Independance Day

One ZambiaTomorrow Zambia marks her 45th year of independence. During the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 she became the first country to enter the games under one flag (Northern Rhodesia) and leave it under a second. It was a remarkable moment as a Southern African state was peacefully handed over to majority rule – something that wouldn’t be achieve until 1980 in Zimbabwe, 1990 in Namibia and 1994 in South Africa, in each case with a good deal more blood spilt.

At independence, leadership came in the form of Kenneth Kaunda (KK) who introduced his doctrine of Zambian Humanism. KK instilled in the nation a paranoia of many enemies without and the potential for tribal divisions within stressing unity through a one party system and socialism through state intervention. An assertion emblazoned on the national coat of arms – One Zambia, One Nation.

One of his first steps was to consolidate and nationalise key industries including the banks and most importantly the copper mines. In the early 1970’s, the Zambian economy was riding high on the global copper price (inflated in part by the ongoing Vietnam war). As he completed his nationalisation programme, the world was hit by the global oil crisis, copper prices collapsed and the Zambian economy was knocked into a tail-spin from which it has never really recovered.

To his immense credit and despite the ongoing hardship, KK led Zambia to play a critical role in supporting those trying to bring majority black rule to the rest of Southern Africa. At different times Lusaka was home to the ANC, ZANU and the Namibian government in exile. Often this meant cutting trade links with the most developed economies in the region and the most obvious way for land locked Zambia to get its products to the world.

By the 1980’s Zambia was amassing vast amounts of debt and so began a long and ultimately disastrous relationship with the IMF and World Bank. In return for providing loans to get Zambia’s economy back on it’s feet they demanded structural adjustments including the ending of food subsidies, opening up of markets and crucially the privatisation of key industries.

KK, still running a single party state, tried and failed to bring these hugely unpopular measures to the people and after 27 years of rule was convinced to allow multi-party democracy in 1991. Astonishingly, this made him the first African president to hand over power peacefully. He lost the election to Frederick Chiluba and finally the western agencies had found their man. He became the darling of the IMF and World Bank’s by agreeing to immediately implement their radical plans.

For sure the economy needed reform. Nationalised industries were performing poorly, the shop shelves were often empty and national debt was soaring. However the theoretical plans for reform neatly drafted in Washington failed to be implemented in anything like as clean a fashion on the ground, with weak institutions and corruption playing their part to ensure that economic medicine rapidly turned to poison.

The firms to be privatised were arbitrarily decided and their sales poorly executed. Some of the consequences were devastating. Mines sold to private owners lost their incentives to operate whole networks of social support they had once provided and a critical component of Zambian infrastructure was removed forever. Even today the state provision of healthcare and education in parts of the country doesn’t come close to what the mines provided in the 1970’s.

Abolishment of import controls meant that indigenous industries such as textiles found it impossible to compete with large-scale importing (read dumping) of second hand clothing. Reductions in tariffs did indeed put more goods on the shop shelves, but at the expense of manufacturers who left the country in droves, taking with them the jobs that paid the grocery bills to begin with. Liberalisation of the agriculture sector left regions that had once provided a surplus of food no longer able to produce even for their own.

All of these ‘reforms’ meant that during the 1990’s Zambia had the fourth worst performing economy in Africa (saved from the bottom only by the war torn – DR Congo, Burundi and Sierra Leone). While global institutions still praise Zambia for having the ‘most liberal market economy in Africa’ nobody stopped to actually measure the damage that was being wrought on the ground. Unemployment had ravaged the country and a wide gap had emerged between a small group of economically powerful and the mass of poor left behind.

It is hard to explain the impact that all this had on the fabric of Zambian society but to give a facile but telling example. When my colleague was growing up she was a champion swimmer and trained and competed across a network of Olympic sized pools that dotted the north of the country. The pools she swam in and the schools they were based in were all built and run by the mines. Today those schools are either closed or run down to the extent that the pools collect dirt in a long forgotten part of their grounds.

So here we sit today with a country with the best water supply in the region and yet suffering from bouts of food security. An economy that despite repeated and painful interventions is still heavily dependant upon foreign aid and only seems to grow when the price is right for its one great resource – copper.

To be sure there are many reasons for Zambia’s troubles – corruption, geography, politics have all played their part. Special criticism though has to be saved for the economic institutions who ‘came to help.’ Reform was indeed needed but they repeatedly oversaw the drafting of radical plans but were then criminally negligent in the overseeing of their execution. In so doing they broke the first rule of the Hippocratic oath – “First, do no harm”

On this Independence day, I can only say a little prayer that in something shorter than another 45 years, Zambians move beyond this economic fiasco bequeathed to them and enjoy the prosperous and truly independent nation that they richly deserve.

3 Responses to “Independance Day”
  1. Angelo says:

    Ba Berkeley were do you steal some of this information,lol.

    Really interesting piece of information.
    My question is, is Zambia actually independent?

    From my little understanding of the English language independence means NOT RELYING ON ANYONE ELSE (SELF-RULE).

    Obviously in 1964 the literal meaning should have been that of having a black man as president in a country were the majority are black.
    45 years tomorrow. What have we achieved to say we are independent? And what is the meaning of independence in the 21st Century.

    Happy Independence Zambia.

  2. Janno says:

    Happy independance day!

    whatever bad taste that leaves in your mouth after articulating the wish. Equally, the country’s development still gets under my skin. Like your ending note, a little prayer is what I am remaining with.
    Keep the blog up man, great job.

    dutch greetings,

  3. Gráinne says:


    Each week it is a new education. Your blog really gets us all thinking. In this interconnected world I suppose no one is truly independent- and while this has its benefits in the possibilities it offers- countries like Zambia have suffered as a result of unfair policies and institutions.

    It always warms my heart though to hear your positivity through it all. At least putting the arguments out there will provide space and stimulus for conversations to take place.

    Avante Mother Zambia! Happy Independence. We were celebrating at a Kenyatta event in a village outside Derry tonight!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: