Zambians look to newly reelected leader for economic miracle
Lusaka, Zambia — With the ease of a well-rehearsed performance, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda mounted the steps outside this city's high court earlier this week to take his sixth consecutive presidential oath. Waving the white handkerchief that has become his trademark, the graying leader yet again pledged to do his best for the southern African nation that he led to independence 24 years ago.
But the ceremony, and the preceding election in which Mr. Kaunda (the only candidate of the country's only party) walked away with a 95.5 percent ``yes'' vote, is likely to prove the easier part of his agenda for the year.
All eyes will now be on Kaunda to perform an economic miracle for this once-prosperous, copper-rich nation which has seen living standards fall by 45 percent over the last decade.
And on that score the President may ``find himself caught between a rock and a hard place,'' says a Western diplomat in Lusaka, the capital.
Less than two years ago, Zambia erupted in riots after a 120 percent rise in the price of the staple, corn meal. The price increase came under an International Monetary Fund-sponsored economic recovery program. Kaunda made a quick U-turn, broke off the IMF program, and launched his own ``new economic recovery program.''
This aimed to generate sufficient resources internally to finance a restructuring of the economy more toward agriculture, an area Kaunda now admits the nation had neglected at its own peril.
To save desperately needed foreign currency, repayments on Zambia's $5 billion debt was limited to 10 percent of export earnings.
Imports were kept to a minimum through a vigorous substitution campaign that included such measures as replacing Coke and Pepsi with fizzy drinks made of local fruit.
But the results have been disappointing. Starved of crucial spare parts and machinery, the productive sectors of the economy are grinding to a halt. Zambia has been unable to take full advantage of rising copper prices and the good rains of last season. Almost a quarter of its bumper corn harvest rotted for lackof transport storage depots.
Last year, Gross Domestic Product shrunk by .2 percent, the budget deficit accounted for an unacceptably high 14 percent of GDP, and inflation rose to 35 percent, the government said.
Zambian officials say the country needs a massive injection of foreign currency to pull it out of these doldrums.
But that means going back to the World Bank and the IMF, organizations that also hold the key to other donors that have withheld money until the country resumes a restructuring program.
The billion-dollar question in Lusaka is what Kaunda will do now - especially with a budget reading scheduled for the next few weeks - after conveniently postponing all decisions until after the election.
While few Zambians say they dislike Kaunda - who has forged a nation out of disparate ethnic forces and put Zambia in the forefront of southern African affairs - there is much unsurfaced dissatisfaction with the President's election success.
Though no one doubted that Kaunda would win last week's poll, some had expected a less enthusiastic outcome.
Not long before the Oct. 26 polls, a former Central Committee member of the ruling United National Independence Party, Sikota Wina, made newspaper headlines when he boldly suggested that Kaunda gracefully bow out of power.
Tensions increased when six military officers and three civilians were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup on election day.
But Kaunda had cleared his path to the top. Potential rivals were sidelined or given ambassadorial posts before the August party congress which unanimously nominated Kaunda.
Among the 55 percent of voters who turned out for the election, interviews revealed varying degrees of enthusiasm among those who voted ``yes.''
Although no one was visibly coerced to vote, all ballot papers had counterfoils which carried the registration numbers of voters, theoretically making it possible to determine which way individuals voted. While there is no evidence this happened, some voters say its possibility figured into their thinking.
Although Kaunda still got more than 90 percent of the ``yes'' vote in the highly urbanized copperbelt towns, there were four times as many ``no'' votes in this political hotbed than anywhere else in the country.