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Friday, 7 September 2012

Politics of Poverty in Zambia

By Chola Mukanga

When Keith Mukata, MP (Commerce D. Minister) came under pressure on why he was serving under PF when he was elected under MMD, he employed a hodgepodge of justifications:
The law is on our side, the people of Zambia who elected us, are on our side, they have no problem with us serving in government.....Serving as a minister for me is not a job if that is what they think, it is a service, maybe for other people. I probably used to make much more money in my law practice than now. When I travel (as deputy minister), I have to supplement the travel with my own money. If it were a job, I should not be running projects in my constituency[i]
Mr Mukata’s argument seeks to combine moral, political and efficiency reasoning with a personal touch to it! Not everyone agreed with his arguments.  Not long after that statement was made, Isaac Banda resigned from the PF government as Mines D. Minister for exactly the opposite reasons. In his resignation statement, he observed that the people of Zambia had elected him on an MMD ticket and therefore it would be political prostitution, so to speak, to continue being in government without a new electoral mandate. Either he resigned or went back to the people who elected him.
The current “rebel ministers” are of course not alone in serving across party lines and openly contravening party orders. This is a feature of our politics which has amplified over the last decade.  Members of Parliament (MPs) elected by the people on one party ticket nearly always choose to cross the floor when they have been offered a government job or money. It is rare to see a resignation because many fear of losing the seat if they stood again on the new party of choice, so they remain at odds with their own party whilst eating from the government plate. The term “rebel” naturally evokes memories of those 22 or so PF MPs who decided to attend the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) because the allowances offered at the time were too great to resist. A decision which fractured the PF and undermined its ability to successfully win the presidential bye-election (2008) and secure a larger mandate in 2011. It had more or less spent three years before coming into government in endless court battles with its rebel MPs which also prevented it from being a more effective opposition at that time that it would have been without the saga.   
It is also not just MPs.  The MMD in its corrupt prime even sponsored pseudo parties in addition to countless political non-government organisations under its payroll.  Many political party presidents have prostituted themselves just to feed their children and drive expensive cars. Humphrey Siulapwa in 2009 claimed that the MMD has been abusing him and his New Generation Party[ii] colleagues for over five years to campaign and defend government programmes "without rewards”:
Yes! Actually, they are using us and we are not prepared to be used forever, only a fool can be used forever. I, as president for the New Generation Party, am not going to accept to be abused or used forever...We want a portion of the national cake to come to the New Generation. Ici Bemba chitila ati, pakwakana ubunga tapabenshi? Tapaba insoni. Batupeleko na ifwekalya ka K40 billion [In Bemba they say: when sharing mealie meal you should not feel shy. They should also give us part of that K40 billion].
It is the prevalence of such actions that led the late Ken Ngondo to popularise the phrase, “politics of poverty” after losing the Milanzi bye-election in 2008[iii]. He rightly observed that greed had killed Zambian politics with people following those with the resources: 
In politics of poverty, the highest bidder always wins elections. I had no money to corrupt, bribe and buy votes from the electorate the way MMD was doing. It is not a secret but this is what our friends in the ruling party who are in control of taxpayers’ money were doing in Milanzi
At one level this behaviour is predictable in a utilitarian society with an unregulated democratic process, where those who value votes can buy them from those who don’t. Some may even say there’s actually something “democratic” about it. The ability to “freely choose” which organisation you wish to join and even the freedom to change your mind after 48 hours, as was once the case with a certain Charles Msiska in 2007!  A reasonable case can be made that democracy functions best when people are free to adopt whatever position they like and when they like. 

Reasonable concern
So the question must be asked. Does it matter that a parliamentarians can disregard their party position and the constituency that elected them to cross the floor financially (more money in their pocket) but without actually crossing the floor in substance (still claiming they represent their constituency)?
I think it does matter a great deal. For one thing, it is morally wrong. Morality matters because we are moral beings. Unless we get our ethics sorted out we are valueless as a people. Surely dignity and truth stands for something in Zambia? Serving in a government without the consent of your party is wrong and we must not be ashamed to say so. We should not be afraid to say it is morally reprehensive and undermines who we are as people – that is to say moral beings fashioned in the very image of our Creator. It is morally wrong because when Zambians voted for these rebel ministers they voted for him for a particular party, with a particular positional mandate and particular promises.  The party was MMD. The position is that they were opposed to PF policies and favoured. The promise they made is that they will serve faithfully. What has changed? The answer is that interests of their local communities have not changed. It is the personal interests of these representatives to enlarge their pockets that threaten to override the interests of the majority.
In undermining the wishes of those who elected them, they also undermine our democratic institutions. For our democracy to work it requires a level of trust between those elected and those who put them there. The question we must ask is simple: when Zambians go to vote, who do they vote for? The party or individual? Research[iv] has shown that Zambians usually vote for the party ahead of the person. It is not that these rebel ministers and others like them are worthy characters per se that got them elected (perhaps we should not be surprised they switched) but their party ticket appealed to the voters. People voted for MMD. It is the same with PF. Anyone on a PF ticket in Luapula or Copperbelt would have stood a high chance of winning.
Some may object that democracy is surely strengthened because of the “greater good” that may come out of these deputy ministers’ efforts whilst serving under PF. We may even say that by crossing the floor they have provided us with much needed cross party consensus at a time when the party in government has fewer MPs than the opposition. But such thinking is flawed and not grounded in reasonable facts. These facts are that the local people in those constituencies are being treated like idiots by the rebel ministers. As a result their confidence in the democratic system has been shaken. An electoral covenant has been defiled and we are all democratically poorer for it.
But it is not just an assault on democracy it also undermines a key social asset – our values. Here what we are talking about is the corrosive effect of these politicians beyond moral and democratic considerations. By choosing to chase money instead of sticking to their elected task, they are fostering the corrosion of our politics. Politics has become commodified. Michael Sandel offers similar insights in his latest book on the moral limits of markets[v]. But I want to quote a Zambian former ACC Commissioner Akashambatwa Mbikusita[vi] who once observed:
Some people who are aspiring for high political positions now look at the size of their pockets...People now think leadership is purchasable therefore, they can use their falsely acquired wealth to buy votes....This issue of buying leadership is confusing because people now think all it takes to lead Zambia is to buy votes. This is a great insult one can have against citizens who sacrificed a lot for Zambia’s independence.
And this commodification of leadership is there for all to see throughout our country. At the local level political parties continue to engage in buying local leadership. Zambia's grass root democracy has been dependent on votes and people buying since independence. It is difficult to even imagine local people becoming engaged in the political process without some form of immediate return e.g. a good bottle of Kachasu or Chibuku or a job promised. I have long suspected that without such inducements on voting day, in many of our villages no one would bother to vote because the returns from voting are minimal.  The politics of poverty is corroding our lives far beyond the political office. Therein is the endless causal chain. The people do not value their votes because they get no tangible development out of politicians. The politicians do not bother to change their ways because the people do not bother to hold them to account. In between that our values are being eroded which further reinforces the commodification of politics. A perpetual dance of death now envelopes us all.
It is of course a costly dance. For all the rebel ministers’ moral protestations at the root of their actions is selfishness. This selfishness imposes significant economic costs on all. Economists call these ‘external costs’ because these are costs not “internalised” or “borne” by the players involved. They fall on all of us. To be exact, all what we have discussed so far are costs on us in one way or another. But here we are focusing more narrowly on the financial ones. These are many and can be substantial if, for example, MMD persisted in hounding them out of government, as has happened this week with the forced resignation of one of the rebels following a failure to prevent an expulsion injunction.  When bye-elections happen resources misallocated that could be usefully employed elsewhere. Estimates of a typical bye-election vary but the direct costs can be more than K2bn.  To this we must add other economic costs which are not immediately monetisable e.g. lost output to the economy as ministers’ troop to and fro to argue the case for why the ruling party should have the mandate, and so forth. But even if the bye-election does not take place there would still be legal challenges, as was the case in the Masumba saga[vii], and other things which also impose costs.  All these costs are disproportional because they are funded by poor taxpayers who are double victims. The MPs let them down and now it’s their money funding bye-elections and the justice system.   

Reversing the tide
The case is therefore overwhelming clear. The politics of poverty is costing the nation. But what exactly drives this problem? Why do so many politicians switch sides? A significant part is moral. The 15th century Italian Dominican friar and preacher in Renaissance Florence Girolamo Savonarola once said, “The devil uses the rich to oppress the poor”.  In our country it is perhaps more true to say he uses our politicians.  Where there are corpses the vultures gather.  It is not farfetched to say there’s something rotten about the morality of our political system and it is that rottenness that attracts the poorest candidates. People of high moral values are dissuaded to become politicians or MPs in Zambia because there’s no integrity. We have what economists call a “market of lemons”. We have become a morally bankrupt nation – a shadow of the country I grew up on the shores of Lake Mweru. 
We all share the blame for the mess we are in.  A large part of the problem is the failure of the Zambian voter to make informed decisions. This could be due to lack of information on the candidates or it is costly to process such information given other competing demands. Lack of confidence in the democratic process may also increase the cost of accessing information relative to the benefits of making an informed decision. Why waste time and effort finding out who is telling the truth when the votes might be rigged or MPs may switch sides tomorrow?  And of course it is the political parties who surely carry the bulk of the blame. There’s a clear absence of policy and ideological framework within Zambia's main political parties. This makes it difficult for the party members and elected representatives to be loyal and convey a clear and differentiated message to the electorate. There’s also the failure of political parties to properly screen their candidates, due to resource pressures or poor organisational skills.
But all hope is not lost! We can start to reverse this tide. The moral question is beyond the scope of this essay. But what we can say there’s an urgent need for a deeper examination particularly within the church whether more is being done to influence Zambian political development – as ‘salt and light’ in the world.  We should even be bold enough to question whether the ‘Christian declaration’ is doing more than good. All must be up for discussion to build a stronger moral foundation for our beloved country.
Where I can offer immediate advice is that we need urgent political and constitutional renewal. Politically, the challenge is for political parties to build parties that are resilient in face of this politics of poverty.  They must learn to avoid political prostitution. The onus is political parties to ensure they have an adequate candidate in place that reflects their values and won’t easily sell their souls for money. Equally important is that  they must find ways in which their organisations limits the incentives for financially driven candidates to switch sides, perhaps through stronger contractual arrangements with candidates they adopt. New scrutiny process must be supported by clear policy and ideological statements to anchor their political aspirations. The creation of intra party think tanks and centres of learning would help them in this respect. They must depart from short term goals of simply getting elected towards a robust transformational agenda for Zambia.
Constitutional renewal is vital because there’s much the law can do to realign incentives of political players. Political switching happens because of the weak incentives in our electoral system that does not penalise people who cross the floor for financial gain. We must therefore fix these weak incentives. This calls for a revised electoral system that would achieve two things: sufficiently dissuade MPs from switching sides just for personal financial gain; and, minimises the possibility of punishing those who switch for genuine reasons and maximise the possibility of punishing those who switch for personal gain. The introduction of proportional representation currently under consideration in the Draft Constitution is welcome, despite its other flaws. If we do retain the current representation system it would be important to consider economic and social case for automatic parliamentary recall of MPs by their constituencies. These things of course need to be accompanied by general improvement in information flows between politicians and voters. We can fix a lot of things in Zambia if we improved information. It is not about freedom of information (a meaningless endeavour for the common man), is about building a society where disclosure and intensive scrutiny is presumed and not begged for.
Ending political poverty is key to ending economic poverty because it is costing us a nation, morally, socially and financially. We owe it future generations to do what we can to end it now.

Chola Mukanga is an economist and founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent economic perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people

Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2013

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  1. Wonderful essay- well written . Reading this essay renews my hope that we will one day get back our unbiased and deeply analytically Chola of old.

    You correctly identify the systemic issues that have plagued our politics for some time now. It is not an MMD or PF problem. The problem runs deeper than that and as a people we will have to confront this head on !

    I think the solutions that Chola suggest are very necessary, but I am not sure they are sufficient to begin to resolve this deep seated problem. How do we get our people to value their vote and realise that they can hold politicians to account?

  2. Kaiba,

    Well thank you!

    I am sorry that you think I have biased of late. As our long time reader I trust you have observed that we are trying to give place to as many voices as possible to ensure the balance you seek. You should also know that you are always free to write your reflections for us and help rekindle our thinking - and openly criticise.

    In terms of the basic question- "How do we get our people to value their vote and realise that they can hold politicians to account?". I agree that is a challenging question as I state. Partly because it is self-reinforcing.

  3. A well written article indeed. The term "politics of poverty" cannot be overemphasized, as that is exactly what it is. I recall looking at the goings-on in the political arena as a small boy in primary school and I just thought something was deeply wrong! The key I would suppose lies in an educated electorate that fully understands the power they wield with their vote and the inherent responsibility. This means educating people from the very bottom. I don't know what is taught in civics in secondary schools these days but it is from those humble beginnings that we, the citizens of this country can begin to understand what is at stake and that we have a duty to safeguard the young democracy we are building. However,I fear once those very young citizens complete secondary school and college, if they get the chance, and are suddenly thrown into the "real world" they are disillusioned and everything becomes a matter of survival. All this to say, tangible economic development and a strong democracy are inextricably intertwined and always influence each other.

    Perhaps the "donche kubeba" mentality has something going for it in that regard, but is that really the direction we want to go? Is it sustainable? Is that really the future we want to create for our children, grandchildren, etc? I hope not!


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