Milestone or mediocrity?

A pungent smell of controversy is hanging over the entire multi-party democratic process in Africa. Africans are increasingly asking themselves whether advocating multi-party democracy is worth the trouble, particularly since it has done little to better peoples’ lot. Western donors, on the other hand, seem to think that newly-installed and democratically-elected leaders of impoverished African countries can turn off corruption like a tap.

Doubt was cast on the solidity of Zambian, and African, democracy last week when the European Union declined to endorse the country’s 27 December presidential election as free and fair. Former United States President Jimmy Carter — whose internationally acclaimed centre in Atlanta, Georgia, is known for monitoring the progress of African democratic performance and the resolution of African civil wars and disputes — disapproved of the presidential poll. Joining the chorus of condemnation were regional and international organisations that sent monitors to the southern African nation, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Zambia is a member.

Sworn in on 2 December, new President Levy Mwanawasa is Zambia’s third president since independence from Britain in 1964. Invitations were sent to the heads of state and government of all Zambia’s southern African neighbours for the inauguration ceremony, but most, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, declined to attend. Others, like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, sent a ministerial delegation instead.

Zambia’s 10 opposition parties boycotted the inauguration ceremonies and protesters engaged in pitch battles with the police, who used tear gas to disperse them. Nonetheless, Mwanawasa was sworn in as scheduled, taking over from ex- President Frederick Chiluba.

In Zambia, which enjoys a vigorous media scene, the leading independent newspaper, The Post, described the results as “fraudulent”, while the pro-government The Times of Zambia counselled opposition parties to be “magnanimous enough to accept defeat.” In neighbouring Zimbabwe, there was a thin cry of support from the main official newspaper, The Herald. “The Zambian elections are a major eye-opener for the forthcoming [Zimbabwean] presidential elections [ in March], as they have revealed the obnoxious interference of the EU in African affairs,” commented one despondent columnist.

But the vigorous triumphalism of multi-party democracy should not hide the harsh but obvious truth that man cannot live by democracy alone. The turn-out was low in Zambia because apathetic Zambians cannot survive on the joys of democracy while they languish in hunger and abject poverty. To trace the roots of Zambia’s political predicament, it is worth recalling that three-quarters of Zambians live below the World Bank’s poverty threshold of $1 a day. As many as 30 per cent of the population are HIV positive.

Chiluba, the man who’s been raked over the coals on human rights violations, corruption and political mismanagement scandals, reluctantly stepped down to allow his hand-picked successor to take his place. Having in the past stated that “power is sweet,” Chiluba had wanted to change the constitution and extend his stay in office for another term, but the opposition refused point- blank. Both Chiluba and Mwanawasa dismiss any talk of Machiavellian moves as “absolute nonsense,” but Chiluba still holds the reins within the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). His critics claim that he is typical of the new breed of spineless democratically-elected leaders in Africa. Western donors, meanwhile, complain that the democratically-elected governments in Africa as a whole have not smartened up their act and advanced the democratic process.

Western intervention did not end with colonialism. Western donors fund around half of Zambia’s national budget today and this is illustrative of how contemporary African neo- colonial states are run. It is hard, in the pitiable pantheon of modern African history, to see how this helps. First, there was the savage socio- economic devastation of slavery, followed by the depletion of the continent’s natural resources under colonialism. Now there is the cruel toll exacted by rampant corruption and catastrophic pandemics that came in the wake of colonialism. Those who cynically argue Africans are not ready for democracy today are no different from the ones who claimed that Africans were not ready for political independence four decades ago.

With buoyant copper prices in the 1970s, Zambia was one of Africa’s richest countries. Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s first president and founding father, nationalised the huge copper mines and the white-owned commercial farms. But with the collapse of copper prices, the 1990 food riots ensued, forcing Kaunda to step down. Zambia’s ruling party, the Movement for Multi- party Democracy (MMD), instituted the most sweeping economic liberalisation programmes in southern Africa, but no tangible results ensued. Foreign investment failed to pour in, poverty worsened and South African goods now flood the Zambian market.

With current low copper prices, the mines — now privately owned — have failed to bring in the anticipated revenues. On the eve of the presidential polls, the US government approved tariff preferences for Zambia and 34 other African countries under the controversial African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Western donors announced that $3.6 billion of a total of $6.5 billion debt is to be forgiven on condition that it be spent on poverty-eradication programmes. It is doubtful that Zambia, with its social ills and political instability, would benefit much from AGOA.

The MMD came to power in the 1991 elections under a new constitution. After three decades of iron-fisted rule under Kaunda, the presidency was limited to two terms in office. But the MMD honeymoon with the long-suffering Zambian people soon soured amid charges against the new democratically-elected leadership. Not only did the top brass embezzle huge sums from state coffers, but they protected those who lined their pockets with public funds.

The mess that the British left behind in Zambia’s southern neighbour Zimbabwe has had ramifications beyond Zimbabwe’s borders. The land question might not be as pressing in Zambia as it is in Zimbabwe, but other problems dating to the legacy of colonialism abound — not the least of which are tribal and regional rivalry and tensions. Western donors do not always take note of the intricacies of tribal politics in small countries with little clout in the international arena like Zambia, but, alas, tribal associations are the African way. Zambians, as the latest presidential poll confirmed, voted along ethnic and regional lines.

Opposition parties claim that fraud was commonplace in last month’s elections and that wide-scale coercive tactics were deployed to force the electorate to vote for the MMD. In one constituency, more ballots were cast than there were registered voters. People in remote rural areas charged the ruling party with deliberately exaggerated logistical and technical problems to disenfranchise voters suspected of favouring the opposition. The opposition parties, especially given their strong Western backing, would have won had they fielded a joint candidate against Mwanawasa.

In a speech long on grand ideas and short on specifics, Mwanawasa appealed to Zambians to “bury our differences.” Mwanawasa’s plea for national unity fell on deaf ears, however, and was derided by the opposition. Mwanawasa has dismissed the foreign monitors’ verdict as irresponsible and unfair and he has singled out the EU for retribution. “Why did the European Union fund the elections, knowing full well that the playing field was uneven? Only when their chosen political party was losing did they start saying that the playing field was not even. [The EU] is promoting anarchy in this country,” charged an enraged Mwanawasa.

The EU footed the bulk of the bill for the elections and was invited by the Chiluba administration to monitor the polling. But after soliciting the “good offices” of the EU, Chiluba and his MMD accused the EU of secretly funding the opposition parties. The EU’s negative verdict has only strengthened the claims of Mwanawasa’s chief rival Anderson Mazoka, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), who narrowly lost the election. Mazoka, a former employee of the multinational giant Anglo- American, is the African business executive- turned-politician that the West now prefers to deal with. Anglo-American, the formerly South African-based company that has played a key role in tightening the economic stranglehold of Western powers in southern Africa, has been instrumental in siphoning off the profits from the mineral extraction industry in southern Africa.

Mazoka, spiffy in his trademark Western suits, is rumoured to be a Freemason, although he identifies himself as a Seventh Day Adventist. Like his presidential rival, he is a devout Christian (Zambia being Africa’s first constitutionally- styled Christian state). Mazoka is touted as a tribalist who favours his Tonga-speaking people, but in a poor country like Zambia, people actually appreciate his close Western connections more. What people like best about him are his promises for free education and medical services.

The EU came under attack for anointing Mazoka president of Zambia long before the counting of the 27 December poll was completed. Mwanawasa, a Lusaka lawyer, is renowned for his integrity and straightforward manner in dealing with the party’s rank and file and the public at large. Chiluba, still MMD chairman, continues to control the party with an iron grip.

Of the main parties, the MMD won 68 parliamentary seats, while the UPND snatched 48. Kaunda’s old United National Independence Party (UNIP) captured 13 seats, with the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) getting 12. Hoping to cash in on the popularity of his aged father, Tilenji Kaunda was appointed UNIP leader in April. Kaunda stepped down as party leader in 2000, retiring from active politics a year after his son Wezi Kaunda, the charismatic heir apparent, was shot dead in mysterious circumstances. Kaunda reckons MMD stalwarts had a hand.

Many Zambians nostalgically yearn for the days of Kaunda’s rule, when Zambia was a relatively prosperous country and the southern African liberation movements, including South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), made the Zambian capital Lusaka their headquarters and home to large exile communities of freedom fighters. All that is gone now and what remains is the plummeting living standards and exacerbation of poverty-related pandemics and social ills.