Grading Zambia’s Presidents: Levy Mwanawasa

levy-mwanawasaThis special opinion series by Reasonata aims to prompt discussion over the evaluation of the performance of Zambia’s five presidents. Earlier editions reviewed the performances of President Kenneth Kaunda and President Frederick Chiluba.

Late President Levy Mwanawasa became the Third Republican President in 2001, serving until his death in 2008.

Mwanawasa rose to the presidency more or less by default. After the expulsion of 79 senior members of the then-ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the late President Chiluba, known as the “political dribbler,” faced a huge leadership crisis in MMD caused by his own manipulation. Chiluba’s attempt to engineer a third term was thwarted by civil society and from within the party. In the aftermath of Chiluba’s purge, the MMD was bereft of quality leadership, and Chiluba knew it.

So without consulting the MMD executive council, he single-handedly went to rural Ndola and appointed the state counsel Levy Mwanawasa as the presidential candidate for the party, presumably with the idea that he would act as Chiluba’s puppet. The unprecedented manner in which Chiluba simply “annointed” Mwanawasa without any primary voting process or internal consultation was deeply unpopular and led to one presidential aspirant, Michael Sata, to quit the MMD party.

Although he accepted this offer, Mwanawasa was hardly the ideal candidate to lead a Party. He had already been forced into early retirement from his legal practise due to hypertension and other health issues, and had been confined to his farm in Ndola rural to recuperate. It had been years since he had personally tried to vie for the party presidency in past MMD conventions, and both those attempts had failed miserably.

Nevertheless, Mwanawansa was ushered in by Chiluba as the new party president, and the political machine was put to work to build his popularity and image. Chiluba made a big personal effort to campaign for him. Mwanawasa was at a huge disadvantage in election campaigns; his ill health and poor oratorical skills made him vulnerable to defeat. The diminutive Chiluba masterminded his campaign strategy and was the main speaker in campaign meetings.

Indeed Mwanawasa’s victory in the December 2001 presidential elections was hardly a landslide. He received 29% of the vote, with Anderson Mazoka of the United Party for National Development (UPND) achieving 27%. The MMD only won 69 seats in parliament, which was short of a majority, but Mwanawasa quickly began pulling over opposition members to cabinet positions to weaken and divide the other parties.

After securing presidential victory for Mwanawasa, Chiluba at one point boasted that he was now an expert campaign manager … at the time, it seemed that Zambia would be doomed to the leadership selected by this one man.

The Zambian economy in 2001

Mwanawasa inherited a fairly strong economy from his predecessor.

By the time he took over in 2001, Zambia had already removed itself from the list of highly indebted nations. The government was solvent and borrowing was under control. The Zambian Revenue Authority was professionally run and the organisation was raising enough money to meet our entire budget.

In agriculture the country had surplus production from 1991 to 2006, save for one year due to drought. The private sector was buying all the produce and farmers being paid promptly. The government’s role was restricted to an advisory capacity.

The mines were happy with policies of the MMD government. Many companies invested heavily to rehabilitate the run-down mines, and increase production. The government’s development agreements and licensing regime was flexible, addressing each mine on a case by case basis. Most of these concessions related to capital allowances of 100% the norm in the world.

By the year 2005 production in the mines had doubled to 500,000 metric tonnes from 250,000 in 1991. This positive result coincided with the first upsurge in copper prices from 2005. It was sweet news, and SAF analysts would later attribute these wonderful results to the policies of Mwanawasa – though of course it’s not possible for any president of any country to raise global commodity prices with such a period of time.

Style of Management

Mwanawansa knew he had been imposed on the party. And the only style suitable in such a situation was to manage the country as a tough, “hands on” autocrat, while at the same time doing everything possible to free himself from the yoke of Chiluba’s influence and that of his allies left behind in government.

He styled himself as a “jack of all trades,” but a master of none. Policy matters in which he had zero experience, from defence to economy and finance, were subject to his unpredictable interventions and interruptions.

As a result of Chiluba’s purges, the MMD had lost many of its most talented members, and then Mwanawasa’s purges made things even worse. The MMD forgot who they were as a party, and also forgot previously laid plans – such the economic blueprint – which was studiously ignored and cast aside.

Instead Mwanawasa thought it would be a good idea to return to a Maoist style of economic planning, but with a Kaunda-like humanitarian appeal. Mwanawasa opted for a “people’s congress,” Which he conveniently called an indaba.

“My God, the country’s economic ideas were now coming from the streets,” lamented one lawyer who had attended one of the meetings. “The place place was filled by people who loved the sound of their voices. Any deviant remarks shot were down by the majority…” The tyranny of the majority reigned and the rest is history.

Mwanawasa introduces “cha cha cha” economic policy

Armed with the presidency the late Mwanawasa was like a loose cannon on the economy and politics. Helped by recommendations from the indaba, the man wanted to show that he had a role to play. The rallying cry became: “Kuli bonesha ta” (showing off).

Mwanawasa’s first strike on Zambia’s economic health was the cancellation of the Agriculture Act in 2006. This law had successfully reduced the state to an advisory role status in agriculture, allowing market forces to absorb the purchasing of products. Instead Mwanawasa reintroduced the state as the primary direct buyer of maize. Private maize buyers began withdrawing, with foreign grain giants like Louis Dreyfus simply leaving the country at the sight of the state’s entry into the market. It didn’t take long for the old problems to reappear, including the treasury draining subsidies and the deplorably late payments to farmers. The budget began to hemorrhage as these deficits were financed from the treasury. In fact, this is the same problem that is taking place today.

In the energy sector, Mwanawasa kicked out AGIP, the last remaining multinational participating in the Zambian fuel market. Now the full supply chain for fuel was fully under state control. The resulting effect by 2007 was that fuel shortages which had been absent in the whole first 10 years rule under Chiluba had resurfaced.

Mwanawasa also upset the balance in the mining industry. He cancelled all development agreements (DAs) entered by the previous government with mining companies, earning Zambia a reputation as a country hostile for foreign investment (this was also the moment for Anglo American to give up its investment and walk away from Zambia, leading Mwanawasa to sell the Konkola Copper Mine to Vedanta for a pittance).

Mwanawasa also suspected foul play and introduced one common policy of incentives for all mines. Obviously this change in policy incentives disadvantaged old mines especially underground ones with a higher cost of production like KCM.

Before the mines could comprehend changes in fiscal policies he lumped them with withholding Tax and increased Royalty tax by 3000% from .03% to 3%. Privately Mwanawasa engaged a Zambian firm of accountants, Grant Thornton, to investigate mines of any wrongdoing.

Basically the new leader had declared war against investors and wanted to be seen as the new economic messiah. A case of selective amnesia taken too far, I suppose.

And at the well managed ZRA, Mwanawasa “Zambianised” the top post. Mwanawasa simply removed anyone believed to have been associated with Chiluba’s government – which of course included some of the most competent and experienced financial minds in our nation.

The civil service was not spared as widespread changes took place. Institutions that can only be found in a command economy were resurrected, Like Zambian Bureau of Standards. Given the unusual mandate to checking all goods manufactured in the country, exports and all imports, the ZBS quickly became the most cumbersome and costly institution in the country, slagging production and competition, while wasting colossal sums of the state budget. In most countries, no such agency exists to check finished goods, not to mention its gross economy (ask any Zambian who has imported a car paid by cash, and see if ZBS has provided a receipt).

Other command economy institutions like Zicta and ZPPR also became more active. Tax clearances were reintroduced and the ubiquitous mobile ATMs (police roadblocks} resurfaced with vengeance after being in hibernation for more than 10 years.

Generally, The late Mwanawasa had set the stage for a downward trajectory in economic development. Foreign direct investment dried up. Relationships with the mines were at their lowest ebb. And by 2010, the mines that had projected to produce 1.5m tonnes by 2012 had not reached the 800,000 tonnes mark. Our country was even surpassed by war-torn Congo in copper production by 2013.

The World Bank then suspended aid on account of corruption in health sector in 2007.The last time Zambia was suspended by any financial institutions was before 1991. The cause: Mwanawasa convinced the unsuspecting Zambian people that doctors were spending too much time in boardroom meetings and therefore he dismissed the board. Mwanawasa then assigned all procurement powers to a single source – a permanent secretary; a member of his tribe. The rest is history.

The Dark Side of Mwanawasa

Most people in Zambia and the world at large are not tribalists or racists. The Ila/lamba people of Zambia are in fact some of the friendliest people one can encounter in Zambia. But Mwanawasa was an exception. There was a credible, widespread belief that Mwanawasa harboured a particularly ill will toward the Bemba-speaking people. The late president was once quoted in the mass media that he made the deeply offensive remark that “Bembas stink.” I got first-hand information when one Bemba minister in his government (a friend of mine) was told in a one-to-one situation that Mwanawasa “hated” Bembas, and couldn’t stand working with them.

The late president fired people from Northern and Luapula Provinces in most cases. As for his “anti-corruption” efforts that won internatioanl praise, the cases in which he instigated prosecution usually involved people from what he perceived as the condemned provinces.

On the political scene the first whip cracked on his mentor, the diminutive late president Chiluba. He trumped up seven charges which he personally presented to parliament. A weeping Mwanawasa and a baying mob of disgruntled people outside parliament created a perfect storm. The dribbler had no chance the presidential immunity was removed.

As we came to know later all the seven charges that were presented before parliament were all withdrawn for unknown reasons. Entirely new charges were later presented in a court of law charging the late Chiluba. Late Mwanawansa had duped parliament. Made possible by a weakened parliament that the dribbler had left behind. Call it a cruel twist of fate.

To add to the mayhem in parliament, Mwanawasa introduced unprecedented Midterm Allowances for MPs, now dubbed as “mid-term thefts.”

Some of the bizarre changes in economic policies Mwanawasa personally effected ended up with shady deals involving his inner circle, most notably in energy and health. Mwanawasa belonged to a tribe that numbered less than 40,000 but through his appointments, especially in the diplomatic missions, his tribe constituted as high as 80% of the posts.

What was alarming was one of the notorious thugs in the UNIP era nicknamed Tekere was brought back after being deported to Malawi for fomenting political violence during UNIP reign. This gentleman known as “awiri” in Kota Kota village of Malawi came back to “spice up” the MMD party in a democratic dispensation.

Unconfirmed reports trace Mwasawasa’s family as having been deported from Malawi as Jehovah witnesses. The late Mwanawasa came as a young person from Malawi presumably. For people who knew him His tribe alternated from lenje to ILA depending on his stage in life. Zambia had produced another megalomaniac.

The circus continued even after his death. Reports show Mwanawasa was long dead before the nation knew, as the ruling party lied over and over again and refused to give updates on the president’s actual state of health (which may sound familiar). And his family had the audacity to spend colossal sums of money for the “dead to visit the living,” and went on to build an expensive shrine and crowned it all by placing a dedication to the third republican president at the entrance, reading “here lies the best president Zambia has ever had.” I would beg to differ.

My grading for Late Mwanawasa:
Political 0/10 Economic 0/10

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