those who stood up to Lungu and the PF into government bodies. I ask Hichilema and the UPND to not destroy civil society this way – they need it. It is wrong for the state to have a predatory strategy towards its critics. They simply succeed in diluting their sources of legitimate criticism and positive reflections on their performance. The result is mediocrity amplified everywhere and loss of public voices to point out critical failings of the state. It is a strategy that is counterproductive and one that ultimately weakens Zambia’s democracy. A more fruitful relationship, in my view, is to pay attention to the substantiative content of independent criticism and opinions while protecting the independence of critics. No democracy is without critics and no government anywhere in the world believes itself to be perfect.
- Engage meaningfully with critical stakeholders in industry and civil society on various social and economic reforms being undertaken, this will help with consensus building on a number of issues.
At this stage, it is hard to know if the subject of the statement is still ‘the rising cost of living’. The operative words in this section are critical and consensus building. Our civic eminences have decided that the reason why things are as they are in Zambia today is because the government is not talking to two ‘critical stakeholders’: themselves and unidentified players from industry.
Civil society is also telling Hichilema and his friends in government that there is disagreement ‘on various social and economic reforms being undertaken’ and that the solution is to hire the two identified groups to become the consensus builders for the UPND. Who decided to bring together the prime civic organisations of our country to defend the party in government this way?
If this is the state and quality of civil society in Zambia today, then the statement confirms the collapse of this key institution or, at the very least, the fading power of its watchdog role. As the gulf between the worsening state of the economy and Hichilema’s hollow rhetoric to the contrary widens by the day, the UPND, which lacks effective spin-doctors, is likely to be more brutal than the PF because the ruling party now knows that its abuses will not provoke vocal criticism from civil society. Any onslaught on democratic rights by Hichilema, criticised by the opposition as a stooge of foreign mining companies and Western countries, is also unlikely to attract much outrage from the West, whose governments and diplomats have so far avoided criticising their malleable partner.
Every regime has its own civic institutions and intellectuals. What largely exists in Zambia today is civil society for Hichilema and the UPND. When will a genuinely independent and pro-poor people civil society emerge?
Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian writer, historian and senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.