AS ZAMBIA elects its seventh president, Zimbabweans remain burdened by the one president the country has ever known, commentators on social media pointed out last week as Zambians went to the polls. Comparing the two countries is nothing new. Since the days when they were both part of a federation, there has been rivalry, from the state of their economies, which have swung from prosperity to poverty, to who has the best views of the Victoria Falls, on their joint border.
Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade, while Zambia has been in better economic shape, with relatively strong GDP growth and diversified new investment. Zimbabwe’s effective one-party state and lack of leadership change has led to its stultifying politics and economic woes. Zambia has had a succession of new faces and parties at the top. Yet, despite apparent democratic expression and its comparatively more robust economy, Zambia is far from having realised its economic or social potential. Its patchy record over decades raises the question of why democracy has not served it better.
With a seventh president in the wings, the IMF has been called in to bail out an economy that has slumped drastically.
That is a sad development for a country that has been independent for 52 years and recently charting its own economic course, with donor support. Zambia’s challenges are partly due to global influences — chiefly low commodity prices — and drought. But the underlying problem is years of economic mismanagement, which has left the country unable to deal effectively with economic shocks.
Top of the IMF’s list is dealing with Zambia’s mounting debt. In 2006, it faced an external debt of billions of dollars. Debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative came to the rescue. More recently, the government of the late Michael Sata, emboldened by the recent commodity boom and investor attention, borrowed heavily on international markets with a promise to build infrastructure.
Zambia’s 2013 Eurobond issue was oversubscribed more than 10 times. This demand prompted a second bond issue the next year, but at a significantly higher yield.
The political opposition accused Sata of being reckless, saying the debt would lead to trouble. The national debt has reached $10bn, about 50% of GDP. The money raised has been used, inter alia, to pay a rising state wage bill, an abiding problem for populist leaders trying to buy votes with unrealistic promises. Zambia’s manufacturing industry is in the doldrums, with a lack of competitiveness resulting from its landlocked position made worse by unsupportive government policies. A lack of diversification has increased revenue dependence on mining, itself undermined by government policy flip-flops that have had a heavy cost on new investment. Government mistrust of mining firms has been another factor.
Zambia’s competitive advantages — agriculture and tourism — have had a patchy record. The failure to build a productive, broad-based agriculture sector continues to drive rural poverty, while the high costs of doing business have made tourism relatively uncompetitive. A failure to prioritise spending on power projects over the years has led to significant electricity shortages that undermine the economy. There are other issues — bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, government overspending on unproductive political projects and costly subsidies among them.
Democracy has helped improve lives and livelihoods. But it has not delivered enough. Those elevated to high office by the vote have not been bold or smart enough to tackle deep-rooted challenges at their sources. More bravery and efficiency is required to transform a country of much promise into a modern force in the developing world.
Last week’s election brought with it the hope of another chance for real change and a different future. In the end, it might not be the president, but the IMF that takes the country down a different path.
• Games is CEO of business advisory Africa @ Work