A few weeks ago, I put forward a thought experiment that I called “The Great Swap” as follows:

Imagine that intelligent aliens come on earth, put everyone to sleep and swap all the citizens of Zambia with those of the United Kingdom, such that all Zambians wake up in the UK and all British people wake up in Zambia. The aliens make it impossible for either group to return to their original country for 50 years. What would the citizens of the two countries find when they visit their original homeland after 50 years?

One of the more humorous comments in the discussion that ensued said that for the first time, London Bridge would fall down, reminding me of the famous nursery rhyme we used to sing in Primary School. Someone else said that there would be a modern subway linking “Mutendereshire” with “Materobrough” in Zambia.

I went on to comment thus:

Pretty much everyone agrees on the outcome of this thought experiment. ie that UK would be a mess and Zambia a paradise. But when asked to explain Zambia’s economic stagnation the last 50 years, most people refer to external reasons like Copper and Oil prices in the 70s, debt burden, IMF/WB conditionalities, ‘Neo-colonialism’, etc.

After 50 years of self-rule, it is shameful that our economic statistics are equivalent to war-torn countries, some of which are now doing better than us in many areas. Every Zambian government has blamed something other than themselves for the mess we are in. They are elected to bring change but they fail, while we the citizens are not putting enough pressure on them. It is time we the new generation make a change.

I don’t have all the answers, but one of the big mistakes the first Zambian govt made was to chase the whites quickly before there was proper handover of skills and knowledge. This created a huge competence gap that has never been filled. The subsequent two governments failed to correct many such things and I hope the next govt shall do better.

What interested me the most in the discussion was this argument made by another contributor:

Let us ‘re-colonise’ Zambia! I have always maintained that Ba Zungus [white people] especially the British are a well-organised lot and better managers in so far as running a country is concerned. We should have fought for equal rights and not independence! That way we could have complemented each other in the development of our country.

This argument may sound absurd and unthinkable, but it appears to hold some truth, notwithstanding the brutality and discrimination of the British against the natives. It seems that equal rights for all citizens was really the core issue, not necessarily self-rule. Minority rule is not necessarily a bad thing if people’s rights are fully respected and no one is treated as a second class citizen. This is where the British failed.

The independence freedom fighters did not believe the British would grant equal rights so they pushed for self-rule which has turned out to be disastrous on many fronts. Most of them found being ruled by whites inherently offensive but they forgot that the Bantu tribes that migrated from elsewhere did the same thing by overthrowing the local tribes they found. Most of the tribes in Zambia today did not exist a mere 300 years ago and they imposed minority rule. How different was the Bemba or Kazembe kingdom from the British empire?

Let us not forget that the British in 39 years (1925-1964) achieved far more than “independent” Zambia has achieved in 50 years (1964-2014). The British came into a bush and introduced governance structures with codified law and accompanying judicature, an education system, modern medicine, a road and railway network, a thriving commerce system that extended to villages and many other important structural elements.

As we celebrate our Golden Jubilee, I have been asking myself, what does it really mean to be “free”? Free from colonial rule? Is it better to be “free” but poor or ruled over but have a good standard of living? China immediately comes to mind here. How can we explain the political and economic decline that has happened to us in the 50 years we have been in charge of ourselves? Did we get independent too quickly before we were ready? What lessons can be learned by the incoming government of 2016 for the future?

If I were to apportion blame for our current bad situation, I would place most of it (about 70%) on the governments we have had in the last 50 years. The other 30% is ourselves as citizens for failure to hold our governments accountable. Of the 70%, I would give the lion’s share (50%) to the United National Independence Party government (1964-1991), 25% to the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (1991-2011), 15% to the Patriotic Front administration (2011-2014) and 10% to the British colonialists.

The British created the current system of governance in Northern Rhodesia starting in 1925 when the charter that was given to the British South Africa Company expired. It was decided early on that Northern Rhodesia would be a place to extract minerals while labour came from Nyasaland (Malawi) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) would be where the British settled in larger numbers. They pumped most of the profits there and Zimbabwe still has better infrastructure.

Over time, the British improved the lives of everyone overall but they failed to reform when the natives began to complain about marginalization in education, commerce and health facilities. The educational budget for whites was many times that for blacks and it seems the British were not willing to invest heavily in Africans in those early years.

Everything eventually came to a head when the Cha Cha Cha uprisings started. The British had not taken enough steps to accommodate the natives. Instead they reacted with force and intimidation until their authority became untenable and they were ejected and all the positive things they had done eventually forgotten. For this, they deserve sharp criticism because things could have turned out much better and we could perhaps have been a happy British colony like Hong Kong up to now or a more sovereign state like Canada and Australia.

Despite the tendency of many (mostly young) people of today to attempt to eulogize first Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, he made many bad decisions which destroyed this country. UNIP took over a growing middle-income country with almost all statistics improving and left an almost failed state in which we had to queue up for many hours to buy sugar and salt. Just to catch a bus to another province would often take days. Life expectancy had declined, infant mortality rates worsened, infrastructure destroyed due to lack of maintenance, and the UNIP governance record was deplorable to say the least.

Because of his propensity to make himself a demi-god, Kaunda spent 27 years consolidating and concentrating power into the office of the president by introducing new laws, eliminating political opponents, appropriating private companies and stifling the free press. It had to take a popular mass movement (the MMD) to remove him from power in 1991, but he continued with his lust for political power by contesting the 1995 UNIP congress elections for party president, hoping to contest the 1996 General Elections (He had stepped down in 1992 and was succeeded by the younger former Prime Minister and UNIP Secretary-General Kebby Musokotwane).

Kaunda defeated Musokotwane at the convention and set about marketing himself using the usual excuse that “the people” wanted him back and he was being selfless. Yet his long history of consolidating power betrayed his expressed intentions. After being constitutionally barred from contesting the 1996 elections, he forced UNIP to boycott the elections and allowed MMD to gain more ground and eventually consign UNIP to the political scrap-yard. I suspect that had Musokotwane remained UNIP president and not died in 1996, UNIP would be a much stronger opposition party today. Who knows, they may have even come back into government in 2001 when 71% of the people of Zambia voted against the MMD.

It is very difficult to find good things that Kaunda did, but I suppose free education (although implemented not too well) was one of them. Kaunda’s efforts to fight tribalism were also commendable, though some commentators opine that his real aim was to kill the influence of the Bemba tribe which was disproportionately powerful in UNIP. They claim that introducing tribal balancing in appointments was just a trick as he was aware that Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe would one day unseat him. Handing over power peacefully to President Frederick Chiluba in 1991 was perhaps his most commendable action. Whether he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do, or was forced to is another question.

Lord Acton said that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Kaunda left an omnipotent presidency which acted as the agent of the downfall of President Chiluba and others that followed. Chiluba unfortunately also abused his office to steal in broad daylight by using the intelligence bank account Zamtrop, a crime for which he was convicted by a London Court. He went after The Post Newspaper and many other perceived enemies.

There were many inexplicable deaths that took place under his watch such as former Finance Minister Ronald Penza who was murdered in his own home despite all the security around him. Paul Tembo, the former MMD Deputy National Secretary was murdered in 2001 the morning he was due to testify in parliament about corruption in the Chiluba government. Other suspicious deaths were Baldwin Nkumbula, Wezi Kaunda and Dean Mungomba.

Despite their chequered past, the MMD government did many more things right (unlike UNIP which did more bad than good) by measurably improving the living standards of the average Mulenga and Jelita. By the time MMD left in 2011, the country was in a much better state than they found it in terms of the economy and political institutions. UNIP left Zambia worse than they found it. I have heard many dishonest people claim that MMD did nothing or that they destroyed the economy. Such people are either intellectually bankrupt or woefully ignorant.

My earlier assessment that MMD takes about 25% of the blame for our current mess is because they had the greatest opportunity in the multi-party era to correct all the evils of UNIP, and yet squandered a large chunk of it. They won at presidential level in 1991 by 75%, had an absolute majority in Parliament by winning 125 out of 150 seats, and their margin increased further in 1996 when UNIP boycotted the elections and lost their 25 seats. They could have easily passed any reforms.

Granted, MMD had to bring down the entire Zambian house and restart the foundation from scratch by setting in place a private sector driven economy and improve democracy and governance. No one can take away from the MMD the improvements they made to Zambia by leaving it as a lower middle income country, but they failed to reduce the role of government in the economy enough. Some of their interventions often produced negative results, their foray into maize marketing under Levy Mwanawasa via the Food Reserve Agency being a case in point. FRA buys and sells maize at a loss which is not only absurd, but a waste of colossal sums of tax-payer money. MMD failed to fully liberalize the economy and complete the privatization process. They left behind inefficient behemoths like ZESCO, Zampost, ZNBS, ZSIC, NHA, etc.

Chiluba and his two MMD successors Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda failed to curtail the powers of the president that Kaunda had left and they all abused the office to varying degrees by going after political opponents and critical media houses. The Post Newspaper bore the brunt of most of the assaults on press freedom until more recently when they warmed up to the Patriotic Front Government.

Chiluba’s political dribbling resulted in a presidential third term bid and a massive fallout in MMD whereby about 70 senior MMD members left or were expelled. This sowed the seeds of the downfall of the MMD in 2011 when they lost to the PF. Mwanawasa barely won the 2001 election and set about trying to impress Zambians by taking a more Socialist economic route which began to undo the foundation laid by Chiluba and his team. He failed to privatize the rest of the about 20 parastatals left in 8 years of his presidency and he did not reform the political and economic system enough to produce high economic growth rates.

He benefited from Chiluba’s work on HIPC and reached completion point. He reduced government borrowing which released funds to the private sector. Banks began chasing salaried employees to offer them loans for the first time since the early 80s. The massive reduction in Zambia’s debt allowed Mwanawasa to have more money to spend on other things which helped grow the economy at a respectable 6% average in his second term. His presidency was a mixed bag that should have been far better.

In 2008, Vice-President Rupiah Banda succeeded Mwanawasa in a presidential by-election with the narrowest of margins; a mere 35,000 votes. His presidency turned out to be another mixed bag. He did relatively well on the economy by privatizing Zamtel, reducing licensing fees and simplifying business procedures. He was probably the most business-friendly president. He travelled the world to court investments and produced some good economic results.

For the first time in 30 years, inflation dropped to single digits (7%) and the economy grew at close to 7%. Life expectancy improved and he accelerated Mwanawasa’s 2006 plan for improving the health system as district hospitals, clinics and rural health posts were constructed and opened. The Levy Mwanawasa Hospital was perhaps one of his crown jewels and he flagged off a massive road construction project all over the country.

However, his political decisions were less than optimal. He went after The Post Newspapers by dragging one of its editors, Chansa Kabwela to court on silly charges of possession and distribution of pornography. His misguided fight with The Post is partly what led to them supporting Michael Sata and the PF for 2011 and they succeeded in painting him as a corrupt selfish president.

The involvement of Mr Banda’s sons in his presidency did not help as they were viewed as “eating” from many lucrative contracts that were allegedly awarded to their business associates without following procedure. Corruption allegations abounded and were not properly dealt with. Mr Banda’s handling of Barotseland’s potential cessation caused him to lose many votes as people were shot dead and others imprisoned and charged with treason. To add insult to injury, he did not even attend the Kuomboka Ceremony in his last year in office, opting to send his Vice George Kunda.

He fell out with some MMD Ministers like Ngandu Magande, Sylvia Masebo and Mike Mulongoti. He suddenly fired his ministers Jonas Shakafuswa and Lameck Chibombamilimo at State House when MMD cadres marched there. In this and many other incidents, he projected an image of extreme arrogance which came to haunt him at the 2011 elections. His abuse of state media to push his agenda also worked against him.

With Mr Sata’s incessant attacks on MMD plus civil society, the donors and the church losing faith in Mr Banda, MMD’s doom was sealed. No matter how much they tried to campaign by attacking Mr Sata and dishing out money, chitenges, alcohol and other freebies, the electorate had had enough. Mr Sata was not exactly the best candidate to replace Mr Banda but he was the most viable and people reluctantly voted for him, contrary to the popular view perpetuated by PF that their win was resounding (Voter turnout was only 54%, the lowest since 1991, which was a drop from 71% in 2006).

The PF came into government having created great expectations. They had successfully attacked and dethroned MMD and many Zambians were excited about the prospect of change. Change is what most voters wanted. However, it was not to be, as Zambians again became disappointed by broken promises and an increasingly authoritarian state, UNIP style.

The failure of MMD to dismantle the excessive powers of the president’s office finally came home to roost. Whereas the MMD presidents pretended to be democrats while secretly doing anti-democratic things, Mr Sata had never pretended to be a democrat during his entire ten years in opposition. True to his character, he used the powers vested in his office to maximum effect against the MMD, UPND and other opposition parties. It became common to see opposition leaders arrested and dragged to court on flimsy charges or denied permits to hold meetings, including indoor meetings with their members.

The current MMD president Dr Nevers Mumba was arrested and locked up for merely visiting a chief. His counterpart Hakainde Hichilema (president of United Party for National Development) was similarly locked up and Elias Chipimo Jr, the National Restoration Party President was detained at a police station.

Press freedoms under the PF remarkably declined as journalists were arrested or threatened, and publications were taken to court such as the Daily Nation newspaper for defamation of the president. Websites of some critical media houses got blocked in Zambia, thanks to Chinese telecomms equipment which spurred accusations of spying on Zambian citizens in cahoots with the Chinese.

PF began failing on fiscal discipline early on, despite being left with almost $3 billion in reserves, 7% inflation and 7% GDP growth. They thankfully continued most of the MMD projects. But lacking a historical understanding of all the complex planning and negotiations that went into these projects, they stretched themselves thin by attempting to do too much too quickly in an effort to consolidate their position with the electorate.

They increased salaries of civil servants astronomically, such that 75% of government revenue is now spent on personal emoluments for 200,000 people out of a labour force of 700,000. They created about 30 new districts without any budgetary planning and employed people before there were any district offices or accommodation available. This led to more wastage as people were paid mostly for nothing and lodges were booked for many months to house district officials. Wastage occurred in 23 by-elections (and counting) as ministers and MPs were sent to campaign.

Inevitably, the sum total of all these unplanned expenditures eventually depleted the national coffers such that PF had to resort to borrowing internationally and domestically. The current external debt is at $4.7 billion and local debt is $3.5 billion (at K6.30 per Dollar). Repayments will drain the coffers for decades to come and there appear to be no debt sustainability measures on the horizon.

Is Zambia cursed with a failure to get a fully responsive government? Each one of the 3 parties that have ruled so far have tended to have a very parochial view of governance, even when they meant well and began with the best of intentions. UNIP certainly never intended to oppress the Zambians with a despotic One Party state but they did it anyway.

MMD took office with grand plans and intentions but it only took 3 years for things to begin unravelling, such that many founder members including Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, Baldwin Nkumbula and Levy Mwanawasa resigned in disgust that the dream was lost. MMD survived beyond 10 years by a combination of luck and political dribbling as corruption and theft abounded.

PF similarly sincerely believed they could fix the country. They thought governing was simply being men and women of action. They over-promised and set in motion many things that have come to haunt them and for now, they appear incapable of turning things around in time for 2016. The train has left the station and it’s not coming back.

So what is the way forward? I believe there has to be a change of ideas and attitudes. Zambians should firstly realize that they should take their vote seriously and not be swept off their feet by smooth talking politicians. They should adopt a skeptical disposition and thoroughly question prospective candidates.

Civil Society, the Church, political parties and all of us must press for a drastic reduction in the powers of the Executive, arguably the greatest single problem. For example, removing Cabinet from Parliament removes the ability to manipulate the Legislature since no MP would be compromised by the promise of a ministerial job. Making the appointments of the Cabinet and Supreme Court judges subject to strict parliamentary oversight would also help a lot.

Other Constitutional officers like the Attorney General, Auditor-General and Anti-Corruption Commission Director-General need to be de-linked from the president’s office or otherwise subjected to strong parliamentary oversight. Power needs to be decentralized to the provinces who should take over budgeting, taxation and economic policy decisions through Governors and Mayors. A president should become more of a figure head than a demi-god.

A friend of mine related how one nation in Europe where he went did not have a Prime Minister for years but most of the population did not even notice or care. Most of the citizens could not even name the Prime Minister when he was in office. They were busy being productive with less government interference in their lives.

If Zambia wants to develop in the next 50 years, drastic steps have to be taken. The economy needs to be opened up a lot more, just as the Chinese did. Prosperity is not a miracle. The ideas behind it are documented. The more an economy is private sector driven, the better it does. The better the legal framework becomes, the more certainty there is in business. The stronger the property rights regime, the greater a nation’s prosperity.

I totally appreciate the peace we have had for 50 years. But it is simply not good enough. We do not need to take 200 years to develop the way the West did. Their knowledge was more incomplete and we have access to their history to know what works and what does not. There is simply no excuse for the mediocrity we have gotten used to as Zambians.

Let us change our thinking and move on, so that in 2064, there will be something to truly celebrate about.

See my other article, “A Development Blueprint For Zambia“.