The upcoming elections have an interesting coincidence among the four leading candidates so far. Two of them are from the oldest generation of living Zambians, being way past the official life expectancy of Zambia. They were born when Zambia was called Northern Rhodesia, and can even recall taking part in the fight for independence at some level: they’re that old.
The other two are much younger, and sometimes claim an implicit superior right to govern Zambia by the fact that they were born when Zambia was Zambia, after its independence in 1964. The two also believe that they are the best suited to take Zambia into economic prosperity, since the past generations of Zambians have done their part in making political reforms in Zambia.
What is really ironic about this is that the two older guys are bad political managers but good economic managers, whereas the younger two are apparently not so good economic managers but very good political managers. One would have expected the pattern to be the opposite: the older ones should be good political managers (having had longer experience in politics) and the younger ones should be good economic managers (having had long experience in business). But it is not so.
The two older candidates, Rupiah Banda (the incumbent) and Michael Sata, have an approach to economics that will save Zambia economically, but their management of the political environment is much less reassuring, and sometimes even frightening. They are basically like the Chinese government in that sense.
The first place you look when you want to see how good a leader is when it comes to political management is how they treat the press. Russia’s Putin has been roundly condemned for the way journalists have been treated in his country, some of them even losing their lives. In fact, every dictatorial regime in history has had a bad record with journalists, and the biggest sign that a country is now a full dictatorship is when it fully and explicitly curtails the freedom of the press (Zambia was like that during Kenneth Kaunda’s rule).
Both Mr. Banda and Mr. Sata have failed to control their own people (and themselves sometimes) when it comes to the way they treat journalists. Mr. Banda’s MMD cadres habitually mistreat journalists who are opposed to them, and some of his officials try to control the news put out by the public media so that it always favors the ruling party. This is the biggest thing that will put a dent on Mr. Banda’s reputation, and possibly cost him politically. When the public media keeps reporting on whoever praised the president and whoever condemned the opposition, that’s obviously not real news and it will only keep annoying his opponents and those citizens who are supposed to be neutral. People do not like to see such unfairness: it is one of the worst forms of corruption.
Mr. Sata’s party is unfortunately not any better in that regard, I’m afraid. His Patriotic Front has protested the way they are covered (or not covered) by the public media, but this is not based on any moral conviction. When Mr. Sata was in the MMD, there was no evidence that he had any moral opposition to the way the public media was treating the opposition. If anything, he fully took advantage of this unfairness and dismissed those who criticized it. He did not see anything wrong with it back then, and he saw everything wrong with the independent media with whom he is now opportunistically embedded.
In fact, there are people in his party who recently resigned from the ruling party, who are already condemning the way the government controls the media, despite the fact that they even held jobs that were directly in charge of managing public media policy! You have to be a fool to believe that their opposition is sincere and based on principle.
The bottom line is that both of the older candidates are bad with political management. And the way they treat the media is just the tip of the ice-berg; it’s just a sign to indicate their general approach to professionalism. If they can’t allow the media to operate professionally, there is no way they can ensure that there is a professional civil service in general. They can not possibly defeat corruption and other such weaknesses of the political system, when they can’t see what is wrong with the way they manage press freedom.
If you want good political managers, you must look at the younger two candidates, Mr. Hakainde Hichilema, and the new entrant to politics, Mr. Elias Chipimo Junior. There is no way that either HH or EC could control the media, and neither would either of them fight the opposing media or tolerate any of their people who might persecute or control such journalists. They would instantly discipline any party member who would even just utter anything to intimidate journalists.
Economies that succeed sustainably do not set such specific goals; they simply focus on creating an environment that will let entrepreneurs of any kind prosper in their chosen fields. “Clean” energy investment might seem like the big thing today, but how do you know it will be such a big thing in five years or in ten years? How do you even know that Zambia is really best positioned for that kind of investment? The level of expertise required to just determine that fact alone is much deeper than what a lawyer would possibly be competent in. Only entrepreneurs specialized in that area are able to make this decision, and even they could end up being wrong – it’s a risk they take with their money. A politician is the least qualified to determine what can work or not work; this over-confidence by politicians is precisely what led socialist elites to think they could plan the entire economy of their nations, even going as far as setting the “correct” prices for different goods and services – and the result of course was total disaster.
The same over-confident approach is taken by Mr. Hichilema, perhaps due to his similar success in business. His interviews are always filled with discomforting government initiatives that are supposed to directly lift poor people out of poverty. These range from the money he will give to taxi drivers to buy their own cars, to the mortgages he promises to give to school teachers, including very specific details of what he plans to do to cows in those areas that are specialized in cattle ranching, and so on.
It is always the temptation of very smart people to take the approach of directly micromanaging the economy; this is why they habitually condemn the president for focussing on merely establishing solid macroeconomic fundamentals. It is why they do not appreciate the fact that Zambia’s macroeconomic position has improved from a low income country to a middle income country, according to the World Bank, under the management of an older candidate. They want to actually manage the investment details of the country so that they can directly make people rise from poverty through their initiatives.
Professor Clive Chirwa made the similar mistake of thinking he could make Zambia a technological hub if he became president. He may have expertise in one small area of engineering, but there is no way he can just know that Zambia would be best suited to be the technological hub of Africa. Only investors can know this, and only after doing due diligence, and even then they will still be taking a risk because there can be no full certainty; something can always go wrong, because we are not omniscient beings. And yet the younger smart politicians think they can figure all this out from their offices.
Contrast this with the approach taken by the two older candidates who are by far superior in their economic thinking. They take the more humble approach of simply changing the economic environment with policies that make it easier for businessmen to operate.
Economic history has proven beyond any honest doubt that economies that win are those in which government simply plays the background role of making it easier for businesses to make their own decisions. They do not say what should be the main area of investment and neither do they attempt to give money directly to the needy, as this is a costly and certainly unsustainable approach.
When Mr. Sata says “more money in your pockets,” he means this indirectly, not directly. He will not give you any money. He will let you have more money in your pockets by simply reducing your taxes. By making it much easier for people and businessmen to have money to invest, you are creating an environment where they can make more decisions with their money: that’s what makes an economy grow. As much as possible, a good economic leader should be finding ways of reducing taxes for everyone, not just the poor person, but even the biggest company and the richest individuals.
The best economies aim for indirect benefits to their policies, rather than direct micromanagement. Lower taxes, easier regulations, and so on – at the macro level. Banda’s government has already removed the bulk of the unnecessary regulations that made Zambia an unattractive investment destination, including the complex time-consuming processes required to register a company. When businessmen complained about the International Gateway in telecoms that kept costs of international communications high, Banda immediately liberalized it and the prices of international communications came down instantly. Sata promises to go as far as dissolving some of the regulatory bodies like the Energy Regulation Board by reducing their functions to a number that can easily be handled by a ministry. In short, the two old candidates really understand what is needed for the economy to grow, even if they do not understand how to manage the political environment.