Monday, April 08, 2013

Imperialism in Africa Flourishes

An HIV-positive farmer shows his crops to home-based care team trainee, nurse and team leader at his farm in the village of Munyona, close to the town of Chikuni (Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters)

1996 in Lusaka, Zambia.

I arrived in Lusaka to see yet another African city with signs of a better past and a doubtful future.

An economic meltdown, a free-falling currency, millions jobless, zero exports, an albatross-like debt burden, and a bankrupt government – déjà vu Africa.

From 1964 to 1991 Zambia had been ruled by the iron-fisted, pro-communist, pro-nationalist, anti-democracy Zambian independence hero and the first President of independent Zambia – Kenneth Kaunda.

In 1996, he was now licking his wounds as his successor, Frederick Chiluba, was busy wooing the world by doing the ‘right` thing. The right thing then was to bring the multinationals back, open up the economy, remove trade barriers, submit to the draconian conditions of economic aid and debt relief and comply with the Washington Consensus.

Compared to what Zambia was asked to go through then, Greece’s recent plight feels like a school picnic and Cyprus like a post-wedding party!

Zambia had been brought down to its knees – politically, economically and culturally. The much vaunted World Bank programme, HIPC (Highly Indebted and Poor Countries), was seen as the only salvation of this once proud nation. The tenets of this programme centered around giving up almost all of a country’s rights and toeing the line to the new breed of imperialists waving cheque books and not guns this time.

The mood was grim, dismal and volatile.

Yet, this is the same country which on 24th October 1964, became one of the first of the African nations to gain independence and was a harbinger of the great African renaissance. That was a time of enormous upheavals and deep struggle that resonated across the region.
To the south of Zambia was an ever so angry Rhodesia (tacitly supported by its colonial masters) and South Africa (with its apartheid hostilities and continuing cross-border excesses) with a desperately poor Botswana tucked in between. To the east of Zambia, was the then Portuguese-controlled Mozambique and Angola and it was hemmed in from the west by the German-controlled South West Africa. And to top it off, no pun intended, to the north was an unstable, fractured, yet allegedly independent, Congo.

Zambia was thus a distinct ray of hope to the many African nationalists, as it played both host and inspiration to its neighbors in their own struggles. Zambia’s liberation stance and support to its neighbors is legendary and would create indelible marks in the minds of many Zambians for generations. For two full decades, the region suffered a series of brutal conflicts and, finally, hard won independence in all those countries.

Under the mercurial leadership of its first President, Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia became a bastion of good governance, friendly people and a thriving economy. This was also a period when its copper industry boomed but became its dangerously lone staple export.

Ironically, thus, the heydays of Zambia led it to a very different Zambia finally.

A Zambia which slipped from being one of the only African countries in the 1970s regarded as a ‘middle income’ country to becoming one of the poorest, with its nadir being reached in 2000.

During this period the country’s share of global GDP fell from being close to 0.6% to less than 0.1%.

  • Copper – the bedrock on which Zambia relied – went into a seemingly never-ending downward spiral.

  • Agriculture never really took off as more than mere subsistence farming as nobody bothered to create mechanization, storage and distribution channels.

  • Other minerals never quite got going as the world’s Cold War proxy fights made perceptions and realities in the region merge into a self-fulfilling cycle of capital flight and zero investments in future growth areas.

  • Populism – the dreaded word that so often plagues young democracies with impressionable populations, weaved its way through the fabric of national consciousness.

The result was a series of misguided programmes and the nationalisation of mines, farms and industries with little focus on diversification. There was also endemic corruption and a lack of education and healthcare. Panic and uncertainty were created in even the die-hard investors’ minds.

Educated Zambians started leaving, and by the end of the 1990s, Zambia was effectively bankrupt and ready to be colonized again.

And in came marching the World Bank and the IMF. “King George’s men came marching up to the old inn door” with their text books, armchair pundits and a pre-prescribed diet of hitherto untested economic models.

  • Privatise – to attract investments and skills.

  • Remove trade barriers and open markets – to allow free supply of goods and services
  • Remove exchange controls – to make the currency find it true level.

  • Restructure the banking system – to make savings happen

  • Reduce the budget deficits – by cutting spending.

  • Develop contractual and discretionary savings – to create capital

  • Bring in  transparency and an efficient judicial system -  to make it all work
Lofty but non-negotiable and the resulting pain was immense.

An already bloated, underpaid civil service groaned under the cuts, an impoverished and unemployed population had to contend with spiraling costs of utility and services and the masses queued up for food.

State enterprises and mining companies wooed investors with promises of state subsidies and supported large scale retrenchments to make them competitive. The onus of bringing change that was bestowed upon the economic pundits made sure that Zambia kept tottering from one aid package to another.

But mercifully then came the new world from the East.

Charged by a need to feed their voracious appetite for resources, bilateral agreements paved the way for overnight deals, large resource mines were handed over against the promise of building infrastructure, schools, hospitals and roads and money came pouring in.

What the mighty World Bank could not do, these neo-imperialists did, with conviction and panache. Zambia has benefited from these new investments and a new elite has prospered, yet again.

The data shows Zambia well positioned to regain its status as a middle income country again. But hanging on to the coat tails of such marauders and turning a blind eye to the core issues of sustainable development, education, infrastructure and housing means that the last decade could well still be another false dawn.

There is evidence of simmering discontent and doubts in the average Zambian mind questioning, “So, what has really changed?”

The incumbent President came to power on the back of a promise to protect the jobs and economic interests of locals but sweetheart deals continue and the availability of cheap imports of virtually everything under the sun, including cheap labour, makes local manufacturing unviable and untenable and actual job creation only a dream.

Mobile phones have connected the interiors of Africa to the world but the issues of the interiors remain mired in neglect while the elite remains ignorant, irresponsible and irrelevant to the masses and mocks their hopes for a better future yet again.

From ashes to ashes then? One imperialist to the other and only glimmers of hope again.
The poor man out in the villages still lives in a mud hut, tends his cattle and looks at the TV wondering which country Lusaka is in?

A win-win for everyone remains elusive as inclusive growth remains a myth.

Innovation to find solutions around healthcare, infrastructure, energy, ICT, manufacturing and distribution must surely find a way soon?

12 million people await such deliverance. Only then will jobs happen, sustainability creep in and institutions develop to protect and preserve.

The time to engage and create and make Zambia an example for Africa beckons for Indian SMEs perhaps. Their skills have been honed to provide answers to complex mass level challenges in chaotic environments and the evidence is out there.

Quo Vadis India? Africa is waiting…

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