By Chimwemwe Mwanza
For the optimist, 2023 couldn’t have started off on a positive note. For sure, it’s not often that an African country gets a high value US official to set foot on their doorstep. You got to hand to the incumbent head of state, he bagged a rare feat – got one of the most influential global political figures to visit Zambia. As the serving Secretary to the US Treasury, Janet Yellen is a woman of impeccable credentials. For the record, she is the first female to head the US Treasury – in addition to her previous stint as chair of the US Fed Reserve.
Yellen’s visit certainly cast a rare spotlight on Zambia’s economy and by extention the country’s political trajectory. It was a vote of confidence in the leadership, to borrow a common political phrase. To those in doubt, her visit signaled the US’s clearest intent to dislodge China’s dominance in Africa. Put it this way, there is no better way of flexing your political muscle than cajoling one of your adversary’s most indebted countries into submission – bringing them into your corner. For now, Yellen’s visit to Zambia translates into a simple geo-political matrix on the scoreboard. It’s Joe Biden 1 and Xi Jinping 0.
But how long will the Zambia and US bromance last? Is US support consistent enough to help the country out of its current economic morass? It’s impossible to pierce through such a crystal ball for a definitive answer. However the fluidity of US’s political terrain makes it difficult to guarantee its long-term economic support to Zambia and the continent at large. Off course, one might argue and correctly so that Democrats have long maintained a positive view of Africa with President George Walker Bush ranking as the only exception to Republican’s hostility to the continent.
It’s Bush Jnr’s commitment to helping eradicate the spread of HIV-AIDS that led to his government pumping billions of aid into the continent. Then the mop-haired one from Mara Largo came on the scene. Donald Trump’s characterisation of Africa as a shithole of poorly run countries best illustrates the fluidity of US-Africa relations. Even more worrying, the gravitation of conservative US politicians towards the Make America Great Again movement (MAGA) – an inward looking brand of politics that seeks to elevate US interests above all else, places much doubt on the US’s long-term interests in the continent. Mind you, Trump might just return to the White House in January 2025.
Unlike the US, China has been an all-weather friend to the continent and its relations with Zambia dates back to six decades. It has been the cornerstone upon which Zambia’s industrial policy was built. For example, the 2 075 km long TAZARA railway line linking Zambia to Tanzania’s port city, Dare Salam was built by China. The 2 115 km long TAZAMA pipeline through which crude oil is pumped from Tanzania to Ndola’s Indeni refinery – now under care and maintenance was built with aid from China. Mulungushi which for long had been Zambia’s poster child for clothing manufacturing excellence was built by Chinese – the list of its economic interventions to Zambia easily makes for a catalogue.
Hate or love China, you can’t talk of Zambia’s current infrastructure boom or economic standing without mentioning China. For context, it is Zambia’s single biggest creditor accounting for US$6 billion of Zambia’s foreign debt estimated at US$16.3 billion. In 2021, China accounted for nearly US$3 billion of Zambia’s total exports of goods and services valued at US$11 billion while exports to the US in the same fiscal year were too negligible to quantify.
Be careful who you go to bed with, so goes a popular refrain. This reminds of a catchy line from a famous 90’s song, ‘ngawayikata akapya, akakale waposa’ loosely translated as a warning to those that tend discard their wives for a new flame. While President Hakainde Hichilema needs the US and the West to help him win a congeniality contest, his posture certainly places Zambia in an awkward position. The country can’t afford to be a pawn in the Sino-US geo-political tension. There is surely enough middle ground for Zambia to occupy in this stand-off.
The 2022 UPND report card
Forget the impact of torrential rainfall and flooding which has characterised the grain belt, it’s the lack of farming input that has riled the farming community. Fertilizer is in short supply and if and when available, it is beyond affordability of the peasant. Add Loadshedding to these challenges, the forecast for 2023 looks grim.
Barely two years in power, the euphoria that swept the UPND to power has dissipated – displaced by the proverbial stench of buyer’s remorse. For clarity, the dictionary defines buyer’s remorse as a feeling of regret after making a choice or decision. Sadly, those that care to complain about the unbearable cost of living, the untimely delivery of farming input or government’s inability to secure consistent supply of medicines to health centres are condemned to sermons about the ineptness of the former governing Patriotic Front (PF).
It seems that blaming PF has now become the UPND government’s default response to its own disasters. While true that, PF zealots looted the Ministry of Agriculture through dodgy tendering and procurement deals, aggrieved farmers will be the first to attest that they often received farming input timeously. Hence, it’s easy to forgive those that keep peering into the rear view of history for solace. As they say, nostalgia is almost always a default option to sanitising economic hardship.
Most disappointing, the notion that the new government would be led by an exemplar of stellar democratic tenets is proving an illusion. Prior to the outcome of the 2021 August Presidential elections, who would have imagined a UPND led government desecrating our constitution or even worse breaking into parliament to steal opposition seats? As if sticking a middle finger to protesting constitutionalists, the President rewarded one of the masterminds of this robbery with a cushy posting to the Electoral Commission of Zambia.
It isn’t helping that the civil society which effectively thwarted the PF’s attempt to manipulate the constitution through adoption of the now infamous ‘Bill 10’ is now in a virtual comatose. And by the way, what has happened to the once vibrant Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) that successfully fought former President, Frederick Chiluba’s ill-fated attempt to amend the constitution so he could run for a third term?
Economic outlook for 2023
‘We have achieved so much in a short period than the PF achieved in 4 years.’ Is this statement born out fact Mr President? You see, one can’t be an invigilator, assessor and candidate to their own exam. This desperation for credit is characteristic of politicians that are tone deaf to the collective voice of the suffering masses. It’s even more worrying when politicians opt to embrace attenuated accountability. This kind chooses to pontificate their victories while downplaying their failures. But you can’t have your cake and eat it to borrow President Hichilema’s words, ayikona man.
Free education, new recruits in the both the education and health sectors, count as the biggest wins of the UPND thus far. And credit is duly given. However, will Zambia register meaningful economic growth in 2023 that could help absorb the unemployed masses? Tough one. Meanwhile, nearly 63% of analysts polled at the just ended World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos are predicting a mild recession in the global economy and Zambia is likely follow this trend.
While inflation has tanked to low levels, economic fundamentals on the ground provide a worrying picture. There is just no liquidity in the economy to spur growth. And staring into the gapping tax hole enlarged by generous tax breaks dolled to global mining companies, Zambia’s social safety net is too stretched to the borne and won’t help curb rising poverty. You hope not but 2023 could just be a year of suffering.
About the Author: Mwanza is nothing but a patriot. For feedback contact: [email protected] *Best wishes for 2023 to you all that have followed and helped to enhance our writing over the years.