Five years ago this month I was shivering in a dark, cave-like polling station at about 2 in the morning as ballots from Zambia’s general election were being counted.
On my left were observers from the opposition, alert for any oddity, while on my right sat representatives from the ruling party, confident of victory in their electoral stronghold. I was the official American Embassy election watcher sent to this old British colonial copper mining district of northern Zambia to witness the voting unfold in one of Africa’s model democracies.
Minute by minute the tension built as the Zambian election official held up each ballot for inspection under the harsh glare of a solar lamp. Then the weary worker brought one ballot into the light, and we all burst out laughing. On the presidential ballot paper, a voter had marked every candidate.
Perhaps that voter made more sense than we understood. No matter who is on the ballot in Zambia’s election on August 12, the country’s biggest issue won’t be showing up.
As many in the international media where I once toiled will dutifully report during election week, Zambia is an impoverished nation struggling with a mountain of debt and the economic fallout from Covid-19, not to mention the whiplash effects of climate change. A cut-and-paste narrative, and a misleading one. Zambia is actually rich, possibly one of the richest countries in all of Africa.
As I once explained to an incredulous taxi driver in Lusaka, Zambia’s assets and advantages add up to wealth that any nation would envy. From Zambian soil comes some of the world’s largest deposits of copper and emeralds, plus gold, cobalt, nickel and coal. Stick a shovel into almost any piece of dirt in Zambia, a minerals expert once told me, and you’re likely to dig up something of value.
Markets abound. Pull out an atlas: landlocked Zambia borders eight nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poised to become one of the world’s most populous nations by mid-century. Access to the Atlantic Ocean, and the consumers of the Americas and Europe, lies in one direction, while the Indian Ocean and Asia’s fabled growth markets beckon to the east via road and rail.
The waters of the mighty Zambezi River and the smaller Kafue offer hydropower, fishing and adventure. Mosi-oa-Tunya, which you know as mile-long Victoria Falls, is one of the planet’s greatest spectacles. Massive Kafue National Park and the Luangwa Valley protect some of Africa’s most diverse wildlife, from elephants to antelopes.
The nation’s farmland is fertile, usually well watered in the rainy season, and capable of producing an abundance. Zambia’s maize harvest is so bountiful this year, the country will export grain to neighboring countries and to the World Food Program for relief aid elsewhere.
What’s more, you can drive from one end of Zambia to the other without fear of a nasty roadblock, a mob or any other random act of ungood. Zambia is calm, friendly, soft-spoken and in most places, utterly serene, laid-back and chilled-out.
This eye-popping menu of wonders surely translates into jobs, rising incomes, good education, quality health care, and full dinner plates for all.
The reality for most Zambians, the proverbial African elephant in the room that won’t appear on the ballot, is rather different.
In this land of agricultural plenty, one-third of children are stunted, from malnutrition or disease. Six in 10 are anemic, and a majority lack sufficient vitamin A. Foreign governments including the United States are propping up the primary health care system.
The average Zambian public school class is jammed with about 60 kids, and the harried teachers likely are owed back salary. The district schools chief probably received less than 10 percent of the expected budget allocation from Lusaka. And teachers struggle to make headway: In a reading assessment in local languages across five rural provinces, two-thirds of Grade 2 students could not read a single word in a passage when given a minute to do so.
Forget about plugging in a laptop or television out in the village. Only 4 percent of rural Zambians are connected to the national electricity grid – which doesn’t have sufficient excess capacity for them anyway. Cooking relies on charcoal, possibly from illegal tree cutting.
The numbers crunchers at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund will talk about Zambia’s sorry score on the Gini coefficient, an exotic-sounding measure of income inequality. What they mean is that Zambia is one of the world’s most unequal nations. Amid all of the country’s riches and advantages, 60 percent of Zambians live in extreme poverty, defined as having less than $1.90 a day. Zambia may offer a preview of what Africa faces as a youth surge in the next three decades strains every facet of so-called impoverished economies.
Mind you, urban Zambia is a different story, with a well-educated middle class, good roads, plenty of malls filled with American-quality chain stores, ample electricity to keep the satellite channels humming, and other trappings of comfortable living. All of this is financed in part by the foreign-aid economy that pumps in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Out there, out in the village where most Zambians live, is the survival economy.
Zambia is not without successes during the past five years. The scourge of AIDS is ending, as the country approaches HIV “epidemic control” thanks to more than $1 billion from American taxpayers and the tireless efforts of Zambian health care workers. This is a remarkable and historic achievement unknown to Americans.
Moreover, Zambia is making fast progress toward developing a digital economy as mobile money wallets and fintech services take off, opening up new routes for economic empowerment. And the country is pushing back wildlife poachers and starting to protect carbon-absorbing forests through smart collaboration involving the government, communities and the private sector.
As someone who developed and last year launched America’s largest democratic governance strengthening program in Zambia under the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, I counted on the insights, partnership, and constructive engagement of Zambian government officials every step of the way. There are plenty of smart and dedicated public servants in Zambia, from village health posts to national ministries.
Zambia has the means and the resources to pivot toward inclusive prosperity. In years, not decades. To spread its wealth across the entire population and allow aid to end and meaningful investment to begin. What Zambia lacks is the political will and whole-of-society commitment to transparent, fair-minded governance that would rally all Zambians to the great work of national self-reliance.
That imperative should be on the ballot. For how Zambia is governed from election day forward will decide the fate of the next generation of Zambians.