For a long time now, many of us have complained, sometimes with very persuasive arguments, that Zambia is where it is today because of bad leadership at the national level. We explain our country’s deepening crisis, illustrated by extreme cultural and material impoverishment, sustained institutional deterioration, heightened political divisions and economic decline made worse by endemic corruption and a crippling public debt, as a result of President Edgar Lungu and his accumulation-seeking friends in government. Well, that is simply part of the story. It is time we re-examined this narrative and the leadership question in a wider context. To better understand Lungu, we must seek to understand the forest in which his political leadership was born, exists and thrives. This refers to the wider economic and social circumstances that have created the unfavorable conditions in which it is almost impossible to raise and sustain ethical values.
Post 1991, Zambians have collapsed into a heap of undiluted poverty, mass unemployment and extreme inequalities. The portion of the population that is involved in genuine systemic and structural employment has dwindled to almost an insignificant percentage of the actual total labour force, most of which is either unemployed or eking out a miserable living from the street or from tilling the land. Arguably, there is a very tiny capitalist class, largely of the ‘business man type’, which however is incapable of giving Zambia any ‘national character’ complete with the liberal claptrap about ‘rule of law’ and ‘respect for the constitution’, let alone any semblance of morality, especially in the public domain and in politics. This social base is grown on the ever-shrinking real economy. Zambia is an impoverished country, materially and culturally, not withstanding its natural wealth. We Zambians have absolutely no control, whatsoever, over our country’s economic life. Foreign capital reigns supreme. The tiny middle class that appears to be well off survives by getting into criminal relationships with foreign capital. This includes many of the so-called ‘civil society’ elites who thrive on swindling donor money.
In such social and economic circumstances, professions are a means to find a job, for survival, not to advance the so-called ‘noble ideals’ of the profession. The middle class inevitably mimics the survival behaviours of the larger or majority part of the population, who live survivalist lives. This is the dead-end character of our socio-economic life that breeds our kind of politics and citizens like Lungu. Lungu embodies the worst attributes of lumpen behaviour fit to survive in this jungle of mass poverty. He is a leader par excellence. No Constitution, no law, no morality other than behaviour conducive to his survival is permissible in his life. His personal and political conduct however is simply emblematic of tens of thousands of Zambians who live survivalist lives and for whom nothing is fixed, certain, moral, stable or durable. To overthrow Lungu and the undesirable traits he represents, and to end the lumpenisation of our lives, we need to overthrow what we have become.
The problem, therefore, is the citizen. We need to sort out the citizen question first – although our capacity to do so would be dependent on another variable: our ability to destroy the existing economic structure that presses us down. Once we do that, then we are home and dry. Edgar Lungu simply epitomises and exemplifies the majority citizen. If he was not, what have we the supposedly majority Zambians whose higher moral code or communal values he keeps flouting, done to stop him? Very little. Blaming our leaders represents a cheap attempt, on our part, to remove our individual agency from responsibility for changing the undesired status quo. It is akin to someone who, for years, remains in an extremely violent and abusive relationship, complaining that, “The problem is not me; it is my partner”. Asked to state what actions they took to change their plight, the complainant responds, “I spoke to my partner but they did not listen to me. In fact, we spoke several times, but my partner did not change; they continued in their bad ways. This explains why I am like this. I remained in this relationship all this time because I had hoped that my partner would change. To supplement my investment in hope, I also fervently prayed, beseeching God to perform a miracle that would help change my partner to become a better person. For some reason, God has taken His time to respond to my tendered prayers. And who am I, an errant mere mortal, to question the schedule of God Almighty?”
Such a person is not a victim. He or she is an architect of his or her own plight. That is many of us today. That is Zambia. As long as our lives and how they turn out remain God’s will, we abdicate responsibility for changing our plight to that God. It also means our leadership, in our minds at least, is God’s choosing. So if that God gives us a Lungu, we cannot question His wisdom, notwithstanding Lungu’s obvious poverty of anything remotely resembling the virtue to be associated with a benevolent deity. There are times when I feel that Zambia must kill God, if we are to make progress. When God dies, we will take His place – our success or failure resting squarely on our shoulders.
We Zambians are the problem. Take this same Edgar Lungu to become the President of the Republic of Singapore – a country that got independence later than Zambia but moved from being a developing nation to a developed one in a single generation. The selfless, thoughtful and exemplary leadership he would provide from Day 1 would stun many people. He would actively mobilise and coalesce the energies of everyone, especially the very best of Singapore, to propel the country to even better heights. Some will even wonder if he is indeed the same person – the very Lungu who, when he served as Zambia’s president, was untroubled by insatiable greed, fostered and thrived on deep divisions, and had a legendary aversion to anything remotely involving an exertion on his mental faculties. What would have changed? The people Lungu presides over, coupled with the attendant change in awareness and attitude on his part.
The transformation would start the moment Lungu learns that he is now the leader of Singapore. What would bring about this change in him is not the geographical location of the country or the natural resources within its borders; it is simply the type of people Singaporeans are – a people with a clear and shared value system; a people that would hold him to account more than we Zambians do. By the time Lungu would be landing at Changi airport to take up his new leadership position, he would have read and properly understood the Constitution of Singapore and already accepted that he cannot, even slightly, interfere in the operations of what is a truly independent judiciary that is not susceptible to political and financial interests. He would have further noted with regret the staggering mediocrity that was resident in his Cabinet back in Zambia and overcome his obstinate conventionality and fear of being led into paths that might disturb his rather secured prejudices and extremely limited view of things.
Lungu would quickly know that majority of the citizens of the new country that he now leads would not tolerate anything less than the provision of quality leadership, the one at whose centre is total transparency and the promotion of the public good, not the relentless pursuit of personal gain. Lungu would know where he is, that he is now President of Singapore, not Zambia, and would consequently provide strong and visionary leadership. His commitment to securing public faith in formal institutions and the rule of law would be above reproach. Such would be his immediate and total self-transformation, including his aversion to the theft of public funds and loyalty to all ethical norms and values, that even he himself would be stunned by his extraordinary capacity to change.
Individuals, generally, adjust according to the environment. It is the environment that makes a person. Over time, Edgar Lungu, arguably Zambia’s worst leader since the declaration of independence in 1964, would surpass Lee Kuan Yew to become the best leader Singapore has ever had since the country became an independent territory in August 1965. Even his public speech would change to reflect his new context. Instead of saying things like ‘Ubomba mwibala alya mwibala’, that ‘it is not being corrupt to be wealthy, bonse tukabila ukulya bwino’, or passing extremely inappropriate jokes when delivering serious national addresses, such as ‘I only took two shots, only two, Mr Speaker’ (Ironically, this appears to be the only thing many Zambians took away from his recent speech to Parliament on national values and principles), his speeches would now be laden with such inspiring thoughts that many across the world would yearn to listen to him because nearly every word he utters in public would be actually quotable. Yes, this very Edgar Lungu whose public speech today is so mediocre and dreadfully poor that one can be forgiven for thinking that he deliberately goes out of his way to say nothing sensible.
We Zambians, I must repeat, are the problem. We are far from being a serious people. We are the architects of our own misery. I know that some, particularly the formally educated citizen in the city, would be quick to point an accusing finger, claiming it is the poor and their rural counterparts who are to blame for our pitiful plight. I disagree. Why does Zambia’s ‘educated class’, knowing so well the weaknesses and backwardness of the Frederick Chilubas, Rupiah Bandas, Michael Satas and Edgar Lungus, and fully aware of our state of mass human poverty and extreme cultural impoverishment, still do virtually nothing about both the conditions of our life and leadership? Are we such a pathological parasitic educated middle class that we are completely paralysed and are incapable of the necessary and essential political activity required to overturn our national plight? Are we an impotent social class incapable of fulfilling its historic and social responsibility, always blaming others for our sorry state of affairs in the country? (…Bad politicians, illiterate population, backward rural dwellers, etc. – running away from the answer to our problems which is all the time staring us straight in the face, using our very own eyes: us!) Have we, as a people, become so debased and dehumanised that we have effectively ceased to hold ourselves in high regard, began the downward spiral of lower and lower expectations for ourselves and our kith and kin, and effectively commuted our very existence to spirits, viewing the battles or challenges that confront us as not physical?
We must take full responsibility for the mediocrity of our lives and national leadership and our role in getting ourselves out of the mess we have sunk into. Ownership of blame is an empowering state of mind. In as much as we would like to deny it, the truth is that we have become, on the whole, a rotten society. Yes, among us exists Lucy Sichones, Levy Mwanawasas, Laura Mitis, Kenneth Kaundas, Anna Chifungulas, Chama Fumbas, Telesphore Mpundus, Mary Tshumas, James Skinners and Linda Kasondes – citizens who, in general and acting from any position or none, represent some of the most essential values to which we must all aspire. These values include courage, community, compassion and love for fellow human beings, moral force of character, capacity for effective leadership, integrity, genuine humility, honesty, a predilection for consultation, consensus-building, communication, co-operation, active listening, and the selfless pursuit of the public good, and not the selfish striving for personal gain.
The bright spots among us are however getting fewer by the minute – not because our mothers are no longer giving birth but because their children inevitably grow into a society that upholds its decaying moral fabric, poverty of ambition and deplorable socio-economic conditions. Thanks to the shortcomings of Western democracy, the best of Zambians cannot ascend to the presidency, a platform they can use to nationalise their values, without the support of the majority group in Zambia today, the one for whom nothing is fixed, certain, moral, stable or durable, and whose dominant values clash with those of the increasingly best few. Even if we succeeded in removing this Lungu from public office today – and we must get rid of him at the earliest possible opportunity, though this prospect seems increasingly distant as he appears willing to do whatever it takes to stay put – it would not be long before another Lungu emerges from within the ranks of the numerically superior group to win elective public office. For reasons of democratic representation, a nation of drunkards or lumpens is entitled to be represented by a drunkard or lumpen.
I fear, sometimes, that the acuteness of the problem at hand is not one that is appreciated by many of us. The problem, you see, is as much with the leadership as it is with the led. In fact, some would say it is a vicious cycle, feeding into and enabling each other. The chief reason Lungu was elected president in 2015 (I believe he won that election fairly) was because he embodies many of the things a significant number of Zambians embrace and live by. He speaks, looks, and thinks like them. They found a kindred spirit in him. I will leave it to the better discernment of the reader to decide what those things are, but therein lies the answer to how this crisis we find ourselves in continues. We cannot, in my view, resolve the crisis of leadership at the national level without addressing that of the larger social body’s moral and cultural values. For leaders are not hoisted onto us from without – they come from within our society. The real reason why Lungu is our president today is not necessarily because he was re-elected in 2016 – we probably will never know for certain if he genuinely won that year’s election. It is because he is the leader we truly deserve, one who is embedded in a complex network that reveals a society that is, on the whole, rotten to the core.
Lungu is a symptom of Zambia’s sickness and can only exist in Zambia. If Lungu was the problem and majority of us were different from him, we would have long removed him – he possibly would never even have risen to the presidency in the first place. The hard reality is that Lungu projects our collective frailties. He is not the one who stops us from turning up in public in huge numbers to protest against his inept leadership or the stinking corruption of his administration. He is not the one stopping hundreds of thousands of us from embarking on daily anti-government protests, demanding his exit from power for saturating our country with debt, worsening our already miserable existence and strangling the aspirations of workers and young people. We Zambians, with all our collective capacity and power, stop ourselves. Why? Because he reflects what we really are – a people capable of only producing itself. We have created and earned Lungu, much in the same way that we have re-created God to function, primarily, as a proud partisan and charged Him with nothing less than the custody of our individual agency. Lungu is our own Frankenstein, the monster we are seeing in the mirror. So before we condemn him next, we should know that he is being himself. It is unfair to call him to virtues that we, the majority of us as a people, do not possess.
Where then does our future lie? In the total destruction of what Zambia has become. Focusing on isolated incidents or Lungu alone will not help us much. Our ailment requires thorough social change from below, which must include educating ourselves about the dead-end character of our socio-economic life and the kind of values and politics this breeds, and igniting a broad and popular movement that can and must give birth to millions of leaders who can perform the revolutionary surgery we are urgently in need of, nurse the country back to its full health, and sustain it in that state. My faith in top down change has severely weakened over the years. Many of the notions I held about our society have been disabused by hard-won experience. Zambia’s values must reform from the lowest social echelons. Maybe then we can see meaningful change. For the truth is that the full character of the Zambian society has changed: we have sunk so low that we can only rise. If we have a country where stealing begins from State House and extends to all manner of public servant, whatever the rank, then the problem runs deeper than bad leadership. We steal even when we absolutely have no need to – not that theft is ever morally justified – and pick out the very worst of our elements to govern us, even when better options are readily available. Ours is an underlying social moral cancer, one we will only cure at great pain to ourselves.
Zambia is a tinderbox, a bad drama too sad and too painful to watch. It must explode. Not if, but when it explodes, then perhaps it can be reconstituted. Those in charge are, with great abandon, dragging the country towards an epic economic collapse. Everything is coming to the fore. The tipping point is near. I do not know if Lungu’s stay in power will last up to 2021 or even beyond. What I know is that for our national psyche to change, our downfall would have to be so complete and the consequent pain so unbearable that we will be forced into a kind of collective introspection we otherwise would not have brought ourselves to. Then and then only can we learn. One of the major reasons why we remain so good at choosing bad leaders, if at all we even know what good leadership means, is that we, or at least the majority of us, are a bad people. We need to become a good people first before the simultaneous process of producing good leaders can begin. This is where the challenge is. There will be no messianic essence or phenomenon in our country to liberate us. It is not our leaders; it is us. This is it. Nothing else. We are our own leaders, we are us, we lead ourselves, put in reverse.
Well, I must stop here, for now. I must go and listen to two of my favourite songs, sang by Kendrick Kafula and Jordan Sinkala, that legendary musical duo, now deceased, popularly known as Impi. One track is titled Bantalamisoka. The other is Basakalanyongo. Both are enlightening and incriminating tunes. May I invite you, dear reader, to come along with me and listen to them, paying particular attention to the lyrics