There's no doubt that Zambia is facing some critical challenges economically. These challenges are well known and they centre around the falling copper prices, weakening confidence in the Kwacha, high inflation and of course rising urban unemployment. These issues have been well rehearsed on this blog and require no further text.
To be sure there are only two ways to react to the current gloom. We can become despondent and hold our head in shame or we can try and pull together and find ways for Zambia to adapt to the present challenges. The former comes naturally especially when we consider that many of our current problems are man-made as I suggest in this post, where I noted that the government's approach to resolving our issues "continues to be characterised by incompetence. We are now paying the price for the failure to think ahead, and we have no one to blame but ourselves." The latter position is born out of the realisation that these are difficulties times and the government has a mandate until 2011, its therefore in the interest of all Zambians that we pull together and come up with economic solutions.
Unfortunately, as attractive as the soundbite on "pulling together" might sound, just how that is done is unclear. I was discussing this very issue with a friend last week on the challenges of governing in difficult times. There was unanimous agreement on the importance of "confidence", both political and economic, as Zambia seeks to ride the current storm. For Zambia to continue to thrive it is incumbent on all of us to with power to influence opinion whether online or in the printed press to be strident in our praise of the progress Zambia has and continues to make and to speak well of the resilience of our institutions. Simply put, Government needs Zambians and the press more than ever.
In this regard all Zambians surely must agree that the current political challenges facing the nation are deeply unhelpful. The kind of political unity we witnessed during President Mwanawasa's illness and subsequent death appears to have evaporated. As the new government led by President Banda has sought to define its agenda against the backdrop of internal political infighting and jostling for power, many people are now doubting whether the government has the vision and will to chart a bold new course forward. Some have even go as far as to suggest the current vision is simply to lead Zambia back to the old days of UNIP, with restricted media and personal freedoms. Perhaps more worryingly is the current political struggle between the President and the Post newspaper. In ordinary times I would regard that as healthy democracy, but these are not ordinary times. It is vital that government regains its footing and focuses on wider and more pressing economic issues. When that is done I am confident that ordinary Zambians will react and rally positively and come forward to offer solutions . We'll move from writing blogs like this to more upbeat assessment of where the country is headed.
Government critics are certainly correct about one thing : our system of government places too much power on the Executive. This has the problem that in times of trouble (like now) there's very little that ordinary Zambians and political groups can do to make a difference or get heard. We can all shout and say do this and that but the nature of our constitution and system of government is so centralised that even Parliamentarians have minimal power to offer solutions, let alone ordinary individuals (are you listening NCC?) . For this reason if we are to help Government govern in these difficult times, the President and Ministers have to recognise that change must start with them. They need to make drastic changes to the way they govern. Many of the decisions Government has made lately are not necessarily bad in themselves but how they have been made is what continues to annoy many and makes the government a bit isolated.
I suggest that as a first step in restoring confidence Government puts more emphasis on the following :
Consult openly - The government is notorious for not issuing Green and White Papers as is customary. These papers have now been replaced by "Cabinet Policy Papers" that ordinary Zambians never get to see. If we are lucky we sometimes get to hear the odd "Ministerial Statement". Consultation is the hallmark of effective government. Whether its ZAMTEL or bailing out Zambian Airways or reforms on FSP or dealing with the failed mines or borrowing more externally, Zambians need to have a say in these things. Things have become so bad that the State House website has been under permanent "under construction". Some government ministries simply have no websites and those that do hardly update them. Nearly all , ministers are basically unreachable via email or telephone. The situation is so poor that when Minister Musokotwane made available his email after the Budget 2009 we thought it was manna from heaven! Surely an e-mail address is the minimum we should expect from all ministers?
Allow criticism - Divergence of opinion in government and outside is critical for creative and innovative solutions. It is critical that government recognises that no man knows everything. Rather than seeing people with divergent opinions as "enemies" it should see them as critical partners in ensuring that its policies are perfected. This is a serious point because things have become so bad that we are seeing running battles between Government and The Post. It is most sad when you read the President being insulted. My view is that such insults, however unwarranted, can be reduced if government was perceived to be more "listening". It would make it easier for those us that feel that the holder of the Office of the Presidency must be respected to come out and say so.
Bring all talents on board - Zambia is blessed with many experts in many fields at home and abroad. A way must be found for putting together a brilliant group of these experts to provide government with the best advice in the core areas - finance, mining, transport, education and health. There should be room also for those in opposition to advice government. A government of national unity is perhaps beyond us given the entrenched nature of our politics and with 2011 on the horizon, but open and direct engagement with the leading opposition parties (Pf and UPND) would bode well for finding lasting solutions to our current problems.
Plan for the long term - The danger of the current challenges we are facing is that we turn back the clock and implement dangerous policies that look like they are intended to save the day but imprison us in the long term. For example : we may start borrowing senselessly; or attract the wrong investors; or eliminate crucial taxes to please a certain group; or reduce certain taxes that do nothing for the average person; or enact bad media laws to deal with a particular newspaper; or maintain poor spending commitments just to control opponents (e.g. NCC); or handover our resources (and sovereignty) to outsiders. Desperate people do desperate things. This we must avoid at all costs. Yes we should strive for a better today, but equally we should be prepared to take the pain of today to secure a better future for our children. This calls for continuous updated long term planning that has the buy-in of all Zambians.