ZAMBIA is a landlocked and sparsely populated country, with ten million people, made up of more than seventy ethnic groups, living in an area the size of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland combined. At independence from Britain in 1964 the country (formerly Northern Rhodesia) was the third largest copper producer, after the United States and the Soviet Union. However, with world copper prices collapsing in the mid-1970s, the economy was devastated. This, combined with maladministration under the country's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who ruled from independence until 1991, has meant that Zambia is now one of the poorest countries in the world.
After Kaunda was forced out by popular pressure and a rare democratic election (the first in twenty years or so), Frederick Chiluba took over. Whilst Chiluba pushed through a wholesale privatisation scheme, corruption and mismanagement continued to bedevil Zambia. Chiluba was frustrated by popular pressure in running for an unconstitutional third term and under intense pressure, shelved his plans. Instead there was a different candidate in the elections which took place on the 27th of December 2001.
When Zambia went to the polling booths in presidential and parliamentary elections, it was the most closely fought presidential race since Zambia's independence in 1964. Levy Mwanawasa of the incumbent Movement for Multiparty Democracy's (MMD) emerged, after chaotic vote counting, as Zambia's new president. The elections mark a major triumph for the previous president, Frederick Chiluba, as it is now widely perceived in Zambia that Mwanawasa is a handpicked puppet of Chiluba's and that business may very well carry on 'as usual'. If this is so, then Zambia's post-independence decline may very well continue.
As in previous elections in Zambia, this one was once again marked by widespread allegations of vote rigging and political interference in the electoral process. Even the Southern African Development Community (an organisation noted for its timidity in facing up to undemocratic procedures in the region), which had sent a 34-man team to observe the polls, said that the MMD's utilisation of public funds in campaigning, and state-controlled media bias, distorted the playing field in favour of the ruling party. The European Union's election observers also claimed that the elections were characterised by voting irregularities and mismanagement. Chaos surrounding voter registration effectively disenfranchised thousands of intending voters across the country, whilst mysterious extra voters appeared on the voting rolls in some constituencies. Mwanawasa was sworn in as Zambia's third president only after the high court in Lusaka rejected an application by opposition parties to postpone the declaration of the contested election result. Although Judge Peter Chitenge said that the claim that the elections were fraudulent appeared to have some merit, he rejected a request for a recount and inquiry into irregularities, on the grounds that the application was 'premature'. The election's results had to stand as, according to Chitenge, the constitution did not permit a presidential election to be challenged until two weeks after the winner was announced. In the meantime, Mwanawasa was sworn in.
Whilst Mwanawasa has been declared president, the MMD is actually in a minority in parliament, according to the official voting figures, making Mwanawasa's presidency looking very shaky indeed. The MMD got a total of 69 parliamentary seats whilst the total number of seats that the various opposition parties (plus one independent) got was 81. President Mwanawasa is constitutionally permitted to nominate eight members of parliament, but even with this the MMD still falls short by four seats to equal the opposition. It is thus likely that the new government will have a tough time passing legislation through the National Assembly. The fact that Mwanawasa can still be declared president whilst his party is in a minority in parliament is itself a result of the MMD's changing of the constitution in 1996 that saw the removal of the provision that needed a presidential candidate to get an absolute majority. The British-style 'first-past-the-post' system was introduced in its place. This has effectively meant that the ruling party has exploited the traditionally fractious nature of opposition politics in Zambia to sneak back into power. Many Zambian observers had favoured US-style presidential primary elections that would then have had the two leading candidates in a run-off election. It is extremely unlikely that the MMD would have emerged as the outright winner in this case. But, be that as it may, the new Zambian president 'enjoys' a mandate of 29 per cent of the popular vote in an election widely regarded as fraudulent and incomplete.
So, who is the new president of Zambia? Levy Mwanawasa is a creditable state advocate, a Jehovah's Witness with a reputation for honesty. He was the first Zambian lawyer to be appointed advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. Mwanawasa served as vice-president in Chiluba's first cabinet until 1994, when he resigned in protest against uncontrolled official corruption. He resurfaced after Chiluba 'selected' him as his successor. Mwanawasa himself claims to have been suddenly awoken by a telephone call on the 26th of August informing him that he would be running for president of Zambia as the MMD candidate. Mwanawasa has pledged to rein in corruption and illegality in government. Whilst few doubt his earnestness, many doubt both his room for manoeuvre and his physical ability. Ten years ago, Mwanawasa was seriously injured in an automobile accident in which he nearly died. It is widely believed that he suffered severe brain damage. Mwanawasa's often incoherent speech and sporadic fits o f public anger have made many observers question the new president's mental health. This was capitalised upon by the opposition during the election with opposition supporters greeting Mwanawasa at political rallies by waving cabbages at him and nicknaming him kabichi, the vernacular for the same vegetable. Notable slip-ups during the campaign included calling President Chiluba his elder sister and his claim that he was as fit as 'Tike Myson'. Mwanawasa has repeatedly denied that he is in fact a cabbage and has challenged critics to judge his mental and physical health on his actions as president.
Whilst health concerns remain, what is of greater importance is the perception that Mwanawasa is in thrall to Chiluba and that much of the same can be expected. It is true that Chiluba remains president of the MMD and there is a belief in Lusaka that Chiluba is still pulling the strings. Mwanawasa has named himself defence minister whilst his new cabinet includes six of Chiluba's former cabinet members, including Vice-President Enoch Kavindele and former information minister Vernon Mwaanga. Although Mwanawasa has proclaimed that he will not permit corruption, abuse of office or illegality in his administration, a number of his appointments at cabinet level are curious, if the new president's assertions are to be taken seriously.
In particular, the re-appointment of Vernon Mwaanga is highly controversial. Mwaanga was linked to drug trafficking offences in the late 1980s and was forced to resign from the cabinet in 1994 following donor protests at the cabinet appointment of a drug dealer. However, Chiluba re-appointed him to the cabinet last year and Mwaanga actively supported Chiluba's illegal third term bid. Although Mwanawasa has admitted that Mwaanga had been involved in drug trafficking he has said he is confident that Mwaanga had 'reformed', a declaration that was met by howls of derision by many Zambians. Further undermining the claim to clean government, the new foreign affairs minister, Katele Kalumba, was linked to the corrupt diversion of two billion Kwacha (about $500,000) in public funds last year. The notion that the new president has surrounded himself with recycled, corrupt and discredited politicians is very strong in Lusaka as is the idea that, as The Post newspaper of Lusaka put it, Mwanawasa 'is a president of Frede rick Chiluba, by Chiluba for Chiluba'.
Whilst it is still early days, this accusation may be a bit unfair. Mwanawasa has dismantled the Presidential Housing Initiative (PHI), a scheme that was supposedly established to promote a slow house ownership programme, but which quickly came to be seen as a means to enrich Chiluba and his associates. Currently, Chiluba's press aide Richard Sakala, who was head of the PHI, is being investigated for awarding profitable PHI contracts to companies in which he or his relatives had interests, and to have employed relatives under preferential conditions of service. Mwanawasa has also said that he will work to end a culture under which Chiluba used to fund choice causes. The donations, from the so-called 'presidential discretionary fund', were basically a scheme to secure loyalty and patrimonial networks.
All of the above however pales into insignificance when one considers Zambia's current financial situation. Indeed, the political circus may well provide light relief to an otherwise thoroughiy depressing scenario. Although Chiluba introduced notable economic reforms, he largely failed to attack Zambia's general extreme poverty, with more than 80 per cent of the country now below the World Bank's poverty threshold of 69 pence a day. Although $3.6 billion of the total $6.5 Bllion debt is to be forgiven (as long as the savings go on anti-poverty programmes), the country remains financially crippled. One in five Zambians are H1V positive and the economy remains (nearly forty years after independence) heavily dependent on mining, particularly copper. Although Mwanawasa has promised the nation a 'new deal', he inherits a country that remains chronically under-developed, beset with poverty and rising regional and ethnic tensions and one where crime and massive corruption stakes out much of the reality of Zambia's e conomic and political life. The task for anyone assuming power under such conditions is daunting, not least for someone who lacks legitimacy from a suspect election and who is seen by many as not being physically up to the job.
Dr Ian Taylor is in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies of the University of Botswana.…