Zambia, not yet Uhuru

Hopewell Chin'ono's

AFRICA should not judge new presidents on the basis of civil service salary increments or populist speeches.

New African presidents should be judged based on the people they appoint to serve in their new governments and on building strong State institutions, and finally on their legacy after leaving office.

Africa’s demise has been mainly caused by idolising political leaders instead of idolising State institutions and deriving a patriotic sentiment from competent institutions, not populist personalities.

Institutions matter more than people in power because they outlive us all. People come and go, hence a State can’t be modelled around a person.

Yes, Zambians can and should applaud when pensioners get paid their money on time unlike in the past, and when teachers and nurses get salary increments, but that should not be the primary measure of a president’s capability because those are the basics that any government should deliver.

The bar was set so low by the PF government such that President Hakainde Hichilema doesn’t need to do much to get a round of applause.

But is that how he is going to be measured, against a corrupt and incompetent previous regime?

The real measurement of a new president’s abilities, especially those that emerge from opposition should be on whether he or she allows State institutions to be strong and independent.The governance bar has been set so low in Africa, it is literally on the floor, such that we ululate at small things that should ordinarily be normal, and we become defensive when the leaders we support are criticised.

Such intolerance is what made the Robert Mugabes, Frederick Chilubas, Edgar Lungus, and now the Lazarus Chakweras of Africa.

Presidents come and go, what we should celebrate are strong State institutions which they would have established or strengthened in order not to allow any new president to abuse citizens using State power as we have become accustomed to in Zimbabwe.

We should ask ourselves a simple question: Can the president of your country be stopped by State institutions from jailing you when you have not committed any crime except calling him out or exposing corruption?

If the answer is no, then it is not yet time to celebrate until they surrender real power to State institutions, and know that their job is merely administrative, and to lead and not to rule.

The African is still awkwardly backward because he or she follows political personalities instead of following and feeling protected by institutions of the State.

Americans love their country and institutions and not necessarily an individual because people come and go, but institutions are permanent.

When I lived in Britain, I knew that if I called the police for assistance, they would protect me when I am in danger.

In Africa you must call an uncle who is connected to a policeman.

Sadly, in Africa the police seek permission to do their work such as arresting politically-connected persons.

The police are an example of an institution that needs to be strong and independent and not take instructions from the political elite.

In Malawi, a warrant of arrest was issued on Friday because a protest leader had said:

“We thought Chakwera was a wise man, but he is proving to be a fool”.

This is the same Chakwera who in 2019 when he was in opposition said: “Whether or not what the legislator said about (Peter) Mutharika was an insult is not the issue.

“The issue is that this idea of arresting any Malawian, not to say anything of one who is a parliamentarian, for merely expressing how they feel about the illogical conduct of Mutharika’s failed government, is primitive, unacceptable, and stupid.”

The Malawian scenario proves that charisma takes you to the top, but integrity comfortably keeps you there.

I also made the same mistake of praising individual presidents for the few things that they would have gotten right or for populist demagoguery.

It is because I had seen so many bad things done by their predecessors, the day I saw one small good deed I was overwhelmed with joy. That is the mistake I made.

The question of measuring a president’s success should be answered by the legacy of that president, and not only the things they say to make the citizens and media happy, without necessarily seeing the real substance of their delivery.

So from now on, I want to see how Hichilema handles the issue of hordes of government workers including army generals seeing him off at the airport or welcoming him back home.

I want to see how he reforms institutions like the national broadcaster, and how he handles the issue of his adviser and permanent secretary who were plotting to abuse their power, implicating him in the process. Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, the Zambian equivalent of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, still broadcasts live visuals on television of Hichilema leaving the country.

That is extraordinarily foolish for a poor country like Zambia because doing so costs loads of money.

The president will be at work, the citizens will see him leaving during the ordinary news bulletin if need be.

But Hichilema’s departures are now comical broadcasts on television, not even the late Mugabe did that, that is how ridiculous it is.

That does not signal change. Hichilema might be a good man, but if these things keep happening, it means he appointed the wrong people, something that gives away his leadership style and capabilities.

His officials implicated him in a corrupt scandal last week. If he keeps them in their positions, it means what they were saying about him was true, again it speaks to the real him, and that is tragic for a man who came to power amid such fanfare.

So, firstly, we need to establish why formal institutions fail.

They fail usually because incumbents either appoint incompetent loyalists to head them or ensure that they are not adequately funded to enable them to carry out their operations.

Although Hichilema has made great appointments to the offices of Chief Justice and central bank governor, he has appointed partisan officials to key positions in the civil service such as permanent secretaries and district commissioners.

He is also yet to initiate any significant institutional reforms aimed at strengthening the independence of the Judiciary and anti-corruption agencies and reducing the power of the Executive.

Is the minister responsible for the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation capable of articulating what needs to be done?

That is a question that Zambians should be asking.

Secondly, when Hichilema was in opposition politics, he was highly critical of laws that successive incumbents used to supress opposition parties including his own party, and to undermine democracy.

These include the Public Order Act which regulates public assemblies, the defamation of the president law which criminalises ridicule or insults aimed at the head of State, and the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, which polices the use of social media.

The then main opposition leader Hichilema pledged to reform the first and repeal the last two immediately after assuming power.

This requires a legislative agenda, why hasn’t he done it six months after being elected?

So far, he has done neither. Instead, as we have seen in Malawi, the police have used the same legislation to arrest Hichilema’s critics for insulting him, and to undermine media freedom.

It may be too early, but questions are now being asked about his commitment to strengthening democracy in Zambia and that should worry him if he is serious about implementing his flowery electoral promises.

Thirdly, presidents succeed or fail based on the team they choose to surround themselves with.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for putting together a “team of rivals”.

While in opposition, Hichilema said he would appoint competent and credible individuals of unquestionable integrity to government.

He has so far done the opposite and shown unwillingness to dismiss aides involved in a scandal.

Two examples illustrate this point. The first was his failure to dismiss a presidential adviser for dishonesty.

In November 2021, a leading private newspaper uncovered a scandal in which a newly-appointed special assistant to the President was publicly exposed as being dishonest.

The facts of the case were that the State House adviser Jito Kayumba, had publicly and in his curriculum vitae claimed to be a member of the board of the Bank of Zambia.

The Bank of Zambia complained about the embarrassing deceit.

Kayumba’s attempt to cover his tracks was followed by further revelations of how he had repeated similar false claims elsewhere.

It hardly needs to be said that top government officials, both within Cabinet and State House, need to be of impeccable integrity.

Hichilema has explained the long delay in appointing such officials by pointing to the need to spend time examining the background and integrity of possible candidates.

Such integrity is particularly crucial in a programme of cleaning up a government system riddled with corrupt practices.

Following a public clamour for the resignation or dismissal of the adviser, Hichilema, in a telltale sign of how he deals with corruption involving members of his inner circle, simply kept quiet.

When he finally spoke, it was through his spokesperson who claimed that:  “Hichilema is committed to upholding the highest levels of integrity, transparency and accountability, retain(s) the highest confidence in (the adviser) and holds (him) in the highest esteem.”

This statement entails a disastrous departure from adherence to the principle of integrity followed by its immediate repudiation in practice.

The second example involves Hichilema’s political adviser Levy Ngoma, who was recorded in a leaked conversation planning to use State institutions to sow seeds of internal divisions in the opposition Democratic Party.

In addition to the fact that a State official is using taxpayers’ resources (time, office, insights, etc) to advance partisan interests, Ngoma explicitly implicated Hichilema, making it clear that his actions were endorsed by the president.

It is disappointing that a political leader who spent time fighting efforts by incumbents to undermine his party when he was in opposition, is now doing the same to opposition parties now that he is in power.

Most importantly, Hichilema has neither denied that he was involved in the Ngoma scandal, nor dismiss the official for using public office to undermine State institutions.

Instead, as he did in the Kayumba case, the Zambian president has simply kept quiet in the hope that the issue will die with time.

A president’s commitment to upholding integrity in public office is measured by how he deals with dishonesty and other transgressions of those he appointed.

Recently Zambia media reported that the wife of the Green Economy and Environment minister was appointed as head of procurement at power utility  Zesco without advertising the post.

Zesco is a parastatal, these appointments must be competed for. The president’s supporters said the minister’s wife had always worked for Zesco.

The question remains: was the post advertised and interviews conducted? The answer is no.

Media reports also said that Zambia’s Commerce minister Chipoka Mulenga’s wife, a qualified engineer, Likonge Makai Mulenga, was appointed the new board chairperson of the Rural Electrification Authority (REA).

This again is seen as low-level nepotistic appointments meant to reward political friends who are already in Cabinet.

Why should we as Zimbabweans or other Africans care about what happens in Zambia and Malawi or any African countries with new presidents emerging from opposition politics?

We should care because Zimbabwe is part of the Sadc ecosystem and our struggles are not different from those of other Africans.

Hichilema and Chakwera came into power promising to be different from the dictatorships that they opposed.

However, as we have seen in Malawi, Chakwera is proving to be worse than his predecessor.

Decisions that affect you and me as Zimbabweans are made by these leaders at regional level.

The more corrupt and autocratic they are, the more they are likely to side with the Zimbabwean dictatorship as former South African president Thabo Mbeki did in 2008.

The more open and democratic they are, the more they will side with the people of Zimbabwe as former presidents Ian Khama of Botswana and the late Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia did.

So, it is in our interest to see a more successful Zambia with strong institutions and a solid democratic culture which detests duplicitous behaviour.

Africa doesn’t need presidents who make soundbite announcements, yet their administrations are doing the same old chicanery that the PF gang under Lungu used to do. That is not change.

If a leader is still getting people to see him off at the airport and receive him when he comes back from his trips abroad, then he has not changed the culture of bootlicking, and he has no interest in building strong State institutions.

If a leader is still being broadcast live on State television leaving the country, then very little has changed, we should not just change the leader, we should change the system too!

Hichilema’s supporters have said it is his officials who are doing these things, not him.

If this was remotely true, then he should not only stop these old and comical habits, but he should also make the institutions strong by giving them autonomous power to stop this weird culture of bootlicking through appointment of competent Zambians.

To do that, it starts with the people you appoint.

The danger of employing incompetent bureaucrats is that they will act unprofessionally in the hope of pleasing you.

If he doesn’t fire such officials, it means he is condoning the bad things they are doing.

So ultimately, salary increments should be the product of institutions and not seen as an act of one man’s generosity.

Civil servants should get salary increments because the economic circumstances require that it should done, not because a president woke up feeling happy as happens in Banana republics.

That can only happen when institutions are strong, autonomous and protected by the law.

Board members of parastatals should go through rigorous interviews and not be picked at the whim of a president.

Hichilema should ask Parliament to come up with a legislative agenda that seeks to fortify Zambian institutions.

Then we will have reason to celebrate his presidency because when the right laws are put in place, it means individuals can’t circumvent the institutions!

If they do, the law will take its course unless you are in a Banana republic like Zimbabwe.

Will Hichilema do this? That answer will determine whether he will be a good president or another sweet-tongued political salesman selling dreams that never come to fruition.

Unless the President appoints competent Zambians and dignifies his office by firing dishonest and corrupt officials, the dream of a better Zambia will remain a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained. In essence a dream deferred.