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How Mwanawasa ‘stole’ the election

By Joram Nyathi

I DON’T know how it happened that the eccentric Michael Sata lost the Zambian presidential election. Crackpots often win elections. I had already betted that

he would win, what with his promise to poor Zambians that he would boot out the Chinese for exploiting workers and his support for President Mugabe’s land reform programme!

Here is a veritable contradiction, at once fascinated by Mugabe and appalled by his Chinese friends. His Patriotic Front made him sound like a real pal of Zanu PF. He said Zimbabweans were “happier now” and that it was “imperialists” telling lies about the situation in Zimbabwe. He lost.

His percentage tally with incumbent Levy Mwanawasa was 27% against 43%. He claimed the vote had been stolen but that he would not waste his time challenging the result in court. African Union and Comesa observer missions predictably pronounced the election free and fair, and a true reflection of the people’s will.

What was not clear is whether people were appalled by Sata’s brazen assertions that Zimbabweans are happier now or the threat of expropriating farms Mugabe-style. In Zimbabwe it was claimed that Zanu PF won in rural areas because people wanted their land back. This apparently didn’t work for Sata’s Patriotic Front if he was going to adopt the same chaotic approach used by Mugabe. His populist antics boomeranged big time.

His biggest support reportedly came from the urban poor. That has a familiar ring locally. His attack on Chinese merchants must have resonated with the workers who are underpaid. But like his Zimbabwean counterparts in the MDC, numbers count a lot and those numbers are concentrated in a few constituencies in urban areas. The lesson is that when about 70% of the population resides in rural areas, it makes sense to get those votes first before you can hope to get to State House.

In Zimbabwe the MDC has been coy about venturing into what are foolishly called Zanu PF strongholds in communal lands while Sata’s PF must have alienated a lot of voters by hawking Mugabe’s catastrophic land reform. Many of them are already experiencing rising employment on the farms that have been opened up by white commercial farmers chased out of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is importing maize from Zambia grown by Zimbabwean farmers.

Mwanawasa’s style was described derisively as staid while Sata passed for a charismatic leader with a huge following — oh that fickle, flattering and deceptive lot.

What I found edifying in their campaigns was their focus on substantive issues of economic revival, employment creation and health. While Sata promised to “lower taxes, (and create) more jobs and (put) more money in your pockets”, Mwanawasa was modest, refusing to make “sugar-coated” promises.

Instead he talked about what he has achieved and where he was going. He has reduced Zambia’s poverty levels from 80% to 65%, maintained inflation at single digits and secured debt cancellation for his country. The savings are being directed to education, health and employment creation. His anti-graft drive has endeared him to both Zambians and the donor community. He didn’t attack his opponents as agents of imperialists but fellow Zambians who only saw things differently. That should have earned him people’s respect and dignified the entire electoral process.

Sata was full of charisma but proposed policies that reminded people of a political ogre called Idi Amin and President Mugabe, men who will for a long time be remembered for the ruin they wrought in their countries. It is not surprising that he lost the poll although he was decent enough to concede defeat. He should take time to re-examine his fatal tactical errors. What the Zambian voters told him was that they want to move forward, way beyond international brinkmanship of people like Mugabe and Hugo Chavez.

However, Mwanawasa’s re-election spoilt my column. I had expected Sata to win so that I could pen a short encomium for our redoubtable leader who has managed to outpace and outlive every other leader in the region whether they came before him or after.

While people like Nelson Mandela, Benjamin Mkapa, Bakili Muluzi, Sam Nujoma and Joachim Chissano managed only short relays and then passed on the baton, Mugabe has done it all by himself for the past 26 years and there are no indications that his energy is flagging. I hear there is a plan afoot for him to out-rule Kaunda and even see Mwanawasa out.

Nevertheless, there are salutary lessons for Zimbabwe.

Zambia has set a discernible pattern of qualitative transformative change of leadership since Independence in 1964. Despite staying in power for 27 years, Kaunda can boast that he brought Independence to his country, Frederick Chiluba entrenched multipartyism with his Movement for Multiparty Democracy in 1991 while Levy Mwanawasa has turned around the economy.

For all their individual limitations, there is no denying that Zambia is maturing as a democracy on a scale we didn’t anticipate when we got our own Independence in 1980. To say Zimbabwe has been on a steady decline is an understatement. The sad record of that blight goes to only one man who has decided no one else could run this country better.

Could this seriously be called a sacrifice for the love of one’s country or is it for the love of oneself — self-interest that brooks no other interest? For there are times when one is tempted to believe rumours that there are bigger forces keeping Mugabe in that ceremonial position for their own interests. This might partly explain the convoluted and irresoluble succession debate in Zanu PF.

Whatever the truth might be, the Zambian election should teach us one or two lessons as a nation. That includes opposition parties as well. So far we have missed the possibilities that come with a change of guard, a new vision and fresh ideas on the way forward. It is ungodly for any one individual to arrogate unto himself a messianic status over the affairs of a whole nation.

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