Tuesday November 15 2011

We face a transition like Zambia’s; what’s the agenda of our hopefuls?

In October last year, I visited Lusaka in Zambia to gather information on a story about the privatisation of the energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

I was also to write about the investment climate in Zambia. Once there, I immediately arranged to meet key players.

The one man I swore not to leave Lusaka without meeting was Mr Michael Sata, who was then leader of the opposition Patriotic Front, but is now president.

A populist and rabid anti-foreigner, I was attracted to Mr Sata mainly due to negative comments he had made about Kenyans. Here is how Mr Sata’s remarks about Kenyans had been reported in the press.

“Rupia Banda wants to sell a government paper to his Kenyan friends, everything has to go to Kenyans, the oil procurement scandal, and now they want to sell the Zambia Daily Mail.

He continued: “The parties buying must know that when we come to power next year, we shall re-nationalise all these companies.’’

In the week that I was in Lusaka, there was a big front-page story in the Times of Zambia quoting the CEO of the local subsidiary of the South African bank, Absa, predicting an exodus of investors in the event Mr Sata won.

Within the private sector, there was widespread fear that if he did, he might introduce Zimbabwe-style nationalisation of private property.

One Wednesday morning, I visited Mr Sata at his office located at Farmer’s House in Lusaka’s central business district. I had requested a discussion on the investment climate in Zambia and his opposition to Chinese investment.

I had expected to see a huge fellow, but a short chap wearing a kitenge ushered me into his modest office. He said he had no time to waste on niceties and we went straight into discussions.

I shot: The remarks you have made publicly suggest that you are anti-foreigner and that you do not believe in privatisation. Comment.

The response to my question was a loud laugh. Privatisation, he said, was not just about selling government assets to friends of people in power.

He argued that he was against privatisation because it had created corruption and massive loss of jobs for ordinary Zambians.

Mr Sata said he was not opposed to the Chinese merely because of their skin colour, but because they were exploiting workers in the Copper Belt.

He said agreements with Chinese companies would be renegotiated to reflect the interests of ordinary Zambians.

What do you have against Kenya? I asked. He answered that a group of Kenyan wheeler-dealers and friends of Mr Banda’s had infiltrated the government and were using State House connections to clinch shady deals in the energy sector.

From the conversation, I would describe Zambia’s new president as follows.:
He is a populist with strong views against neo-liberal economics. A modestly educated man, his grasp of economics is rusty.

The man spent hours describing to me, with a deep sense of nostalgia, how there was a time when the Zambian kwacha traded one on one with the Sterling pound.

Still, I was struck by his clarity of thought and the way he articulated the obsessions of contemporary Zambia.

Since he was elected president, he hit the ground running, shaking the roots of the corruption networks left behind by the Banda regime.

His critics say some of his actions have been reckless, but will readily admit that he has brought a ‘‘business unusual’’ mindset hitherto not witnessed in Zambia.

Here in Kenya, we are only months away from the transition to a post-Kibaki Kenya. What are the big issues? What we have are politicians who stand for little more than seeking power.

The hopefuls have been criss-crossing the country, but the big issues, or a wider vision of the future, are not coming through. Politics is becoming more deceptive and less principled.

In Zambia, the electoral transition has elevated to power new political leaders not anchored in pre-existing corruption networks. Sooner or later, the new brooms may metamorphose into old brooms playing the same old games.

But the Zambian transition has shown that it is important to elect a president you can associate with some agenda.