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Monday, 21 October 2013

A Poverty of Power

Home Affairs Minister Edgar Lungu has said that President Michael Sata is ready to forfeit his salary increment provided MPs follow suit : “The President is saying that’s fine, but we have talked to the opposition UPND and MMD and they are saying we are with you and are actually saying it’s not enough. So why are the opposition MPs condemning the increment when they gave him that money through the standing orders committee?".

Edgar Lungu is wrong and right. He is wrong because the MPs did not "give" the president the salary increase. Parliament does not vote on the salary thanks to a law passed in 2009 which allows the Finance Minister to merely issue a Statutory Instrument at the stroke of a pen. He is right that MPs on the standing orders committee do look at the wage increase. He is also right that the majority of MPs are quiet and are not fighting to change the status quo because part of the unspoken deal is that they also get their salaries increased. Parliament is a sort of "rich boys club" with the public watching with eggs on their faces!

This issue illustrates the "poverty of power" that is at the heart of our nation. Zambia's underdevelopment is due the presence of an elite of politicians that continue to hold onto power without sharing it with the poor. They can afford to ignore and abuse the poor politically because they know the poor have no money to fend for themselves. They thrive on the destitution of our people. How else do we explain why they reward themselves with large salaries, cars and expensive foreign trips? How else do we justify why government after government has been bloated? The list is endless.

Even the elections are run in such a way that the poor are kept in destitution. They know the poor need money for food, so they simply buy the votes. During campaigns they suddenly appear like Santa Claus, generous and loving. They not only mock the poor, they mock all our collective intelligence with their empty shallow promises to tackle poverty, if only the poor could vote for them. They promise an end to corruption, creation of jobs, lower taxes, a better return on our mineral wealth, and quality social services to all. But when the crunch comes they do not deliver!

When our politicians are challenged, they respond with phrases like “lack of patriotism”, “Zambians are lazy” and "you just criticise and offer no solutions”. Some of our political masters have even previously accused the poor of "not engaging enough with important national affairs that could change their future". If only the poor tried harder, they say! The truth is our poor people cannot sensibly be expected to lobby government or waste time debating issues with politicians. Our people are too busy being poor thanks to rich and greedy politicians.

More importantly because the poor are unable to take part in national policy debates due to their poverty, the institutional framework that governs their affairs is also unable to reflect their interests. This is the fundamental problem with our current political system. It is a system of the rich for the rich. The current constitution and the one being drafted will never provide necessary political institutions that will alter the balance of power from few rich urbanite folks who have held Zambia in a grip since independence towards the poor and the voiceless. The reason is that it is not drafted by the poor!

The hard truth is that Zambia moved from a One Party State towards a multi-party system that has effectively remained a de-facto One Party state. Yes, Zambia's political system on paper is “multi-party" but the distribution of power within our nation remains very much a one party state. To make matters worse, we are still recycling the same leaders from the past that have often failed us. We have an elite group of Zambians that continue to shape our destiny for better, and mostly for worse.

The private media and blogs are filled with talk about "cartels". The real menacing cartel is this cartel of “anti-Zambian” interests which continue to hold power and wilfully subjugate our people in poverty. They rotate power among themselves, award themselves large wealth, reward foreign backers, maintained by an aid system of richer countries, and continue to keep themselves in power. When one party loses power, the losers quickly switch sides and continue the eating!

When one listens attentively to Zambian politicians it is clear they do not speak for the poor. In nearly every discussion there’s a tendency to treat poverty at the proximate level rather than at the fundamental level. They wilfully never ask why our people continue to wallow in poverty. They have chosen to ignore that our current poverty is located in historical and political forces, which has led to inherently unequal distribution of power within our society. The politicians are on one side and the silent majority is on the other side. This has led to rampart poverty levels. It also explains why the majority continue under destitution even when the majority prefers their suffering to end. 

Our politicians like quoting figures in their speeches about the state of Zambia. They even sometimes bemoan that we have too much “poverty”. They define our poverty as an absence of being unable to meet basic needs (food, shelter) and live decently (accommodation, employment). They recognise the majority as poor people struggling to survive. People languishing in destitution in Chibolya, Msisi and Masala and countless dilapidated shanty compounds. They may even admit, if pushed, that such poverty is morally unacceptable. What none of them are willing to admit is that this poverty is only a proximate manifestation of a deeper poverty – the poverty of power.

The current crop of Zambian politicians are not willing to admit that our poverty is due to the power they wield over the majority. They are not willing to accept that the poor are firmly at the bottom of the food chain, while they dance at the top. In short, they have no honest or humility about the current situation. But as a people we should be under no doubt. Our poverty is a direct consequence of the rich and powerful in our society holding access to power and preventing the majority poor from having a voice.

Zambia's poverty is as a result of the continuing forceful usurping of the free operation of the process of development of the productive capacity of the poor. This process has continued since independence and continues to afflict us today. Until we realise this we won't fight for real change that breaks the chains that forced 70% of our fellow human beings in this country to live on less than $2 a day.

Chola Mukanga | Economist
Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013

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