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Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Memo to Zambia

Dear Zambia,

Many congratulations!! This week you turn 45. Since birth you have continued to be an oasis of peace in the midst of regional turmoil. You have never allowed your people to be defined by the region they hail from or their tribal descendants. Under the banner of 'One Zambia, One Nation' you have moved from one peaceful political transition to next. As you no doubt know, you and your children are now in markedly different position, than those who shed their blood for your freedom would have hoped. But even as relative peace and calm has continued to prevail, some of your neighbours may well pose the question – what have you done with it?

Your children are much poorer today than three decades ago. Although your economy has shown signs of stable growth in recent years, one in four of your children live on less than $2 a day. Like a forsaken bad mother, many of your children have run away from home and sought greener pastures, never to return. Your physical and human infrastructure is broken. You have been blessed with abundant water yet many of your children have no clean water to drink. You have much mineral wealth, yet your people live in housing conditions much worse than 19th century Europe. The Creator has blessed you with plenty of mineral wealth, copper, manganese, nickel, coal and yes many precious stones, but you have turned out to be poor steward, preferring to see your children suffer than ensure a proper return on your wealth. $10bn of copper revenues alone in the last four years, your have only seen less than $300m from that.

As I write, you have failed to provide reliable electrical power to your children. This week of your independence anniversary many of your people are running around looking for fuel. A visitor from another planet may be mistaken that your year is probably is 1809 and not 2009, for your economic thinking of late continues to be tribal. It’s within this context that I write you this short memo offering broad advice that you should reflect on, even as your children drink Kachasu to drown their independence day misery. But before we get there it is important that we first look through the mirror of truth. It should be plainly clear that your independence is an illusion. I say this not to denigrate the great things you have achieved but merely to state the obvious. For two simple reasons.

First, the idea that you can enjoy political independence without economic independence is an illusion. Political and economic independence are symbiotically linked. The reason for this is that 'political power' is derived from being able to determine your own choices and living according to how you want. Clearly as you continue to rely on someone else to put food on your Zambian children’s plate or forgive your debts or sell your resources at prices that someone else dictates in London, that person or country exerts political leverage on you through economic forces. I think you get the point, no need for me to mention China.

Secondly, and more worryingly, although some of your children in leadership undoubtedly enjoy individual freedoms many of your people suffer daily from social injustice. The voices of the weak are suppressed, and cries of mothers are never heard again thanks to the scourge of HIV and many other diseases ravaging our rural areas. Media freedoms are not immune. In this year alone, the world has looked in horror as you have allowed your leaders to continue persecuting journalists and quenching the anti-corruption torch. Where is a poor old woman going to run for justice, when the police forces only respond to bribes? Who will publicly dare report oppression when newspapers papers are used as mouth pieces to spread the propaganda of those in leadership? The Prophet Amos reminds us "let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like an overflowing stream". As a supposedly "christian nation" don't you think it is worth considering putting these words into action?

It is natural at this point for you to ask : What must I do? Am I eternally condemned to this fate? Is my destined already written? Will I always wallow in poverty? The truth is no one really knows. For you are both a victim of history conspired by 'great powers' and also that of the injustice of leaders you have chosen to lord over you. I fear when at the end of the age, your account is reviewed, you and your children will be found wanting because when history came calling to pursue justice for the poor and prosperity for all, you responded with corruption and poor governance. You have allowed your leaders to wield rods on the backs of poor mothers and orphans from Shang'ombo to Mpweto.

You may not guarantee a good future in this life for your grand children but you should strive to give them a fighting chance for the the next 45 years. You can start this very week, by focusing on three simple areas.

First, you need political and institutional reform. By this I mean reforms that seeks to overcome two key challenges. First, being able to institutionalise the system of government that diminishes the role of your leaders as rent seekers. Currently many of your leaders govern purely to enlarge their pockets. They have ransacked your treasuries and deposited significant wealth in Europe. Until you introduce processes that prevents them from doing so you will wallow in poverty. Secondly, strive to develop systems that are able to kick out incompetent and shallow leaders. This calls for contestable electoral arrangements. Your present leaders have governed for nearly two decades and overseen rampant corruption and the emergence of a vampire state that feeds off its own people. Yet your people have not been able to kick them out. Until the electoral system is more contestable and leaders can be hired and fired easily, corruption and malpractice will continue unabated. In short, both issues call for a strong constitution that guarantees freedom of press, strong rule of law, limits the powers of the executive, delivers a majority and more representative leadership, and would stand the test of time. Always remember that economic policies only work if you guarantee certain conditions (property rights, certainty in governance, limits to state intrusion, etc) via an institutional reform programme.

Secondly, you must develop a distinctly Zambian philosophy of development - what works for you and your children. This really can only be based on ensuring that you reinforce your traditions and values within a constitutional framework. Not only do you need a national dialogue on what development means to your people but you also need to understand the form of education that would help you move towards that goal. Your current generation of academics have failed to help define what type of development you should seek to achieve, or those that have, have often shunned public debate. There has been no discussion on what politicians ought to aim for in terms of the nature of local and national development. Economic growth has been discussed, but not development! Unfortunately failure to address that has meant that you have not addressed the second most important issue - the mechanisms and structures that you and your children need to deliver that development.

Finally, you need to develop credible thinkers. No development or economic renewal has ever occurred without home grown thinkers. The debate over your future must start in your classrooms, offering a Zambian centred education that encourages your children to think of Zambian solutions first before they engage a western text book. This does not mean you should ditch the whole system, nor is it practical to do so given that all knowledge is inherently beneficial. What you can do is learn some good things from outside about ‘development’ and reject those not conducive to your way of thinking. What you need is to harness the good that is consistent with your Zambian way of doing things and reject those that are in conflict with your inbuilt idea of development. This process of harnessing in my opinion must start in your classrooms - education. Your leaders need to support young Zambians to learn the differences in their cultural settings from the text books they use and invent local solutions for local circumstances.

The person who started micro credit schemes that continue to empower women around the world was Mohammed Yunus from Bangladesh. Yunus saw a problem for his people and realised that giving small loans to very poor people on credit could make a difference. Contrary to conventional wisdom at the time he realised that poor people had an untapped demand for credit and that traditional local culture ensured that they would pay back because of social stigma. Today Grameen Bank is legendary. Yunus saw something unique about his culture and invented a solution consistent with it that has reaped benefits to others beyond Bangladesh. You too, if your children can agree on a Zambian philosophy of development, provide the right institutions to support that development and ensure a Zambian centred education, you would most certainly come up with unique solutions to improve your plight.

There’s no answer out there to help you overcome your present predicament. The answer lies in you first recognising that you have squandered four decades of people. Then you should seek to renew your faith and trust in your children and empowering them to be full partners. If you can do this, may be like Nehemiah you may just this week begin rebuilding the broken walls. If that happens, then this memo to you has not been wasted and the path to true independence may be in sight.

This week of celebrations, I plead with you to give future generations of Zambians a fighting chance for the next 45 years.


Zambian Economist


  1. A bit too critical coming from someone who sits plush in London while freely dispensing advice.

    As a gift for Zambia's forty fifth independence day, why don't you think about moving back to solve some of these problems!

    I will comment, in detail, at the end of the day!


  2. YM (LSK)

    You might want to consider the "comments policy" of this website.

    We encourage people to focus on the argument not the individual. Ad hominem attacks are strictly forbidden.

  3. Those who have critized the memo are the same bigots who are stuck on what it is and not thinking of what it should be. This crap idea of thinking those abroad are only critizing Zambia is complete backwardness and done by those who are merely scared of people abroad in terms of mind set exposure.

    We go to school to learn, we travel arround the world to see and learn how other people live, the memo by the Zambian economist should be taken in perspective and read in between lines, it gives direction where we should improve.

    Being abroad is not by mistake or running away, for your own information, there are no recorded Zambian refugees abroad,the majority abroad are intellectuals who are to contribute effectively to the betterment of Zambians without bigots who think like other bloggers here. Listen to the ideas the diaspora have been debating on e-conference on how to help improve Zambia.
    Its 45 years after independence, lets grow up!!!

  4. Great words Cho! Happy Independence Day Everyone! Thanks for the moderation in the e-conference. We will continue with the spirit of positiveness and innovation!

  5. Happy Independence!

    While we commemorate that great achievement by our fore-fathers, we should look hard at what past mistakes have been made in the last 45 years and learn from them.

    And here's a reminder, albeit in a satirical way, of some of those:


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