By Dr Situmbeko Musokotwane
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy – Proverbs 31:8-9
We can all clearly see that the debt situation is very bad and getting worse every day. The debt burden is truly becoming heavy on most of us ordinary Zambians. According to the experts, public debt has reached 60% of GDP, putting the country at high risk of debt distress, which simply means that we will soon fail to meet our obligations.
As a result of this mounting debt, between January and September 2018, interest payments on debt were 125% of the three quarters’ budget; this was 25% over-budget. In contrast, social programmes like Pension Fund and Social Cash Transfer received only 56% and 36%, respectively, while Food Security Pack for poor families and women and youth Empowerment Funds received nothing (0%).
Some PF commentators will claim that this poor prioritization was because “the opposition infiltrated the public systems”. We must not be fooled or detracted by such ridiculous propaganda when the statistical facts about the failed economic management are laid bare for all to see. They will claim that UPND is against investment in infrastructure. What we are against is to disguise corruption in unplanned infrastructure development projects. Why should our roads cost more than three times to construct than the regional average? Why should our fire engines cost a million dollars when international reference prices are about a quarter of that? Why should the Lusaka Ndola Dual carriage cost billions of dollars? What is the motivation of undertaking these projects? Judging from the Auditor General’s 2017 Report, we are inclined to think they are conduits to steal public funds. This is what the UPND and the Zambian people are against.
Countrymen and women, we believe that with the right leadership and political will, Zambia can do many things differently to remedy the situation.Here are two things, for example, that together we can do.
Stop the excessive borrowing: In 2017, the Government developed the Economic Stabilization and Growth Programme (ESGP) and convinced us of their seriousness to tackle the economic crises. The Government assured us that it would undertake fiscal consolidation measures to reduce the Government deficit and accumulation of debt stock by (a) reducing overall expenditure from 27.7% of GDP in 2017 to 22.8% in 2019, and (b) reducing fiscal deficit from 7% of GDP in 2017 to 4.1% by 2019.
What has happened? Fiscal deficit in 2018 will be larger at 7.4% of GDP and not 5.1% of GDP as per the ESGP. In the 2019 Budget, deficit is increasing to ZMW28.8 billion (9.6% of GDP) against the ESGP target of ZMW 16.6 billion (4.1% of GDP).
While we are not surprised – for after all, this was the policy meaning behind “dununa reverse” – we are rightly worried that this will further weaken our fiscal and debt positions. It will affect our ability to attract the much needed investment that creates jobs for our youths that are graduating and roaming the streets without jobs.
It compromises our real investment efforts, not the PF type investment strategy which aims to line their pockets through malpractices in procurements. It compromises poverty reduction efforts and scares away investors and cooperating partners as we have seen in the education and social cash transfer, where even the money meant for the poor has been abused, and the cooperating partners have frozen their support. And yet the PF are always singing and championing that they are a party for the poor!
Fellow Zambians, we cannot borrow our way out of debt; we must simply find the political will to apply prudent fiscal policies that stem further debt accrual. Thus, we should simply go back to ESGP and stop playing “chidunune” and “chipante-pante” with our economy. Let us demand our MPs to ask the Government to go back to the fiscal consolidation Plan in the ESGP and develop a new fiscal framework that represents a more ambitious fiscal consolidation effort for the medium term.
Share decision-making responsibilities honestly and fairly: Article 114 of the Zambian Constitution (2016) provides for the National Assembly to approve all loans and guarantees to be contracted by the State. This means the Executive has a constitutional obligation to have all loans and guarantees approved by Parliament. We need to start implementing this legal prescription so as to establish the right checks and balances in debt contraction. We need the Planning and Budget Act, the amendments to the Procurement Act and the Loans and Guarantees (Authorization) Act that ensure more transparency and oversight in the management of public resources. This is what the ESGP promised in 2017 and this is what we should do.
We are now entering 2019 and the above pieces of legislation have not yet been presented to Parliament. What other reasons would one think of apart from the PF’s fear that this will expose them in their corruption? Are the delays meant to give space to the Executive to secretly and unilaterally negotiate and finalize unplanned and unbudgeted debt deals with China, Turkey and others without parliamentary oversight? Is this not immoral, illegal and unfair to the Zambian people? Can’t we, as Zambians, hold the Government accountable and demand that the PF simply does the right thing for once and petition our MPs to ensure these laws are tabled in Parliament this year?
We want to assure Zambians, that we are available and ready to join forces with every like-minded countryman and woman, to demand, for and on behalf of the Zambian people, credible, accountable and dedicated policy leadership that will take us out of the current economic mess; respect and account for public funds; and bring us back on track to realizing our long term vision, the Vision 2030.
The Author is the Former Finance Minister in during the MMD reign under Rupiah Banda and now MP. UPND Chair for Finance