Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Zambia’s Democratic Governance Deteriorating

Zambian President, Michael Sata

Sata has no numbers in parliament and his fear is that his unpopular choices that commit public spending to programmes that subtract value from the core goals of public policy may not get approval if set before parliament

By Nyalubinge Ngwende
The more things change, the more they remain the same, so goes the old adage. Unfortunately, when Zambia changed government in September, 2011 things did not just remain the same, they have deteriorated. We are at our worst at present because President Sata has refused to work with an opposition dominated parliament, choosing to marshal his major decisions without the recourse of the elected national assembly. Electorates have slid into amnesia, the constitution has loose ends and cannot restrain him and the opposition leaders lack clout to exert pressure since they are sidelined by mainstream media. 
This could be laughable, meaning easy policy victories for the ruling party, but it is scaring the consolidation of Zambia’s blossoming democracy. It has rendered our representative democracy useless and it is happening with an authoritarian depth and extent that has not been seen since the country returned to multiparty democracy 22 years ago. 

The law requires the president to propose to parliament names of constitutional office bearers before swearing them in, just as he is required to do when making structural changes to government ministries and realignment of administrative districts.  Sata has ignored this legal requirement. His first wrong decision that set him against the constitution was the appointment of Fredson Yamba as secretary to the treasury. When MPs reminded him about this oversight, asking him to reverse his appointment until parliamentary approval, Sata threatened to dissolve the legislative house. He did not just stop there; he has woken up almost every other moon since taking office to create new districts while realigning some. When he took over Zambia had 75 districts, he has created not less than 20 more, barely 16 months in State House.

These decisions that the president has taken, thus far, demand money from the national budget and this means that they should not be unilateral, overriding  the final approval of parliament. Sata was quoted in the public newspapers, reacting to those who criticized his unilateral decisions, saying ‘that he cannot run the country with the ‘injudicious’ opposition members of parliament who seek to frustrate his government development programs’. 

Understandably, Sata has no numbers in parliament and his fear is that his unpopular choices that commit public spending to programmes that subtract value from the core goals of public policy (improving agricultural technology, training teachers, removing barriers to learning opportunities, supplying rural health clinics with medicine, connecting squatter housing to sanitation services etc) may not get approval if set before parliament. He could be scared that his lack of quality in thought maybe exposed in the course of parliamentary debate.

Where does Sata get this narrow view of democracy, thinking that the participation of the citizens in a democracy must end with voting? Why should he think that there should be no divergent voices in parliament on the decisions that he takes, and when there is then he sees it as injudicious?

First the president is getting full approval about all his decisions, including the bad ones, among his diehard supporters and all public media alongside the private Post Newspaper that believes he is a performer working to revolutionize the country, but being detracted by unreasonable opposition. To his supporters, who badly wanted the MMD out of government, the president is infallible.  For them, asking government to urgently deliver on its promises is secondary, as criticizing Sata is regarded as taboo. They are in a mode of let-us-give-government more time, even when first impressions from government indicate PF spending huge resources on lower priorities.

The other problem is that people in this country support things anyhow. The reason they do this is that they use short-cuts to be informed, relying on the grapevine, political slogans, slurred, less thoughtful political rhetoric and compromised media that only covers news and editorial analysis in a manner to please the political party they endorsed. Zambia now has no strong alternative newspaper, The Post Newspaper—which used to be government’s adversary—has renegade and thrown full weight behind the PF government and Sata. 

Further, this is a country were parliamentarians on the front bench choose to surrender everything to the appointing authority, forgoing every right to think through issues with an open and informed mind in the name of collective responsibility, contriving to narrow partisan choices rather than national interests. In short our parliament stands shaken before an all powerful president. 

Sata behaves like an authoritarian who does not want to hear a second opinion. He thinks that the citizens’ participation in the governance of the country ends on election-day.  If you vote then you can follow the leader blindly without stopping to question why. If you question, then you are a hater. That is the predicament that Zambia has been caught in after changing government in the September 20, 2011 elections.

But a crisis that may stem from a situation of a president being all too powerful is that he may overstretch his authoritarian tendencies, all together ignore the necessity of parliament and suspend it. Ignoring parliament takes away the participation of citizens. Zambia is a representative democracy, with citizens electing MPs to represent them on all matters of legislation, policy and programmes and all decisions that affect their lives and have to do with the use of their tax money. We need MPs who will not just rubber stamp whatever the president throws to them.

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