A Michael Sata presidency has the chance to either be the worst president that Africa has ever seen or the best president the continent has witnessed. There can be no middle ground for this man, no average achievement.
The reason is that this is not an average personality. He is an extremely effective executive who knows how to get things done, and done very quickly. This is a very good quality, but only if the things he wants to get done are good things. Otherwise, when a leader has bad goals or misguided ideas, it is better that he is one who is ineffective so that he finds it hard to achieve those bad ideas.
Mr. Sata’s unique effectiveness as a manager has been seen throughout his career, his election victory being only the latest example. In all the positions he has held in government, he has been known for the way he has quickly achieved changes that were radical enough for all to see. Not only was he the one who created entire housing communities of Lusaka when he was a local government and housing minister, he also had very visible changes in hospitals when he was Minister of Health. Even before the MMD came to power, as a district governor in UNIP, he executed policies that made the city clean for the first time, and he also initiated such complex projects (at the time) like the design of the Zesco fly-over bridge to achieve his vision of a modern city, even when most people in these offices had failed to figure out how to do such things. Hearing him explain how he went about organizing different minds and experts on this project is like a lecture in an MBA class.
In fact, his leadership in all these areas was so unique that whenever he was transferred from those positions, the degradation started happening almost immediately, no matter which minister or official took over from him. No one could fit into his shoes because the country’s work culture is simply not generally at the level that the man personally operates. His ability to push everyone on his team to work and think harder, and his demand for efficiency and perfection, is what distinguished him wherever he went.
His election victory is the latest testament of this hyper-effective ability. Most Zambians have not yet realized just how remarkable is the achievement of someone forming his own party in a country where there are already established parties, building his own team, and managing to get presidential victory. Both of the parties that have ruled Zambia so far came out of very wide national movements that were driven by general historical forces happening on the continent and the world.
The first party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) came into power through the African independence movement that was blowing across Africa. It was a time when colonial powers had decided to give more democratic power to indigenous Africans. UNIP came to power through a nationwide movement to achieve local independence.
The second party, coming three decades afterwards, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was also a result of another national movement that was inspired by a general global movement from one party state dictatorships to multiparty democracy. This wind, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the Soviet empire cracked, swept across Eastern Europe and into Africa and other parts of the world. All kinds of people joined together in Zambia to form the MMD and to ride this global shift to liberal democracy. Like the independence movement, this multiparty democracy movement was not identified with any single individual’s initiative. It was not even predictable who would lead it at first.
The Patriotic Front, formed by Michael Sata, has had a very unique achievement that has not depended on a national movement, but really on the initiative and leadership skills of one individual. There was no national, continental or global movement that inspired the formation of the Patriotic Front. It was the decision and initiative of one man who had already demonstrated remarkable management skills his entire life. Michael Sata was not only a master of organization, he was also a master of communication and marketing. Whereas most political leaders fail to communicate easily to the poor uneducated masses, Sata was able to effectively communicate all his ideas to everyone who listened to him. His biggest weapon at these mass rallies was his unpredictable and spontaneous creativity. There is no other politician, perhaps with the exception of Sata’s former mentor, the late president Frederick Chiluba, who could actually crack jokes that crowds from very different economic and social classes would find funny. It is an extremely difficult feat of creativity to be able to say things that would connect to people from different intellectual and social backgrounds on such a psychic level. This, more than anything, explains how Sata managed to get such a large following (try to imagine some of the other elite candidates cracking jokes in some of these rural areas and people actually break into laughter).
His political message was also broken down into simple memorable phrases that would be remembered by everyone. Everyone in the country knew these phrases and what they meant, no matter what education level they were at.
In his first attempt at getting power from the MMD, he had a simple unique analysis of the economic problems Zambia was facing: high taxation. And he created a simple phrase to sum up his plan: “more money in your pockets,” which everyone knew would come from low taxes — or so he claimed. No matter who you asked, they knew exactly what that meant. Contrast that with, for example, candidate Godfrey Miyanda’s “village concept,” candidate Elias Chipimo’s “8 values,” and so on (I actually can’t even remember any catch phrases from most of the candidates, if they ever had any).
Sata didn’t try to preach a million things that the government was doing wrong or give a million technical plans of what he would do. He simply told people that he would reduce their taxes at work (for those who work) and on their purchases (for everyone), and everyone understood him. It’s the same message that is driving the tea party movement in America today, and Michael Sata started it before there was a modern tea party movement in America, although the logic itself is very old. (Of course, like all the other candidates, he also added some unrealistic populist promises in his message – just to make sure).
In his latest attempt at power, his leadership has again provided textbook lessons in effective mass communication, as he popularized a very strange phrase that went around the country: “Don’t kubeba.” The phrase was apparently taken from some musician’s song, and Sata adopted it as his party’s unofficial slogan. The term meant simply, “don’t tell them,” and it had a variation that Zambianized the English word “don’t” altogether (“donchi kubeba”). The unique message behind that was that people should receive everything the incumbent president and his party was giving them as a bribe for his reelection, whether through his party or through government projects, but that they should still go and vote him out because their vote is a secret. He explained to them that the money the president was using was theirs after all, so they could feel no guilt in pretending to be in support of the MMD, while in their hearts knowing who to vote for!
The symbol for the “don’t kubeba” master strategy was a very infectious action of just putting one’s finger across one’s lips (shhh!), which virally caught on with many people, especially the younger Zambians. This was the kind of marketing genius that would make the marketing executives of Coca-cola envious. On his campaign poster, Mr. Sata was simply pictured with his finger across his lips, and everyone instantly knew what it meant. In previous campaigns, the focus was on the party’s logo – a boat (that’s supposed to represent the message of salvation from poverty and destruction, like Noah’s ark), which was also another innovative achievement in lateral-thinking mass marketing, as he also made sure that everyone remembered it with a persistently inviting catch phrase (“pabwato!” – “on the boat”).
So, I have no doubt in my mind that this is probably the most effective all-rounded executive that Africa has ever seen holding the office of president. But this does not mean that the country will be better.
It is possible that Zambia will become the worst country on the continent, or it will become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, if not the number one. Either of these results will happen very quickly. Zambia will either go the direction of Zimbabwe within a year, or it will go into double digit growth rates almost as quickly. There is no middle ground with this man because of his unique talent at getting his plans executed quickly. It’s one thing to implement a project when you are working under the general policies of someone else, but it is quite another thing to implement ideas while you also hold the power to decide the general policy direction of the government. You could easily achieve very bad policies and take everyone to hell instead of taking them to the promised land.
Let’s hope he will ignore some of his unrealistic populist promises (including his former controversial statements on the Chinese, or quickly building modern houses for everyone, etc) – which will send the country backwards very quickly. Let’s hope that he will concentrate instead on his radical taxation plan, which will take the country very quickly to number one. It’s his call.