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Zambia: Young, urban and disgruntled PF supporters, can Lungu woo them back?

By Chiwoyu Sinyangwe, The Africa Report
Posted on Tuesday, 13 July 2021 20:53, updated on Wednesday, 14 July 2021 10:02

Zambian President Edgar Lungu arrives at the State Funeral Service of Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Founding President of the Republic of Zambia at showgrounds in Lusaka, Zambia, Friday, July, 2, 2021. ( AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Zambia’s ruling PF party and President Edgar Lungu's support base, youth and urban dwellers, form one of the biggest disgruntled constituencies of the Zambian population as they are one of the worst affected by rising costs of living, rise in inflation rate, fall in exchange rate and general decline in the quality of living in Zambia. Ahead of general elections slated for 12 August, will Lungu have enough supporters to secure a third term in office?

For the last 10 years, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has preached pro-poor policies with the majority of Zambians hanging on to the hope of earning more money, securing more jobs and paying less taxes. However, they are now a disgruntled lot.

Major public debt

With the national debt at 118% of the GDP, the Zambian economy is in a tailspin. Ordinary people are bearing the biggest brunt as the government struggles to fund social sectors and the cost of living skyrockets, rendering essential commodities – including food – beyond the reach of most Zambians.

So, these beautiful roads and bridges have been done, but related to what? The value of the kwacha has weakened to levels last seen in the 1990s and this has made everything expensive, the country is on its knees.

Zambia’s external debt is estimated at $12.78bn and the country defaulted on payment since October last year, with no tangible plan on how to redeem the $750m Eurobonds due next year.

“There is a lot of discontent – surprisingly, much more than I thought there would be… they are hoping something changes after 12 August,” says Laura Miti, a public resource accountability advocate.”

The PF government betted on infrastructure development to spur economic growth and create jobs; however, the plan has boomeranged with dire consequences. According to the 2021 budget, up to 94% of the country’s revenues are allocated to government operations and external debt.

“We have been borrowing these expensive resources – with very heavy debt servicing obligations – to invest in the constructions of bridges, roads, airports without a clear agenda on the impact of these projects on the social and economic development,” says Charity Musamba, a senior political science lecturer.

“So, these beautiful roads and bridges have been done, but related to what? The value of the kwacha has weakened to levels last seen in the 1990s and this has made everything expensive, the country is on its knees,” she says.

‘Creating millionaires who do nothing’

Allegations of corruption through inflated tender prices for infrastructure are rife with government officials accused of colluding with contractors. “Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had serious problems of massive abuse of resources which contributed to the country’s economic problems,” Musamba says.

Pamela Chisanga, director of the Zambian branch of Water Aid, says the elite are living lavish lifestyles and their supporters flaunt proceeds of public tenders. “We are creating millionaires who are doing nothing,” she says.

In the last five years, reports of allegations of grand corruption, especially in the vital health sector, have been rampant and Lungu’s lukewarm approach has left many frustrated.

Former health minister Chitalu Chilufya was accused of stealing millions of dollars earmarked for fighting Covid-19. He was exonerated when a key state witness refused to testify and is now one of the PF’s candidates for legislative positions.

Keeping prices low

Despite worsening living conditions, President Lungu is trying to reduce the cost of essential goods – such as staples of maize flour and cooking oil – to help cushion local voters from the impact of price fluctuations.

Pump petroleum prices are consistently depressed with millions of kwacha spent monthly to keep prices low. PF media director Antonio Mwanza says Lungu is employing “decisive leadership” through the removal of taxes and allowing free importation to flood the market.

Through cash handouts, the goverment is hoping to draw economic dividend. “The PF is employing empowerment programmes to reach-out [to] mostly women and the youth in all parts of the country and this seems to be giving them an upper hand because the UPND has to try and beat what the PF government is doing on the ground,” says Bizeck Phiri, a professor of history at the University of Zambia.

Rural vs urban voters

The PF’s power base has largely been the urban majority, comprising the youth and slum dwellers.

“The underperformance of the ruling party through lack of jobs for the youth, high cost of living and truant cadres harassing ordinary Zambians has been more overwhelming in urban areas and these are mostly affecting our young people… I would be actually shocked if any youth can vote [for the] PF,” says Oliver Saasa, a professor of international economic relations and public policy.

Despite shortage of key personnel in education and health sectors, Zambia is unable to hire fresh graduates. Currently, over 50,000 teachers, 17,000 nurses and over 500 doctors are unemployed. “I graduated in 2015 but up to now I have not been [em]ployed,” says 29-year-old Pezo Kajoba, a chemistry and biology teacher.

“What worries me more [is] that even friends who have been employed through connections have not been put on payroll… I have lost faith in politicians (because) I trusted the PF so much,” she says.

One doctor in Lusaka said: “I am one on those employed to help out just for three months, but no one knows what’s going to happen afterwards.”

With the restive Copperbelt and cosmopolitan Lusaka no longer a guarantee of victory for the PF, the ruling party is turning its focus towards rural voters. Lungu has increased the amount of crops – staple maize, soya beans and rice – that the government purchases from poverty-stricken farmers.

“The president’s decision to increase prices at which government is buying maize from poor farmers [by 40% ] this year will no doubt influence how the rural population will cast their votes next month,” says Phiri.

UPND stronghold

Hakainde Hichilema – Lungu’s long-term nemesis – and his United Party for National Development (UPND) are expected to maintain a strong hold of their power bases in Southern, Western and the mineral-rich North Western Province where residents repeatedly complain of depravation and lack of economic development despite the booming mines for copper, cobalt, uranium and nickel.

Since the last election in 2016, UPND has struggled to maintain control of North Western and Western Provinces. Most analysts expect UPND and Hichilema to win North Western and Western Provinces but with reduced influence.

“It is more of a verdict on the PF. Zambians want to move not because they see hope in Hakainde Hichilema, but they can’t just stand the heat where they are now. Zambians have never reached a situation where things are so desperate,” says Saasa.

Hakainde Hichilema, leader of Zambia’s opposition UPND, addresses a media conference in Cape Town, South Africa, August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The Copperbelt card

Lack of jobs, depressed economic conditions and internal squabbles have weakened the PF throughout the Copperbelt, which until now, was its bedrock.

Despite Zambia being on course to produce a record 900,000 tonnes of copper this year, spurred by a worldwide shift to electric cars, Zambians are struggling to reap the benefits.

  • The government seized operations of the Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) from Vedanta Resources in 2019, after accusing the Indian company of running down the mining assets.
  • The government, through provisional liquidator Milingo Lungu, sold off the 300-MT copper smelter: the most lucrative assets in an undisclosed amount. Many fear that the government will not be able to raise the estimated $3bn needed to develop the KCM project.
  • Glencore International also announced it had reached an agreement to divest itself of the Mopani Copper Mines (MCM), by selling its mining units in Kitwe and Mufulira for $1.5bn.

Analysts do not expect Zambia to reap benefits from this deal as MCM requires almost $1bn in fresh capital to reach full production, funds which ZCCM-IH does not have.

To many, this nationalisation agenda was a failed attempt by the PF that nearly crippled the Zambian economy. “I don’t believe these factors will be of overwhelming benefit to the UPND, but it will have a significant dent on the PF, especially on the Copperbelt which is the kingmaker,” says Saasa.

But the ruling PF is banking on this to curb job losses in Mufulira and Kitwe and boost support in the two mining towns. “We have protected over 15,000 jobs and secured businesses for suppliers,” says PF media director Antonio Mwanza.

The Bemba factor

Bemba is the largest ethnic grouping accounting for 20% of population and its influence permeates Northern, Muchinga, Luapula, Copperbelt and parts of Central and Lusaka provinces.

Internal party interests have overridden government interests; the pro-poor agenda of the PF has largely failed and the regime is so disconnected from the ordinary people.

Since 2011, the PF has commanded support from the northern and eastern regions through the influential Bemba tribe in Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces. Historically, the PF has always had a strong Bemba influence and this hegemony stands more pronounced than ever before.

Former president Rupiah Banda, dethroned in 2011 by the PF, has emerged as one of Lungu’s key allies in the Eastern Province. But the 84-year-old is battling colon cancer and may play a peripheral role in this year’s polls.

Rupiah Banda gestures in Johannesburg March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

President Lungu’s choice of Nkandu Luo as running mate, over PF long-time loyalist Inonge Wina, reinforces the repositioning of power in the ruling party.

For the first time, those in top positions belong to influential Bemba groupings:

  • Luo, 69, is Bemba from Muchinga Province;
  • Davies Mwila, party secretary general, is from Luapula Province;
  • Samuel Mukupa, presidential campaign manager, is an affluent Bemba promoter.

The ascension of Luo – a veteran politician and a professor of microbiology – may result in more political clout than that of outgoing Wina, 80, whose advanced age and reduced influence adds little credence to Lungu’s re-election bid.

Some prominent members of the Bemba group in Lungu’s unofficial campaign team include:

  • Former finance minister and PF chairman for finance Alexander Chikwanda;
  • Former defence minister Godfrey Bwalya Mwamba;
  • Former chief government spokesperson Chishimba Kambwili;
  • Bemba chief Chitmukulu Kanyanta Manga Henry Sosala.

They are all playing subtle yet prominent roles to appeal to PF sympathisers.

Hichelima’s moves

There’s a general feeling that the ruling PF is suffering organisational deficiencies – blamed on Mwila and chaotic adoption processes for parliamentary candidates, a number of whom were not adopted and instead opted to vie independently, which taints Lungu’s prowess in campaign organisation.

Hichilema has taken up Mutale Nalumango – a veteran politician and educationist – as his running mate. Nalumango, 66, is a loyalist and a member of the Bemba group.

  • Hichilema has also hired former finance minister Felix Mutati – a highly nomadic politician – and former PF stalwart Kelvin Fube, who was key in helping Lungu win following the succession wrangle that followed the death of party-founder Michael Sata in 2014.
  • Fube remains largely unappreciated and threatened to challenge Lungu for the PF presidency several times, but threats of violence kept him at bay.
  • Lungu sacked Mutati in 2018 after their relationship collapsed.

Fube and Mutati – who is leading the National Democratic Congress (NDC) – are both Bembas who could boost Hichilema’s hunt for the northern vote.

Kambwili force

Kambwili – a Bemba supremacist – rejoined the ruling PF in May this year, after failing to lead the party he founded – NDC – following his sacking in 2016.

For four years, Kambwili fired personal attacks at Lungu, repeatedly accusing him of heinous crimes: drug trafficking, corruption and money laundering. The attacks and alleged exposés have contributed to the weakening of the PF in mostly Bemba-speaking regions like the Copperbelt.

But his return to the PF means his party is struggling to undo the damages inflicted on Lungu. Most of those in Lusaka perceive his move as an attempt to survive the myriads of prosecutions he was facing. The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) briefly suspended him from the campaigns for 10 days citing “use of hate speech” and holding of rallies.

“Kambwili is a product of a political system that has gone wrong and this system is fully exploiting him,” says Saasa. “In as much as most Zambians abhor tribalism, Kambwili’s primordial sentiments could find fertile grounds in rural areas where electorates are less exposed.”

Bottom line

According to the latest report from the ECZ, Zambia has seven million voters: Lusaka province is at 1.24 million, Copperbelt 1.025 million, Eastern province 896,339 and Southern province 782,067. Considering the outcome of the previous election, the voter registration roll should appease the ruling party.

“The fairness of the Electoral Commission of Zambia will be very important in determining the outcome of this election,” says Chisanga.

Five years ago, Lungu convincingly won Lusaka, Copperbelt and Eastern provinces; however, his new tact of wooing rural voters may not be what insures Lungu’s re-election. Having been elected twice as Zambian president, his candidature for the third term is also highly controversial and divisive. In June 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that he can vie for re-election in August, altering the existing two-term limit.

“I see this election going the direction of the UPND especially because of the youth vote – I have also seen a shift in most people saying ‘we have no choice because our own have failed us’,” says Chisanga.

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