Zambia’s Rupiah Banda, on fighting form

By Gemma Ware in Livingstone and Chongwe

Posted on May 3, 2011 11:42

In an interview with The Africa Report the incumbent president is confident that a divided opposition and record copper prices will return him to power in this year’s election

“Don’t fear,” sang the women dressed in blue and white ki­tenges, each bearing a smiling imprint of the president. “We know what we’re going to do. We’re going to vote for you, Rupiah Banda.” They had been waiting for over two hours for the Zambian president to arrive in Chongwe, a small town 40km east of the capital Lusaka, where he had come to launch the first of nine mobile hospitals paid for by a $53m concessional loan from China. He raised his arm in salute and swayed, dancing to their song.

Although Banda is yet to set an election date, the polls are expected before September and at events like these he is already on the campaign trail. Stiff when reading from prepared speeches, he is a more convincing orator when he gives himself free rein on the podium. “I am the managing director of this country,” he told the crowds. “I promise the people of Zambia we shall do everything in our power to ensure that we take development to our people.”

Banda has hardly left Zambia in recent months, concentrating on criss-crossing the country to garner support for his ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) against old-time rival Michael Sata of the opposition Patriotic Front (PF). The former vice-president beat Sata by just 13.6% in the 2008 elections, following the death of President Levy Mwanawasa half way through his term.

“We’ve created more jobs, meaning more Zambians are at work now and they’re earning more money and looking after their families with that money,” he told The Africa Report a few days earlier in Livingstone, where he was hosting a South African Development Community (SADC) summit on peace and security.

Grassroots issues will play second fiddle to personality politics in this year’s election. The personal attacks have already started. While the opposition calls Banda nyama soya, or a fake, the government press has cast Sata as pro-homosexual, after ambiguous statements he made in an interview with Danish journalists in March. “I think we should all be working hard to stop things that are not natural happening in our country,” said Banda. “We are happy now, everything is stable, because people lead normal lives. Homosexuality is not normal.”?

Some key debates will punch through the name-calling: taxation, jobs and China. Banda’s government has resisted calls to reintroduce an earlier windfall tax on mining revenues. “The mines showed us clearly in terms of figures that that was extortionist on our part, that they would not get the profits for which they invested their money,” he said.

Banda will have to tread more carefully when it comes to China. There was widespread anger when 13 mine workers were shot by two Chinese managers in October last year. “Our position is very clear from the very beginning. They committed a crime. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chinese or if it’s Australian,” he said. However, court proceedings against the two miners were dropped in early April, raising questions of back-room deals.

Banda points to the long relationship between the two countries, which goes back to before independence. “We were amongst the countries in the forefront advocating for China to be in the Security Council of the United Nations,” he said. He is quick to criticise Sata, who has been blamed for stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment. “I think he’s being very short-sighted. Because if he were to win these elections, he also is going to need this kind of people to come and invest in our country.”?

Banda began his career as a diplomat in Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party United National Independence Party, serving as ambassador to the US, the UN and as foreign minister in the 1970s. Attentive and affable, he smiles easily and looks like he is enjoying life as a senior statesman. He brought an exclusive clutch of global billionaires to Livingstone in March to persuade them of Zambia’s potential. A close band of economic and media advisors travels everywhere with him. His son, Henry, is involved in Banda’s PR campaign, for which he has retained the services of UK PR firm Bell Pottinger.

Banda’s decision to welcome former president Frederick Chiluba back into the MMD, after corruption charges against him were dismissed last year, may come back to bite him. Chiluba may bring votes in his home province of Luapula, but he is not well liked.

Traditionally a peaceful nation, Zambia is seeing violence creep back into politics. Fights broke out in Kamwala market in Lusaka on 31 March after MMD party cadres tried to force market traders to wear ruling party regalia and PF youths piled in to retaliate. “Zambia is slipping back in terms of democratic freedoms,” said Lee Habasonda, executive director of SACCORD, an NGO. “The last two or three years since Rupiah Banda took over has seen heightened levels of violence.” ?

Banda says he wants peaceful, free and fair elections. In Chongwe he blamed the violence on the PF, whom he said wanted to “create a bad situation in our country so that people can come in from outside to make a coalition government.”

A coalition is unlikely though, after the collapse of a pact between the PF and the United Party for National Development. Together, the two had presented a real challenge to Banda, demonstrated in parliament in March when a bill that would have led to a vote on constitutional amendments failed to get a two-thirds majority.

Banda is happier to accept a coalition in Zimbabwe. “We’ve had a bit of quiet and the economy was beginning to pick up as a result of this power sharing.” He was born in Zimbabwe to Zambian parents and is friendly with its defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. He has patched up relations with President Robert Mugabe, but reportedly talked tougher to him than usual at the SADC Troika in Livingstone.

On Libya, Banda said he hoped a ceasefire would be reached soon, but stopped short of calling on Colonel Gaddafi to go. “I think the people must be allowed to say what they want, what kind of government they want, who they want to be leader. If you are in power for too long, people get tired of you.” With only three years on the job, Banda can’t be accused of the same. But 20 years after the MMD swept to power in democratic elections, he will have to convince Zambians to vote for stability, rather than change.

Read the Zambia dossier including articles on mining, tourism and agriculture

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