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Monday, 5 September 2011

Voting Lessons from Mr NEPAD

Sanou Mbaye on the great disappointment that is Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade :
Senegal’s people are deeply disenchanted. In 2000, they enthusiastically went to the polls to elect Abdoulaye Wade as their president. Wade had campaigned as an agent of change, but change never came to Senegal throughout his decade in power. Now the only change he wants to make is to the constitution, so that he can retain his hold on power. Unfortunately, Wade turned out to be almost a caricature of the dozy African potentate for whom power, nepotism, and embezzlement become indistinguishable. So deeply has he identified his and his family’s interests with the state that he appointed his son, Karim Wade, to head four different ministries – international cooperation, air travel, infrastructure, and energy – simultaneously. 
Mr Wade's crumbling corrupt regime holds a timely reminder for Zambia, as we head to the polls. More immediately, it is quite obvious that Obama was right when he said, "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions". For too long Zambians have continued to champion "people first". We keep hearing that what is wrong with our present leaders is that they have no moral direction. To fix that we allegedly need a new breed of leaders with "new values for our time". Leaders whose hearts are Zambian shaped rather than Kwacha shaped. But that chant is simply another variant of the "strong man".

Mr Wade started off right. Zambia's class of 1991 also started off right. Many attended the finest universities abroad and held prominent jobs in international organisations. But like a closely guarded child when the restraint is removed, they went on to plunder our nation and they are still plundering (just look for the NCC constitution payment bill).  Rupiah Banda started off right with calls for reconciliation, only to betray the Zambian people at every turn. Consider some of his failures : abolition of mining windfall tax without consulting the people who elected him; overseeing a failed NCC process that cost the nation around K500bn in money and lost output; selling ZAMTEL to the corrupt and brutal Gaddafi regime; failing to prevent loss of lives in Mufumbwe and Barotseland; persecution of Chansa Kabwela; adopting civil servants to stand on the MMD ticket without retiring them from the civil service; campaigning without dissolving Cabinet and Parliament; abuse of standard convention of leaving atleast 3 months to campaign; changing the law on gratuity so that he could qualify early; attempts to sell Lusaka International Airport without public consultation; repealing the law on corruption by redefining 'public abuse'; the Chiluba saga; giving himself greater powers to expand the number of high court judges so that he can appoint those closest to him; ensuring that the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice and ECZ Chair all come from the same village as him; creating pseudo NGOs; passing the draconian NGO bill; failing to act on the AG reports; and, many others abuses. The point is not to suggest that he is the only president who has abused his authority, but to point out that Mr Wade, the man who campioned the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), is not special!

Where the majority are weak, those in the minority will always plunder the weak. Not because they are more evil than the rest, it is just that any man without sufficient restraints will always disappoint. If we are to learn anything from Zambia's last two decades, and Mr Nepad's corrupt rule in Senegal, it is that we must not place our faith in people. We must put institutional reform at the heart of the elections. That means we need to look to those candidates that place strong emphasis on delivering institutions that make it easy for the public to kick them out of their job should they fail to perform. Politicians have a natural tendency to concentrate power, the public should not allow that to happen on September 20 by supporting platforms that will redistribute power in favour of the poor.  

The other point is that institutions on their own are not enough without "credible power". Power is everything and your power of vote can make a difference. Mr Wade since he came into office has tried to all he can to consolidate his hold on power at the expense of Senegal's poorest. What is remarkable is that when people marched in their numbers to oppose constitutional changes, he was forced to climb down. Corrupt politicians thrive on a divided electorate. When the electorate come together and demand change, change will happen. The problem is that the poor are fragmented and suffer what economists call the "collective action" problem - that is the inability to coordinate their actions to purposely change course. One of the reasons for this is that corrupt politicians are actively working to divide the poor among themselves (e.g. buying votes). The solution here is for Zambians to realise that the "secret ballot" is exactly what it is - it is secret.  This is actually an educational issue. Unfortunately many in our rural areas do not understand the concept of a secret ballot and are scared of voting in a way that veers from their local oppressors' preferences, be they chiefs or the district officers. We must remind our rural population that no one can know how you voted.

But the other danger we must warn against is the folly of uniting on people rather than ideas.  I was extremely appalled when I heard members of the diaspora calling on others to rally behind (and give money) to the Solwezi Central MMD candidate because he was "from abroad", to quote one person.  What utter folly! Have these "diaspora Zambians" not learnt anything from the past?  Zambians abroad do not need a diaspora candidate to help them escape poverty wherever they reside! Zambia's poor do not need a poor candidate to escape poverty! Tongas do not need a Tonga candidate to escape poverty! Women do not  need a woman candidate to escape poverty! What all these groups need is to unite around common issues and then bargain with specific candidates to deliver their desired objectives regardless of where they may come from. The "voting bloc" and the power it generates would deliver more sustained pro-poor changes in Zambia. This calls for emergence of more cross national groups who task is to help people form into voting blocs across a range of interest areas. In a way, what Zambian voters need are "voting unions" that will organise and shift their priorities at both the parliamentary and presidential levels. The People's Pact is one such example, but may there be more in our land!


  1. We need a generational change. Full stop! RB or Sata wont do. Wade like these other 'fossils' has a 'sense of entitlement'and can never be an agent of change. The man had been in opposition since the 1960s. It is the Chipimos, HHs and the Milupis who can take Zambia to the next level. It is actually a pity that rather than banding together they chose to go their separate ways.

    The 1991 hope was extinguished for the simple reason that Zambia has an all powerful presidency it didnt matter how educated those surrounding the President were. After all a good number of them were pushed aside when they wouldnt play ball with the 'higher authority' who unfortunately was directly or indirectly a product of the one party state that hugely shaped his political philosophy.

    As long as we dont build independent institutions of governance Zambia will continue having a 'strong man'. The fossils are the ones more likely to continue with a system they have participated in! But first we must elect one who was born after 1950.

  2. Creation of a coherent voting bloc in the form of a "Single Issue Lobby" isn't actually all that complicated, especially if there is already a vacuum where such groups would otherwise be on the political landscape. The complexity usually creeps into the process of getting yours noticed and therefore making it effective, it all comes down to identifying salient issues that voters already want to use when making decisions about who should lead them. Each such issue (or set of clearly connected issues, remember that comprehensive sets of issues facing the nation is a party manifesto) then requires a small group of dedicated activists who will act as champions for the people's wishes on that issue.

    The activists form a group with a name that ties into the issue in a clear fashion,, and then proceed to badger the staff of candidates for any office anywhere to declare a stance on the issue. In the US these are usually in the form of Political Action Committees (PACs), which raise funds for both ideologically sympathetic candidates and their own media campaigns. The group then compiles a list of which candidates stand where, and which contests are close between those on either side of the issue. The group then compares that to their accumulated knowledge of where voters that react to their issue are concentrated, and then distributes campaign contributions and publicizes their position and support in these areas so that voters can base their decision on it or not as they will and donor money will be put to greatest electoral effect.

    For voters who feel very strongly about certain issues but don't feel a strong connection to any given political party apparatus, such groups can be vital in guiding their voting preferences. Securing a reasonable amount of attention via "free media" coverage of announcements and publications by the group can be important to its success, and such groups should not hesitate to let the same demographic which relies on them for information know which media outlets are ignoring them, and encouraging appreciation of those that do.

    This can be opening a can of worms however, as competition between lobbying groups can generate an elite within them, whose corresponding issues get blown out of proportion, and candidates become more responsive to funding incentives from a few rich lobbyists than to the potential positive or negative voter response to their positions. That involves an assumption that additional campaign funds can be successfully translates into votes in spite of negative reactions to actual positions. Such an assumption becomes less certain the better informed the electorate is about what has been promised, and subsequently delivered, and what has not.

    Only then can they begin to ask why? Why was that promised to those people at that time? Why was that project delivered on time, and that one years behind schedule, and the other one not ever begun? Who is not keeping their promises? Who is not making promises they can't or won't keep? Who acted in good faith but failed anyway, and how much of that was their fault? Who can admit a mistake, and who sweeps everything however small under a rug? Who is charting a course towards a possible future, and who is being carried forward only by the inertia of events, and is that where we want to go?

    It all starts by pinning politicians down to specifics, and then checking up on them. Small groups of single-issue oriented activists are ideally suited to this task. It then just remains for media to take notice of their efforts. I am certain that Zambian Economist will.


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