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The Baffling Situation of Zambia

The featured photo illustrates an impression you pick up quickly when you first arrive in Zambia’s capital Lusaka. In it, a civilian traffic controller directs traffic at a roundabout that intersects a large south slum and uptown Lusaka.

The high-rise building protruding the skyline is Lusaka’s Hilton Hotel, a luxury four-star hotel, juxtaposed in its location against its immediate surroundings.

We arrive at the Hilton at 8 o’clock for our dinner reservation. As the valet approaches our taxi to get the door, a brawl breaks out about two meters from us. I pull the door shut again and turn to pick up a reaction from Khatondi, sitting next to me in the back of the car.

We give it a few moments. It’s a rowdy group of young men — a quick count reveals about 12 or so. “Soccer?” I ask. “I suppose,” Khatondi returns. Eventually, we emerge out of the car and are both immediately taken aback by a hawker at the hotel veranda with a rough display of second-hand sports shoes.

Throughout dinner, we couldn’t shake off the astonishment that Lusaka had turned out to be. How a country affords to commit miles of centrally located urban land to a military base. Or the massive water tanks that supplied the city and lived right in its midst. Or the scrawny cassava and maize fields in the city, or the fact that if you blinked at the Citi roundabout, you would miss the CBD by the time your eyes opened again.

For a country of 17 million people, Africa’s second-largest copper producer after South Africa, one of the most strategically positioned landlocked countries — anywhere — with its borders to eight different countries, large uranium and cobalt deposits, the situation of Zambia was baffling.

Zambia achieved middle-income status in 2011, during a decade (2004-2014) of impressive economic growth averaging 7.4% per year. However, growth only benefitted a small segment of the urban population and had limited impact on poverty.

The country ranks among the countries with the highest level of inequality globally. 58% of Zambia’s 17 million people earn less than the international poverty line of $1.90 per day — compared to 41% across Sub-Saharan Africa — and three-quarters of the poor live in rural areas.

Meanwhile, Zambia has heavily borrowed from Chinese sources and a large number of these loans are allegedly unaccounted for in the government official figures. Corruption is rife, so rampant the UK, Ireland, Finland, and Sweden all froze their aid to the country last year.

In the first six months of this year alone, USD 260 million came into Zambia from China, adding to the billions of dollars Zambia has already taken from China as part of its USD 9 billion external debt — up from USD 2 billion in only 8 years. After Kenya, Zambia is China’s second-largest trade partner in Africa.

Africa’s appetite for Chinese debt learns no lessons. Even if Africa’s alternatives to Chinese debt compound rather than abate the problem — there is no evidence that suggests IMF interventions are a lesser evil — the continued failure of African governments to manage their economies better is most disappointing.

China continues on its debt-trap diplomacy and the trophy of all foreign financial dominance, hegemony. It’s hard to fault it for its foreign policies of saddling Africa with unsustainable debt through predatory Chinese infrastructure financing and it’s taking over commanding heights of economies like Zambia or Djibouti; they owe us nothing.

Zambian leaders, as in most of Africa, continue to do badly for their people, serving up for them the biggest loss of national sovereignty since independence, poverty, and an all-round blatant raw deal.

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