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Zambia: Will the economic slide hurt Lungu in the August polls?

By Chiwoyu Sinyangwe
Posted on Friday, 25 June 2021 07:56

Patriotic Front (PF) Presidential candidate Edgar Lungu and his wife Esther Lungu leave a rally in Lusaka 19 January 2015. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The Patriotic Front (PF) regime won the 2011 elections, riding on the slogan: ‘more jobs, less taxes and more money in your pocket’. However, a decade later, the promises ring hollow as Zambians remain jobless and disgruntled.

Before the current regime took over, young Zambians had been complaining that despite the economy doing well under the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government, it was not generating enough job opportunities.

Subsequently, the PF government advocated for elevated government expenditure, especially for infrastructure projects (such as new roads, bridges, hospitals, government schools and even houses for police officers and soldiers) as a way to spur economic growth.

But 10 years later, poorly structured expenditure, uncoordinated and frequent changes to the mining fiscal regime as well as the fall in metal prices have left the Zambian economy in tatters. By the end of 2020, the country had a total national debt of close to $20bn.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen the Zambian economy slide into recession for the first time in 20 years, with young Zambians bearing the brunt of the economic malaise and most of them blaming the current regime for the situation.

“Unable to get employed in Zambia”

“They have been borrowing for their pockets – nothing for us; nothing for the country,” said Lombe Bunda a 23-year old of Luanshya town on the Copperbelt.

“We have no jobs here. As the youth, we just drink and play bonanza (gambling) since there are no jobs to do. They promised us jobs but what do we see; for you to get a job in Zambia, you have to have connections (to the ruling PF functionaries),” Bunda said. A number of high school leavers, unable to get employed in Zambia, are taking to “gambling machines and casinos” that Chinese merchants have opened.

We got good roads but we can’t afford cooking oil, mealie meal (staple food), chicken, meat and just about all essential commodities are beyond our reach so, what’s the point?

Zambia’s unemployment rate increased to 11.41% in 2020 from 10.43% in 2011. Among the biggest cohorts of the unemployed include about 50,000 trained teachers and over 20,000 healthcare providers who include nurses and paramedics. Because of [the government’s] budget constraints, there are 500 doctors who have no jobs.

“I graduated from college in 2015 and I am yet to get my posting (employment to teach) to a government school. This never used to happen before the PF came into power,” says Fabian Mwale, a 32-year old trained high school teacher. “In the past, you got your job and [you were] put on the government payroll after you completed [school], graduated and your papers [were] in place,” he said.

One of the weakest doctor-patient ratios

Zambia’s $12.7bn external debt has been used for construction of new roads, bridges, houses and power stations which has dealt with infrastructural bottlenecks and helped to beautify the country. However, these developments have not resonated with young Zambians who expected the investments to drive job creation and economic growth.

“Yes, we have new roads but am I going to eat roads? Am I going to put a road and bridge on the [plate]? My family and I need to feed, that is our need for now,” says Simon Mulengwa, a resident of Lusaka’s sprawling Mandevu constituency, one of the densely populated slums in Zambia. “Yes, we got good roads but we can’t afford cooking oil, mealie meal (staple food), chicken, meat and just about all essential commodities are beyond our reach so, what’s the point? We have no jobs, we have no money, our pockets are empty, so, why should we maintain the government; we want change,” he said.

Zambia has one of the weakest doctor-patient ratios (1:12,000) almost three times worse than the WHO accepted minimum of one doctor to 5,000 patients.

“When a country cannot employ medical doctors despite the acute shortage, then it summarises the state in which the nation is,” said one trained doctor who declined to be named. “The ordinary Zambians are struggling to access medical health-care but the government says it has no money to employ new doctors and nurses – who do you blame? I cannot answer that question,” he said.

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