Zambia’s President: ‘You cannot eat democracy’
I KNOW the rough edges of an imperfect democracy.
Until 2021, much of my adult life was spent in opposition in Zambia. Charges of treason and 15 stints in jail came with the role. But as the 2023 Summit for Democracy begins in Washington DC — co-hosted by my nation along with the United States, South Korea, Costa Rica and the Netherlands — two questions are paramount in the global search to protect and rejuvenate the democratic process.
First, what measures can countries around the world take to improve democracy within our own borders? And second, how can we collectively create the international conditions in which democracies will flourish?
The former requires introspection. In Zambia, a national conversation has begun about our democracy. One-party rule came to an end in the early 1990s and we are still a young democracy forging our path. With an average age of 18, our citizens are also young. Few remember the struggle for a multiparty system. It is important my generation hear what democracy means to them.
My two predecessors took an authoritarian turn. As mismanagement destabilised society, rights were suppressed to retain control. Across the nation dissent was quashed and protests dispersed. To overcome rigging in the 2021 election, the people had to turn out in numbers beyond the simple majority required to oust the incumbent. Since then, my government has returned our democracy to health, shoring up the civil liberties the people demanded: the right of assembly, an end to defamation laws that challenged free speech, and removing the death penalty.
But you cannot eat democracy. Human rights may sustain the spirit, but not the body. Particularly in young democracies like mine, governments must deliver economically if they are to retain the people’s consent. When multiple administrations fail to do so, disillusionment can grow not just with them but with the process itself. Few will subsequently fight when it’s on the line.
I came to office with no illusions about the hurdles my country faced. In late 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt –though the global crisis was not to blame. Reckless borrowing and profligate corruption had gutted the economy. When my predecessor took power, debt stood at 32% of gross domestic product. By the time he left, it had ballooned to 120%. Before the election, food inflation had topped 30% while annual inflation stood at 25%; more than 40% of adults could afford only one meal a day. Panicked because the people would not take such deprivation any longer, the former president went into pork barrel overdrive, exacerbating the debt crisis.
After the election, there was initial progress to restructure Zambia’s debt and return to the path of stability. Talks have since dragged on. The International Monetary Fund says the impasse poses a threat to the economy. I would argue it is also a threat to our democracy.
Zambia has undertaken reforms in anti-corruption, transparency, and management of public funds. These difficult and potentially unpopular measures are required to restore credibility.
But if citizens do not see democracy improving their lot — if no economic relief follows — the system will feel the strain.
Of course, debt restructuring is complex. In Zambia’s case, it includes a variety of creditors — from multilateral institutions and countries to private lenders and asset managers. Mid-pandemic, as the credit crunch took hold and the cost of borrowing rocketed, the Group of 20 established the Common Framework to deal with such complexities. It lays down a set of principles around which debt-distressed nations and creditors can come together to negotiate restructuring.
But despite the reforms Zambia has undertaken, the format is proving cumbersome and bureaucratic. The resulting delays are putting pressure on the local currency, prices are once again creeping up, and much-needed international investment is blocked. Perversely, the debt run up by an autocratically disposed predecessor are stymying a democratic government’s provision of economic security for its citizens. This system does little to strengthen democracies.
This is not a gripe about my country’s troubles. We are only the first in a long queue of nations in a looming crisis. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 54 countries are facing severe debt stress; and 25 of them are in Africa. More will enter the G20 Common Framework. A swift and comprehensive mechanism is required to replace today’s ad hoc, slow and messy process. Without reprieve, many democracies will face existential pressure from the people. There is a danger that widespread dislocation and instability will follow.
Then the questions will begin: What has democracy done for me? Why this chaos? Do we need to turn to a firm, steady but autocratic hand? These are the dangerous prologues to democratic unravelling.
We cannot simply parrot lines about how democracy is good for citizens. It must be felt. Democracy is delicate. We cannot let debt damage it in the tumult.
About the writer: Hakainde Hichilema is the President of Zambia.–Bloomberg.