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Home More Reflections Elephants in the room Linkages When one Man has too much power

When one Man has too much power

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First Published in VIEWPOINT, Zambia-weekly

When one man has too much power

 During 50 years of increasingly powerful presidential patronage in Zambia, natural selection has played a devastating role in the public service, weeding out anybody of substance and independent thought. It is now downright impossible for the most decent people in government to perform their tasks with any loyalty to the country. Promotions have been consistently nepotistic and neither the Judiciary nor the Legislature has escaped the attrition process. MPs are bought off with such cynical cunning and skill that even the most radical reformists are intimidated.

 Sadly, Zambia’s virtues such as peace, freedom, equality, unity, justice and rights have been steadily choked by the “kamuyaya” (big man) culture - the patronage that became embedded during KK’s 27 year authoritarian rule. Chiluba, despite his pre-election promises to reduce the excessive presidential powers, quickly fell into the same trap. “I never knew power was so sweet,” he told us at the first MMD caucus in early 1992 at State House, dwarfed in KK’s oversized throne. He got a smaller chair made in time but it was too late; jobs and appointments were already awarded for loyalty and not merit and within months, we knew we had lost the battle against dictatorship again.

Those who refused to support the new patron left the MMD while us newbie’s stayed on to consolidate our own constituencies in the hope of surviving the purge. The Chiluba loyalists played the attrition game with the remaining independent thinkers; appointing, disappointing, buying off debts, isolating and intimidating where necessary and by 1996, internal resistance was minimal and once again it paid to belong to the party in power. Champions of national virtues were again fighting from outside government as they had done in colonial times. Some believe that Mwanawasa intended to break the patronage system but I think the overwhelming evidence is that he too got entangled in its magic spell. My old friend Rupiah Banda appears to have no complexes about milking patronage for all its worth – he was always the classic “big man “.

 Let us not underestimate how patronage undermines development, justice, law and ultimately the wellbeing of the land and her people. The president appoints all key jobs in the Judiciary, the Executive, the Electoral Commission and the vast Cabinet within the Legislature based on loyalty not merit. The fourth estate, the (state-owned) media cannot tell the objective truth. Business too tows the line, blackmailed by permits and licensing. Under a patronage system there can be no separation of powers essential to an effective, working democracy. Worst of all though, people stop thinking, taking responsibility and initiative – it’s safer to wait for orders. One might as well go back to the customary authority which at least has strong traditions and the fear of Gods to coax good virtues.

 How can we break the culture of patronage? Zambians have tried constitutional reform, improving public service salaries and fought corruption, but there has been little change. Why would any president risk losing control of Zambia’s current economic boom? The leverage for good governance from the international donor community has weakened and poverty debilitates efforts by civil society to mobilise public resistance. People are too busy scratching a living to object en masse.

 Break the brutal presidential patronage and public servants including judges and MPs will begin to behave normally – they are not ignorant; everybody knows exactly what needs to be done! Perhaps, this year a benevolent president will beat the patronage and then willingly dismantle it. Or maybe we’ll limp on like we are and allow a new elite class evolve to rule us for a thousand years.


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