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Hopewell Chin’ono: Zambia, Not Yet Uhuru

Africa should NOT judge new presidents on civil service salary increments or nice sounding populist speeches.

New African presidents should be judged based on the people that they appoint to serve in their new Governments and judged on whether they are building STRONG state institutions, and finally on their legacy after leaving office.

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

Institutions matter more than people in power because they precede us all, people come and go so a state can’t be modelled on a person.

Yes, Zambians can and should applaud it 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 one’s presidency because those are the basics that any Government should deliver.

The bar had been 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, based on 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 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 criticized.

Such intolerance is what built the Mugabes, Chilubas, Lungus, and now the Chakweras of Africa.

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

We should ask ourselves a simple question.

Can the president in your country be stopped by state institutions from jailing you when you have not committed any crime except for calling him out or exposing their corruption?

If the answer is NO, then it is not yet time to celebrate unless if they surrender real power to the 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 remain.

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, the police will need permission to do their work in Africa or to arrest a person of political interest.

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

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 President Lazarus Chakwera who in 2019 when he was in opposition said this; “Whether or not what the legislator said about 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 will take you to the top, but only integrity will comfortably keep you there.

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

It is because I have seen so many bad things being done by their office forebearers, the day you see good, you are overwhelmed with joy. That is a dangerous mistake I have made.

The question of measurement of 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 President Hakainde Hichilema handles the issue of taking hordes of Government workers including army generals to see him off at the airport or welcome him back home.

I want to see how he reforms institutions like the national broadcaster, and how he handles the issue of his advisor and permanent secretary who were plotting to abuse their office power and implicating President Hichilema in the process.

Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation, the Zambian equivalent of the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation still broadcasts live visuals on television of President Hichilema leaving the country.

That is extra ordinarily 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 President Hichilema departures are now comical broadcasts on television, not even Robert Mugabe did that, that is how ridiculous it is.

That does not signal change, President Hichilema might be a good man, but if these things keep happening this way, it means he appointed the wrong people, something that gives away on 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 correct, again it speaks into the REAL him, and that is tragic for a man who came to power with such fanfare.

So firstly we need to establish, why do 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 carry out their operations.

Although President 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.

Take the issue of Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, is the responsible minister capable of understanding what needs to be done?

That is a question that Zambians should be answering.

Secondly, when President Hichilema was in opposition politics, he was highly critical of laws that successive incumbents had used to undermine the 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 criminalizes ridicule or insults against 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 when elected.

This requires a legislative agenda, why hasn’t he done it in 6 months since being elected since he said he will do it as soon as he is elected?

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

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

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

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

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

In power, he has so far done the opposite and shown unwillingness to dismiss aides engaged in scandal.

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

In November 2021, a leading private newspaper uncovered a scandal in which a newly appointed Special Assistant to the President for Economic Affairs was publicly exposed as being dishonest.

The facts of the case were that the State House advisor, 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 moved to complain about this embarrassing deceit.

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

It hardly needs to be said that high Government officials, both within cabinet and State House, need to be of impeccable integrity.

In this regard, President 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 practice.

Following a public clamour for the resignation or dismissal of the advisor, President Hichilema, in a tell-tale sign of how he might deal with the possible corruption involving members of his inner circle, simply kept quiet.

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

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

The second example involves President Hichilema’s political advisor, Levy Ngoma, who was recorded in the leaked conversation planning how 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 President 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 in opposition is now doing the same to opposition parties now that he is in power.

Most importantly, President Hichilema has neither denied that he was involved in the Ngoma scandal, nor moved to dismiss his official for using public office to undermine state institutions and the political opposition.

Instead, as he did in the Kayumba case, the 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 the dishonesty and other transgressions of those close to him that he appointed.

Recently Zambia media reported that the wife of the Minister of Green Economy and Environment’s was appointed as Head of procurement at power parastatal ZESCO without advertising the post.

ZESCO is a parastatal, these appointments must be competed for! The President’s supporters have point that the wife has always worked for ZESCO.

The question remains, was the post advertised and interviews contacted? The answer is NO.

More media reports from Zambia mentioned that Zambia’s Commerce Minister Chipoka Mulenga’s wife, a qualified Engineer, Likonge Makai Mulenga was also appointed as 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 with new presidents emerging from opposition politics?

We should care because Zimbabwe is part of the SADC ecosystem and our struggles are not uniquely different as Africans.

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

However, as we have seen in Malawi, President 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 Thabo Mbeki did in 2008.

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

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

Africa or Zambia doesn’t need a president who make soundbite announcements, yet their administrations are doing the same old chicanery that the PF gang under Edgar 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!

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

If this were 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 dangers of employing incompetent bureaucrats are that they will do unprofessional things in your name in the hope of pleasing their you.

If he doesn’t fire them, 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 is done, not because it is a president who 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.

President Hichilema should go to parliament with a legislative agenda that seeks to fortify Zambian institutions.

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

If they do, the law will be demanded to take its course unless you are in Banana Republics like Zimbabwe.

Will President 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.

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international journalist and documentary filmmaker. He was the African Journalist of the year twice in 2008 and in 2020. In January 2022, he was named among the top 100 most influential Africans for the year 2021 by the British based New African Magazine.