Politicians have commented on President Lungu’s speech and it is only fair that the public get an objective review of the speech from independent commentators too so as to have a balanced score card. This article attempts to highlight some positive aspects of the speech as well as some important issues that were missing from the speech – given our present dire economic situation – either through commission or omission.
The speech was long, wide ranging and covering so many areas which makes it difficult to make detailed comments on each of the areas covered. It could have been a deliberate strategy by the speech writers to confuse us so as to forestall commentators’ criticism given our poor reading culture in Zambia.
In a nutshell, it was more of a speech about the President’s vision and his aspirations for the country for the long term rather than one meant to solve our immediate problems. The emphasis was more on 2064 instead of 2015 and 2016. It is for this reason that my gut feeling is that a substantial number of people were neither moved nor inspired by it as it did not touch their immediate lives. There was hardly any standing ovation to write home about during the speech!
There are some of us who listened to the entire speech for the two or so hours and read the entire hard copy to get an insight of the speech. The first observation is that the speech lacked the passion that some of us are used to from leaders like former US President Bill Clinton, Thabo Mbeki, late Nelson Mandela, late Samora Machel, late Margret Thatcher, late Ronald Reagan, late PW Botha, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, late Frederick Chiluba, Kenneth Kaunda, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe to name but a few, when they are addressing a nation in distress like we are.
It gave one the impression that the President may have had little input in it ( he did not write it nor spell out the contents he wanted in it to the speech writers) because the ownership of the speech was not apparent in its presentation. It is quite possible that it was by and large written by technocrats and the spin doctors. The presentation of the speech was also a bit casual and cavalier.
In as far as the content is concerned; there were many positives in it. Although some of the positive issues that he touched on lacked the necessary elaboration and proper clarity, they nevertheless can make a great difference to our economy if followed up and implemented. The good ideas I am referring to include the following : fast tracking Citizen empowerment, the revitalization of the cooperative movement, mainstreaming tourism and agriculture as engines of economic growth and diversification, prioritization the solving of the load shedding problems, unemployment, prioritization of the implementation the moribund Public, Private partnership (PPP) Act 2009, the issue of street kids and empowering them with skills, review of the public order act, construction of feeder roads and establishing of milling plants in all provinces.
The major weakness of the speech is that it fell short of addressing most of the immediate problems that we are facing as a nation and in fact it actually gave the impression that the President does not recognize them as problems apart from load shedding because he either did not talk about them or he just briefly talked about them or he actually made pronouncements that were going to make things worse! The major economic problems that the country faces are: Budget deficit, trade deficit, kwacha depreciation, load shedding, excessive government borrowing, corruption, unemployment, lack of confidence in the economic management of the country and the high cost of living.
These needed to be addressed with short term solutions and long term solutions provided. The speech mainly looked at long term solutions which may not even implemented and will remain paper plans just as previous similar pronouncements by his predecessors have ended up. The majority of ideas in the speech are not new. The problem the country has had is implementation , follow up , prioritization and lack of political will.
Load shedding is the only problem in my view that he adequately addressed with short term and long term measures. His passion on the issue was palpable. He confidently committed himself to the goal of making Zambia a net exporter of energy within a year. He actually put his head on the block on this one, which was rather impressive! He should approached other pressing problems the same way! He spent quite a bit of time of this issue. He even gave a tongue languishing to Minister of Energy Christopher Yaluma and gave him an ultimatum of three weeks to deliver a cabinet memoranda for the procurement of alternative sources of energy.
The other major problem that the country faces is the huge budget deficit caused mainly by government over expenditure. The President did not address this issue and in fact by his actions, he will make it worse. We expected him to spend more time on how his government was going to reduce the government deficit by reducing expenditure and waste.
Instead, he announced measures that are going to increase the deficit like increasing ministries, reintroduction of Zambia airways, starting to build universities in Luapula and Western province. We expected measures such as suspension of some infrastructure projects, the announcement of reducing government travel, reducing his motorcade, reducing number of personal to holder vehicles to ministers and government officers etc.
If the President started implementing expenditure reduction with budget line items that personally affects him like General Buhari has done in Nigeria and Pope Francis in Vatican, it would convince people that his humility persona is real as will have demonstrated to be leading by example in terms of commitment to deficit reduction.
The cancellation of building him a retirement home is a good start but it will have no immediate impact. These are the kind of pronouncement that could have inspired and excited the public and won him supporters and votes! The deficit reduction measures could also have had a positive impact on the kwacha because like I have said before in my columns, we are part of the international financial markets and sentiments by the President especially, can have a positive or negative impact on the currency. The Kwacha has not improved since the speech and so the market has not been impressed at all by the speech and as it lacked short term solutions which will stabilize the economy which is what investors are interested in!
The problem of excessive borrowing was not addressed. The President did not talk about it in detail at all and in fact he defended the borrowing using the now tired reason of our debt being below 40% of GDP threshold and the establishment of the sinking fund as a solution to repayment. All his administration officials have been parroting this without even understanding what it means nor its limitations and implications! It was apparent that the President does not believe that we have borrowed excessively.
I wonder whether he does realize that our external debt which is in dollars grows every day in kwacha terms as the kwacha depreciates and in the last one month and half months, it has grown by an estimated extra K20 billion! Zambia owes $6.05billion in total foreign debt at the exchange rate of K7.44 a month or so ago to a dollar the debt was equivalent to K45.01 billion.
At the current exchange rate of K10 per dollar the same $6.05billion is now worth K60.05 billion. The question is where are we going to get the extra K20 billion! Also, there is the talk of having established the sinking fund; but nobody asks or explains where the money for the sinking fund is going to come from! And if indeed, the money is found, what is the opportunity cost of the money set aside for debt servicing! Will it not result in less money for schools, medicines, agriculture and other sectors? The superficial analysis and debate on economic issues in Zambia, is sometimes mind boggling.
I have been wondering whether our Opposition have analysts and strategists because nobody talks about the danger that the growth of our foreign debt in kwacha terms poses. They could have used it as a means of providing checks and balances to the administration by continuously highlighting it! The debt has grown in kwacha terms by K20 billion within a month and half by mere exchange loss!
The depreciation of the Kwacha and trade deficit problems did not have any serious mention in the speech at all. We are an import oriented country and the falling kwacha has direct impact on the cost of living and prices have started going up!
Corruption and nepotism is a serious issue in Zambia and worse than the tribalism that the president is passionate about. The scourge is affecting our economy badly and costing government millions of dollars. The President’s speech just made a casual mention of the scourge. We would have expected him to read a riot act to everybody including his ministers that he will not defend anybody involved. He needed to show some passion on the issue so that the public could indeed believe that he is serious about the fight against corruption. He should have even warned all and sundry that State house is not an investment Centre and he will not be seeing investors at State house. They should be going to see ZDA, Ministry officials and line Ministers. Foreign investors going to State house just perpetrates corruption. It is a bad practice copied from West Africa.
There is doubt that the speech did contain a lot of positives and it is imperative upon government that they implement the pronouncements from the speech to have an impact on the economy. It is also a fact that it omitted important problems that require immediate solutions and given that the President had made some indications the week prior to the presentation of the speech , about serious pronouncements about expenditure reductions including the postponement of some infrastructure projects, it is apparent that the final speech was doctored for political expediency.
Lastly, it is vitally important the PF administration should be more tolerant of divergent views either from the Opposition or other stakeholders because that is what democracy is all about. The Government’s reaction through Honorable Chishimba Kabwili, Presidential Aide, Amos Chanda and others, to every criticism is not doing them any good as they appear to be defensive, over sensitive and therefore giving the impression they are guilty conscious and scared of something! There were allowed to criticize when they were in opposition.
This idea of thinking all critics belong to the opposition and after political power is rather shallow. There are Zambians who are educated, experienced, and exposed, who are indifferent as to who ascends to power as long as there are running the affairs of the country well! When a country is poorly managed, all Zambians are affected regardless of their political persuasion. It is not possible to walk with your heads high wherever you live if your country’s economy is poor and mismanaged! We all love our country! It is incumbent upon the administration to feel free and consult fellow Zambians with the knowledge and skills regardless of their political affiliation to solve the problems that our country faces.
The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and a financial management expert. He is an independent and non partisan commentator. He has lived in the diaspora in England, South Africa and Botswana for over 25 years.