Lungu’s presidency under scrutiny

President Edgar Chagwa Lungu is cultivating a reputation for practising a shrewd brand of political expediency. When he took over from Michael Sata, his detractors dismissed him as a weak president – the ultimate pretender; lukewarm, not bold.

They were wrong. Careful not to openly isolate Sata loyalists, including the Patriotic Front (PF) grassroots who revered the abrasive man they called the King Cobra, Lungu began by declaring that his remit was to continue building on Sata’s legacy.

However, he quietly set about tearing up the foundations of that legacy. Sata the ultimate populist was not averse to enticing Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) ministers into the PF fold and using the Public Order Act to repress opposition dissent. With actions that have blurred the lines between the two political parties, Lungu has altered Sata’s script.

Buoyed by support from Rupiah Banda and Enoch Kavindele – former MMD president and vice president respectively – he nudged Sata loyalists, Winter Kabimba and Guy Scott to the fringes.

Unhappy, Kabimba formed the Rainbow party and Scott, after acting as Zambia’s president following Sata’s death, drifted over to the United Party for National Development (UPND). Ahead of this year’s multi-tier elections, Sata’s son, former Lusaka deputy minister Mulenga Sata, also joined the UPND.

The controversial manner in which Lungu was manoeuvred into the PF presidency after Sata’s death, and a less than 2% margin in last year’s presidential by-election, saw the UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema constantly nipping at his heels about “electoral theft”.

HH’s jibes dogged Lungu throughout an absorbing 2016 pre-election campaign marked by spiralling clashes between PF and UPND cadres – clashes that led to higher levels of violence than seen during previous elections.

With the panorama of his first five-year term now in full view, Lungu’s real credentials will be put to the severest test. A disputed election result that set Zambia’s democratic credentials at risk is still visible in the rear view mirror. The PF’s body politic is taking shape anew following Lungu’s naming of a post-election cabinet.

He has continued the chopping and changing of ministries that was reminiscent of Sata. In forming the Ministry of Religious Affairs and National Guidance, Lungu has, if perhaps unwittingly, paid homage to Kenneth Kaunda and Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first and second presidents.  Chiluba declared Zambia as a Christian nation in 1991. Kaunda’s Ministry of National Guidance was a mark of his humanism credo.

Predictably, Lungu omitted finance minister Alexander Chikwanda, Sata’s uncle, from his new cabinet. Ahead of August 11, Chikwanda, who held the finance portfolio under Kaunda’s regime as far back as the early 1970s, had signalled that he would bow out after the elections.

By handing the finance baton to MMD president Felix Mutati, Lungu flung the door wide for the MMD faction that had a marriage of convenience with the PF to jauntily stroll into the ruling party. He confirmed that by re-appointing Rupiah Banda loyalist Dora Siliya to his new cabinet as agriculture minister. Siliya was energy minister before August 11.

Lungu’s retention of Harry Kalaba at foreign affairs was no surprise, as was that of former banker Margaret Mwanakatwe at commerce, trade and industry. Mwanakatwe defeated Guy Scott’s wife, Charlotte, in the election for the Lusaka Central constituency.

To his credit, Lungu has improved the gender balance in his new cabinet. His post-election appointments at first comprised eight women, including new entrants Godfridah Sumaili at the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs, Emerine Kabanshi at Community Development and Social Services, and trade unionist Joyce Nonde-Simukoko, who replaced the inept Fackson Shamenda at Labour and Social Security. Other female shoo-ins for his post-election cabinet were Jean Kapata at the Ministry of Lands and Professor Nkandu Luo at Higher Education.

Lungu’s appointment of Inonge Wina as Zambia’s first woman vice president, and his running mate for the August 11 polls, was a clear attempt to curry favour with the Lozi tribe – an attempt that bombed in his face given that the Western Province largely voted with its feet. When the votes were tallied, HH had more from the province. Nevertheless, a female vice president was an upward stroke on Lungu’s five predecessors.

The number of women in Lungu’s cabinet has now reached nine following the President’s purging of Chishimba Kambwili in favour of Kalulushi Member of Parliament, Kampamba Mulenga, at Information and Broadcasting Services. Lungu’s decision to drop the bellicose Kambwili was, for many observers, a long time coming. The putative bull in a china shop, Kambwili was a turn off for too many people with his confrontational politics. Other than that, there was evidence of a falling away between Lungu and Kambwili even before the elections.

A new order

On top of striving to step away from the long shadow cast on the PF by Sata, Lungu has to cope with the after-taste of a 2016 election run that was fraught with acts of mindless violence between PF and UPND party systems in a state of flux.

His inauguration speech hinted at his determination to be seen as his own man. “Our new mission must now be to give ourselves the ability and confidence to be masters in our own destiny,” he said. “When the election season is over, there should be no winners and losers but we must all take away with us the valuable from the elections.”

A torrent of congratulations for his victory swamped State House from other heads of state. However, a failed petition by the UPND in the Constitutional Court threatened to spoil the after party. Moreover, a stark observation from the Carter Centre, which was among the foreign election observers, puts Lungu’s second victory over HH into perspective. “Overall, the 2016 elections represent a troubling departure from Zambia’s recent history of democratic governance,” read the statement.

Like others who observed this year’s elections with an objective eye, the Carter Centre is concerned that in a highly combustive environment, neither Lungu nor HH did enough to allay tensions, address the deep divisions, and prevent post-electoral violence.

“The pre-election campaign period was marred by the lack of a level playing field, including harassment of private media, the abuse of office by government ministers, and the application of the Public Order Act in ways that appeared to disadvantage the main opposition party, the United Party for National Development,” added the Carter Centre.

After naming his cabinet, Lungu prodded his ministers to roll up the sleeves and quickly get to work. He made clear to his cabinet that he would not tolerate corruption and that he would demand quarterly reports from them.

Meantime, the post-elections sideshow has continued. Stung by losing a fifth election on the trot, HH has refused to submit and continues to play to the international gallery. Determined to paint Lungu as a dictator and to keep hogging the headlines, he and running mate GBM have intermittently gotten themselves arrested.

The two UPND leaders’ refusal to admit defeat could be down as much to the vast sums of money they poured into the election campaign as to genuine concerns about electoral fraud.  The Zambia Elections Information Centre (ZEIC), a multi-staker platform formed to allow citizens and the media to monitor issues around the election in near real-time, estimates that the PF and UPND together spent slightly over $11.3 million on the August 11 polls. According to ZEIC, the PF spent an estimated $6 million and the UPND $5 million. How much of that $5 million came from the deep pockets of HH and GBM is anybody’s guess.

Electoral violence

Ahead of August 11, Lungu preached peace and tolerance. In March, political parties signed a peace treaty at Lusaka’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. But conversely, the state continued to disadvantage opposition political players, conveniently looking the other way as police at times violently disrupted opposition meetings, in effect preventing the polls from being free and fair.

Among the acts cited included the halting of a public rally by the UPND in Chawama, Lungu’s former constituency. The action led to violent clashes between police and angry UPND cadres – clashes that resulted in the death of a female UPND supporter.

A week before the woman’s death, this writer was caught up in an incident where tear-gas happy police hurled canisters at a group of UPND cadres who were campaigning near the Kabwata Cultural Village along Lusaka’s Burma Road.

Far from being rowdy, the UPND cadres had in the eyes of the police “breached public peace” by partially slowing down traffic along the road. The UPND supporters fled to Chilumbulu Road, pursued by the tear-gas wielding police officers. According to eye witness accounts, a female UPND supporter reportedly suffered severe injuries in the fracas after falling off a van carrying the UPND cadres.

Indeed, inter-party violence has been high this year and has sullied Lungu’s electoral victory. There were more than 50 incidents of electoral violence just between January and June, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED). The violence became so extreme that the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) suspended political campaigns in Lusaka for 10 days. President Lungu called for a national day of prayer on July 25 for peaceful elections.

How Lungu won it

A few months before the elections, the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) concluded that the PF would be voted out owing to the economic hardships 80% of Zambians were facing. The EIU said 60% of Zambians interviewed were unhappy with the PF and believed a change of government was the way to go.

Among other things, the EIU said poverty levels had worsened since Lungu took over due to excessive borrowing and misplacement of donor funds. In a 25-page report on Zambia’s social, political and economic performance, it ranked Zambia as one of the poorest countries in the world, while its leaders were among Africa’s richest. Lungu had raised his salary, moving him from Africa’s 25th highest-paid president to position 11.

High fuel prices, rolling power outages, soaring food prices, fall of the Kwacha, high profile corruption in the award of tenders, political violence, state-sponsored ethnicity – all these were named among the factors that would make the UPND win the elections. The EIU based its forecast on the belief that Zambians would judge the PF government not by its infrastructural developments, but by its economic management.

With the benefit of hindsight, the EIU and others who were expecting HH to win may have missed the importance of the personality factor. True, Lungu was presiding over a country in a clear economic decline going into the polls, but when it was all over but for the shouting – bar the UPND petition – official ECZ statistics show he won the presidential election with 1,860,877 votes to HH’s 1,760,347.

In his campaign, Lungu marketed himself on the persona of humbleness, faith and a love of family and nation that observers say resonated with the 6.69 million registered voters. Crucially perhaps, he connected better with the 1.6 million first-time voters who saw the more stolid HH as a touch arrogant and remote. Throughout his five election losses, the UPND leader has struggled to connect with the grassroots. It probably did not help HH that his running mate GBM faced allegations of domestic abuse. Certainly, gender activists saw GBM as a symbol of oppressive patriarchy.

Despite being referred to by the jocular “Vodka Lungu” moniker among a certain constituency, it is clear that many saw the incumbent as a sinner who loves his Jameson Whiskey, but who, like many Zambians, goes to church to repent on Sunday. Moreover, while HH could only make promises, Lungu leveraged the benefits of incumbency by commissioning one infrastructural project or other that he could point to in his campaign.

Many chided Lungu for being a heartless politician who preached peace at political rallies and engineered political violence by night. He worked hard to deflect this perception, blaming the UPND for the violence and boldly suggesting a vote for the PF was a vote for peace. The extent to which the persona he projected at his rallies formed genial perceptions in the minds of voters is a debate that will run for a long time to come. In the event, political observers say a significant part of the electorate bought into it when they voted on August 11.

Toward 2021

The centrepiece of Lungu’s new political administration is one of the largest cabinets ever seen in Zambia. He now has 29 national ministers (one short of the constitutional allowance of 30) and 10 provincial ministers. When he assumed the Presidency in January 2015, he had 20 ministers, mostly inherited from Sata. Following changes made in October 2015, the figure rose to 25, with about 40 deputy ministers. In comparison, before the PF, Rupiah Banda’s MMD administration had 23 ministers and 41 deputies.

The new Constitution did away with deputy ministers but in this session of Parliament, legislators are debating the re-introduction of the office. The debate is tapping into a groundswell of opposition as a bigger cabinet will go against the path of austerity that economic reality demands.

Lungu will continue to prevail over an economy that is on an uneven keel as we head for the next presidential election slated for 2021. In analysing Lungu’s track record, there are those who say he should not be held accountable for economic trends that predate his presidency – trends touched off by the troubles in China and copper receipts that had been in abeyance.

According to one socio-political observer, overseeing the economy is not like building a ship, in which the president would theoretically serve as lead architect, with a blueprint and construction budget. It’s more like sailing that ship in choppy waters, where the president serves as master and commander but has little power to turn off the tempest or request a calmer sea.

 

Lungu entered State House in 2015 with the vessel already sinking and the rain pouring in sideways. However, his response is what will mark the effects of his greatness. Or the lack of it. A president’s legacy is always a matter of debate. For Lungu, the opportunity beckons to cement his hold on Zambia’s politics.

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