By Frazer Bwalya Musonda
The year was 2013, the then government of President Michael Sata had removed subsidies on Maize and fuel. I had stayed for more than a year without work after my graduation, and hearing about this pronouncement made me annoyed, I remember this vividly as if it was yesterday. I had earlier moved from Mufulira (my hometown) to Lusaka (in Mtendere compound) to stay with my brother and I remember the mood mukomboni was that of disappointment with King Cobra.
Perhaps I, and the majority of the people I interacted with in Mtendere, had a very limited background in economics and did not fully understand the rationale behind such an unpopular decision by the PF government. A common argument then, was that President Sata had recycled an old politician from the UNIP era to preside over the ministry of finance and perhaps this was the problem.
In order to find closure regarding this issue, a lot of us turned to the economist who was then opposition UPND president, Hakainde Hichilema. President Hichilema was clear on his opposition to the removal of subsidies. In one of his appearances in June of 2013 on Radio Ichengelo in Kitwe, President Hichilema referred to subsidies as “a lifeblood” and that the PF government had removed subsidies for their selfish benefits. “The Euro bond is still idle in the banks, you mean you can only bring about infrastructure development in the country by removing subsidies from essential commodities?” he had questioned. He further argued that as a result of increasing the cost of production through wrong policies, companies were going to lay off workers because they were going to be scared of the long term effects. He later called the PF government a “mediocre government” that needed to be removed from power and that once elected into government, the UPND was going to bring back subsidies.
In the same month, President Hichilema even attacked the World Bank for supporting the removal of subsidies by the Zambian government. He even challenged them to prove him otherwise on his stance against the removal of subsidies. I, and probably, that was the case for the many people I had interacted with in Mtendere then, were super excited to hear such pronouncements from the “son of the soil”. He had made it big in business and now wanted to help this lovely country prosper. To add icing on the cake, President Hichilema even said he was going to reverse the decision by President Sata to remove subsidies once elected in 2016.
He never succeeded at the ballot box in 2016. Fast forward in 2019 when the 2021 elections were fast approaching, specifically in September, President Hichilema mocked the PF government with the famous “Iwe Ka HH” excel spreadsheet. In this spreadsheet, he presented how he was going to reduce the pump price for fuel by K4. He emphasized that fuel was going to be cheaper once those measures on his excel spreadsheet were implemented. The same year in December, President Hichilema claimed that the PF government was broke and thus wanted to “tax us to death”. He even reminded them of the excel spreadsheet he came up with 3 months earlier, that was going to lower fuel prices.
Now just after 100 days in office after winning the August 2021 elections, President Hichilema has removed subsidies on fuel, one of the main things he strongly opposed as an opposition leader. He has remained relatively quiet on this issue and has relegated everything to his Finance minister (also a recycled politician). With the advent of social media, I have been seeing a lot of discussions regarding this topic. One thing I have picked up from these discussions is how UPND hardcore supporters are trying to justify this move even when they know deep down their hearts that it’s against what they campaigned for.
Because Facebook shows one’s friend’s activities, I stumbled upon a video in my news feed, recorded live by Mubita Nawa. He, trying to justify the removal of subsidies, came up with the “30 eggs” analogy. I was very eager to listen…. Mr. Nawa talked about how the PF hid “15 eggs” out of the “30” as the main problem. He mentioned in detail the problems “egg by egg” as, Euro bonds, domestic debt etc.… but the moment he mentioned “meal allowances for students, retirees camping at Chief Justice for 6 months, PF making prisoners to vote”, I immediately knew the analogy wasn’t well thought over. My thinking was, “This is a guy who jumped onto the UPND campaign team when it was clear they were going to win, made a social media presence and yet hasn’t been rewarded with a job”. Perhaps he is just trying to be relevant.
In the video, Mr. Nawa claimed that HH, then in the opposition, genuinely and sincerely looked at the “30 eggs” (implying all resources available in the country) and made promises thinking all the “30 eggs” were available. What Mr. Nawa forgets is that HH and the UPND actually never believed the official debt figures for Zambia then. 11 months after President Hichilema released the “excel spreadsheet” detailing how fuel pump prices were going to be reduced by K4, he had claimed that Zambia’s debt was $18 billion while the official figure was $12.7 billion. The argument by Mr. Nawa that President Hichilema found a lot of debt (that he never expected) does not make sense at all. President Hichilema in his estimations was 1.4 times higher than what was prevailing on the ground. It actually made me sad seeing people tagging others and saying “this explanation from Mr. Nawa is making sense”. The eggs analogy was a flop PLEASE.
On the other side, the eloquent Anthony Bwalya has also tried to defend the position of the government. In a video that UPND sympathizers have even captioned “CLIQUE OF THIEVES EXPOSED: PF SUBSIDY THEFT TACTICS” that was sent to me on WhatsApp by a friend, Mr. Bwalya argues that subsidies were not meant for the ordinary Zambian. That they were benefiting former ministers who owned trucks for fuel transportation and had inflated transportation costs. My immediate thought after I heard that statement from Anthony was, why not remove these former ministers from transporting the fuel and then realize a normal transportation cost? That way subsidies remain and the problem is solved. How then does removing subsidies ensure that these thieving former ministers are curtailed?
For me, the problem is not the removal of subsidies that has annoyed me about President Hichilema, but his lies (a virtue he said the PF possessed- Chipantepante he used to call it). He is not addressing this issue with the zeal he had when he requested a meeting with the media a few days in office and his representatives are definitely not doing a good job. The Vice President recently said “We have to increase fuel prices “a bit” so that we can reduce them”. I have gone through that statement a lot of times and it still doesn’t make sense. Our area MP in Kankoyo has even adopted a hashtag #shrink2grow trying to justify this. Of course, he has allowances from Parliament and won’t be affected any single bit by the removal of subsidies.
Lastly….Ironically, the K4 reduction that was proposed from the famous excel spreadsheet has actually resulted in a K4 increase in fuel prices today. This was previously called “Chipantepante”