Crisis? What crisis? Everything is fine in Zambia!

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Zambia is in crisis! Going beyond the behavior of Zambia’s politicians, Sishuwa Sishuwa explains how economic decline, sustained institutional deterioration and heightened political divisions reflect the country’s deepening crisis.


On 16 March, I met a minister serving in President Edgar Lungu’s Cabinet who, upon seeing me, insisted that contrary to my recent observations, given at a public discussion organised by the Oasis Forum, that Zambia is in crisis, ‘the country is doing very well on all major fronts and most Zambians are happy with our record in office, so far. So, I do not know what crisis you are seeing or were talking about, Dr Sishuwa’. My critic did not attend the event and his dismissal of my comments emanate entirely from the bits that he read and heard. Arising from that encounter, I thought I could use today’s column to explain and hopefully persuade the minister – and those who think like him – to better understand my point of view. Instead of engaging with a functional illiterate who operates at a completely different level of comprehension of the distinction between cause and effect, or between actual causes and mere symptoms, I prefer differing with someone who has a good level of appreciation of issues and who retains that intellectual integrity of one who, though not lacking in urging their own opinions, is both respectful and willing to abandon his or her point of view, if its weakness could be shown.

When I talk about Zambia being in a crisis, I am not simply referring to the filthy behaviour of our current politicians that disgusts the middle class over concern with ‘morality’, ‘stability’, ‘respect for the rule of law’, ‘order’, ‘democracy’ and such states of mind. More importantly, and broadly speaking, I mean two things.

First, a real crisis occurs in any community or country when the economy is no longer able to sustain the life of the majority of its people, who usually are the working class and the vast unredeemed rural poor populations, most of whom are eking out a living tilling the land. The social manifestation of this true crisis is extreme mass poverty, widespread national unemployment (systemic, structural and absolute unemployment), and extreme inequalities characterised by the fact of a tiny minority gobbling up a proportionately large share of national income and the vast masses living on a tiny share. In real terms, therefore, Zambia (using 2017 official statistics) is in crisis because:

  • Of the population that is able and willing to work, 53 years into our ‘independence’, 86% still rely on some agricultural activity to survive, only 6% have an industrial job, and a mere 9% are employed in services. According to official estimates, agriculture – a sector with extremely low wages, if any at all – contributes a paltry 5.4% of our GDP.
  • We are now ranked number 139 on the Human Development Index (HDI) of 188 countries (remember the HDI measures longevity and healthy life, access to knowledge and decent standard of living) and have a youth dependency ratio of 89.7%.
  • Less than 3% of Zambia’s population is expected to grow older than 65 years with the rest of us condemned to very short miserable lives at a time in human history when some countries have a problem of too many old people.
  • We have a high unemployment rate of about 60%, and especially acute among the youth, and somehow pray and hope that a miracle will cure our social ills.
  • More than 54% of our population is poor – very poor – and almost half of our country’s children are stunted. In absolute terms, there are more Zambians living in poverty now than in 2010, when the national poverty rate stood at 62%.
  • We are among the top ten hungriest nations, globally, notwithstanding our natural wealth, illustrated by the fact that we are among the top 10 copper producing countries in the entire world.
  • Our national economy is dominated by the service sector, which accounts for almost 60% of GDP, and yet this sector employs only 9% of our labour force.
  • In terms of household income or consumption by percentage share, the top 10% gobble up a whooping 47.4% while the bottom 10% survives on a tiny 1.5%.
  • To sustain itself, the government spends more borrowed money than it can collect from the people of Zambia through countless and high taxes. We are, therefore, chronically indebted. We are an appendage of our creditors as a country; we are not sovereign.
  • Corruption permeates all levels of our society and has become so entrenched that to be incorruptible is to risk alienating oneself from the majority. Government contracts are inflated, ministers steal from the treasury with reckless abandon, nchekeleko is now a cultural trait, and an incumbent President finds no shame in effectively encouraging corruption, declaring ‘ubomba mwibala alya mwibala’!

It is these figures and verifiable facts which feed and stoke the HIV and AIDS pandemic, nationwide cholera epidemics such as the one we recently experienced, the ballooning number of orphans, festering mass discontent, and a quite useless and impoverished middle class fit for hire by anyone with some money. All this means we have a large share of our population vegetating, with a large number of Zambians permanently hovering over the pit of death.

Second, a real crisis occurs when there is sustained institutional deterioration and heightened political divisions. In our case, many of our key national democratic institutions such as the judiciary, civil society organisations (many of which have been co-opted or silenced), the police and Electoral Commission no longer enjoy public confidence. In the case of the judiciary, for instance, the crisis is not that the opposition lost a disputed election; it is that the legal mechanisms of, for example, resolving post-election conflicts are largely ineffective: the Constitution is unclear and the judiciary takes forever to dispose of cases that should take little time. There is also a general lack of respect for the rule of law by those in power, intolerance of opposition and critical opinion, intimidation, harassment and arrest of opposition figures on trumped up charges, and tolerance for and active promotion of impunity by ruling party supporters who engage in acts of violence, hooliganism, and can even beat police officers and get away with it.

Elections (an orderly and effective mechanism of maintaining or changing governments) and the Constitution (important in ensuring that everyone plays by the rules of the game) are increasingly under threat, especially under the watch of the Patriotic Front, and this is worrying because these are the institutions that should be consolidating our democracy over time. We are a deeply polarised nation, especially since the 2016 elections, and the actions of those in power have only fuelled this split, which has mainly taken ethnic and political expression. Our leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand when our national unity is at stake, and appear to be punishing people for their voting choices.

There are other significant indicators of the extent or reach of Zambia’s crisis. These include:

  • Uncertainty, expressed through the absence of coherent, concrete and realistic plans of what is to be done to relieve the situation. Our national leaders, from politicians to those in civil society, do not put forward in grounded realistic terms what they will do, nor do they build local structures to realise any plans. For example, it is well enough to talk about supporting small-scale farmers, but is a ground-up structure being created and supported to allow this? The cooperative movement before at least managed this – they supported the creation of local structures that fed into the wider movement.
  • This has become a characteristic of Zambia’s oppositional politics. There are certain sectors where it is in the best interest for everyone to pull together, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing the fundamental interests and security of citizens. For example, a unified voice against the exploitation of Zambian workers or the dispossession of rural residents of their land and livelihoods; the prevention of instability in the country by avoiding business deals and political arrangements that would plunge the country into conflict (i.e. uranium mining, nuclear energy, asylum for warmongers etc.) or more debt.
  • Breakdown of the moral order. This aspect of Zambia’s crisis has intensified since Frederick Chiluba and his friends in the Movement for Multiparty Democracy sought to take advantage of the deregulated financial and legal framework for their own corrupt and criminal aims. For the poor, in a setting where the powerful and wealthy are morally bankrupt, they begin to create their own moral frameworks to justify survivalist strategies, leading to the normalisation of subversion of rules and social order – in effect creating a moral crisis.
  • Religious fanaticism. At a time when others elsewhere are talking about a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, are we regressing into some of the most backward, primitive and irrational modes of thought, beliefs and practices, thanks largely to a retarded Christian theology colonialism bequeathed to us. This may be unpopular, but the time must come soon when we must ask difficult questions about the impact of Christianity on the native mind in us, and how to grow beyond this. Christian fanaticism is more of a psychological issue in that the protracted, unrelieved experience of suffering leads many people to doubt their capacity to change the situation, and instead turn to magical thinking. In the short term, this provides a convenient explanation (albeit fantastical) for the crisis. In the long term, however, it sets the situation for further social instability as it is exploited by religious charlatans who take the poor’s money for their lavish lifestyles on the false assurance that ‘God will reward you’, and by politicians who, Bible in hand, pander to the interests of the faithful while looting the national treasury.
  • An expansion of a population that does not have access to the basics of decent shelter, nutrition, health, and education. Land, where people could provide even a subsistence for food, has been commoditised (the proposed National Lands Policy aims to destroy any bit left of a commons). The provision of these services is now increasingly being privatised, with the state’s role being reduced to that of facilitating the pillaging or theft of our natural wealth by Western, Chinese and South African multinationals and privatising national assets with little public consultation.

I must clarify that Zambia’s crisis did not start with the Patriotic Front or President Lungu – though its degree in certain areas has increased considerably under them. The country has been in a protracted crisis since the early 1980s, but one that grew in particular intensity from the 1990s when Chiluba and his government set about dismantling the forms of social protection that mitigated its worst effects – hunger, illiteracy, destitution and ill-health. In short, the failure of our economic and social system to sustain over a prolonged period of time the lives of the majority of Zambians and the deterioration of state institutions has been an incremental process, stretching over a long historical period. The current trajectory, however, is worrying because we are not seeing a rebalancing towards ‘normality’. In addition to the increasing intensity of our national crisis, whose features I have already mentioned, the balance of forces is pushing us towards this becoming more severe.

Resolving these challenges requires a competent, qualified and effective national leadership that acknowledges the existence of a crisis in our country, that understands its form, content and nature, and that seeks to take corrective measures, including uniting and coalescing our energies towards a shared or common goal. In other words, the solution to any crisis is to be found in the very economic system that is failing the people and this requires us to carefully identify the actual causes of our crisis, not the symptoms. A fundamental weakness of the discourse on ‘crisis’ is the problem of confusing causes and symptoms, and how these feed into each other – the middle class and so-called ‘experts’ of all hues do tend to overemphasise the social manifestations of crisis, its expression in social and political instability, at the expense of unravelling the real foundations of any crisis – the mode of production of the material means of life and the system of ownership – which then are reflected in the social and political life of the community or people. As a result, leaving the mode of production of the material means of life and the system of ownership intact but tinkering with the social and political arrangements does not resolve the crisis. This has been our experience of ‘independence’ in Africa. After some time, the accumulated unmet social and political needs from an untransformed economy catch up, inevitably throwing the entire system into a cycle of instability, disorder, civil wars, military coups, and so on.

So, my dear minister, there you have it!

Sishuwa Sishuwa is the last Zambian nationalist. He is obsessed with all things Zambian, particularly politics and history which he teaches when the University of Zambia is not closed. 

This piece first appeared on New Diggers with the title: Crisis? What crisis? Ifintu filifye bwino mucalo cesu icaZambia!

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