Sonta Epo Wakongola: The Story of National Debt

I love watching the ZNS combatants doing their thing at the Agriculture and Commercial Show in Lusaka. Their choreography is just amazing and makes me want to join the military – just so I can get a six pack! Sadly, however, this year, I missed it because I had a family bereavement in the village. One of the old folks answered the Lord’s call, and being a family guy, I voyaged to mourn with my fellow clansmen.

After the burial, we gathered around the funeral fire, sipping on some local brew called 7 Days which is fashioned around God’s creation of the world in 6 days, resting on the 7th day. For us, however, we brew the 7 Days in 6 Days, and then consume it on the 7th Day while resting. After one too many sips, punctuated by the symphonies of the wailing mourners, an evaluation of the departed’s life begun.

‘He was a good man,” said one village elder. “A good man indeed. Sadly, he died leaving nothing behind. No house. No big maize field. No wife. No children. Nothing, zero!” continued the elder, almost confirming that his freedom of speech was now under the influence of 7 Days. He took another deep gulp of the brew before passing the Chikapu to me. “Here, my son, I hope you are working on something to show for your life.” I nodded while deeply thinking about my own life.

Do I have something to show for? Do I have anything to ‘sonta’ when my time is up? Something I can point to and say yes, yes, that is my creation. It got me worried, because I don’t think I have many achievements to defend my reputation –if any – when I am gone. “Something needs to be done” I thought.

I drove back to Lusaka, still thinking about what the village elder said. “What legacy shall I leave behind?” I pondered. As I passed Mazabuka, fear gripped me. Many that drive the Lusaka Livingstone road would appreciate my fear instigated by the deplorable state of the Mazabuka to Kafue Road section. It is a shocking sight. To imagine that this road leads to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls, is shocking. I wonder how tourists feel when driving through our country towards Livingstone.

Maybe the people who must do something about this road don’t care because they drive big 4X4s that can absorb the impact of hitting into those potholes. To be frank, what I saw were fishponds! I couldn’t help but notice that this was a reflection of our national priorities: Sometimes we are not a serious people at all!

Driving my small Vitz (the first car in our clan), the bumps did not spare me. I felt that if I had a serious patient in the car, the potholes would have easily taken away a life. By that thought, again I was back on my fear of dying without leaving behind a legacy. I looked at the young men and some women patching up some of the big holes on the road; and I thought to myself “they are working hard for their families so that they leave a few possessions after death.”
With my head nodding involuntarily like a farmer driving a tractor, I wondered if the villagers around that section of the road had any kind words for their government – perhaps they did, you know, the poor road has caused a lot of accidents from which some villagers loot from. Sad as this might be, it is the truth. Then suddenly, a fresh thought relieved me from the torture that the village elder had induced in me. I asked myself what the government would have left behind for these people.

So anyways, I reached Lusaka after 2 hours on a 70km stretch and when I logged into Facebook – my favourite hobby – I was faced with the hullabaloo of the debt issue where it was said that government was intending to finance the $750 Eurobond whose principal payment was due in 2022 using a Turkish firm. I noticed that this didn’t go well with many people who posed the question:

“Where did the money go?”

“Why did we accrue so much debt in such a short time?”

Well, it started with the story of “Sonta”.

You see, as the village elder mentioned, you cannot live your life without anything meaningful to show for. That includes our government; there must be something that every citizen in every corner of the country can point to as their share for the national cake. So, to fully appreciate our national debt and its evolution, we need to appreciate the nature and evolution of our politics and politicians which, in all aspects, is a reflection of who we are as a society.
Contrary to what you might think, politicians are highly intelligent and can be very cunning economists. In politics, like in many games, winning is a big deal, especially for those in power who, in the words of Dr. Fredrick Chiluba, have tasted the ‘sweetness of power’. Kuli manone mu power.

To retain power and continue enjoying manone, politicians usually begin to run high deficits towards election years (A deficit is a situation where ufola K5, 000 but somehow you spend K6,000 on beer, the K1000 is the deficit). Taking advantage of the shortsightedness of voters, especially in a poor country like ours where a ka telela chitenge and a pack of Shake Shake can win you an election, politicians push government to spend more than it generate by investing in projects and physical assets. Investments like roads, bridges, schools, hospitals e.t.c. are suddenly on the rise towards election time. These are key assets that they will show that the government is working and thus increase their chances of winning the next election – Sonta epo wabomba! But the trick is to spend in areas where you see more potential votes – this is called ‘targeting’.

What we thus see as ‘unprecedented development’ prior to election time is what we economists call “expansionary fiscal policy” which is aimed at creating ‘sontebles’ to be used during election time. The financing of these sontebles is from debt, nkongole. The urge to retain power and continue enjoying manone is usually so high that there is no regard for value for money in borrowing – you just want to borrow as much as you can to make sontebles and win the next election.

But how do politicians manage to do this?

It is easy: They know, in the words of Mwanawasa, that ‘Zambians have a short memory’, and could be shortsighted, especially when poverty is so high as it is at 54%. Most Zambians will not care nor even think about the connection between the sontebles the government is creating prior to the election and the post-election high debt that they would have to bear.

Armed with this interpretation, I concluded that perhaps, just perhaps the money for mending the Kafue-Mazabuka Road has gone towards peripheral sontebles and so at least, this government will still have something to sonta. As I reached home, I must admit that the challenge of my own ‘sonta’ was still in me: What shall I leave behind for my family to point at when I am gone? What will be my sonteble? What is yours?

Guys, we need to put sober priorities in place at the individual, family, community and national level.

         

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