When the evenings of fifth Republican president Michael Sata’s days on earth dawned, a battle for the soul of the Patriotic Front ensued. President Sata was less than two years in office, but his health began to fail him.
The secrecy that surrounded his health did not help matters. Officials in the ruling party mistrusted each other; schemers and supposed kingmakers converged in dark corner meetings to plot their moves. Various names were thrown around.
In one corner were the likes of former secretary general Wynter Kabimba and his contingent of elite private businessmen and women, and occupying the other was the Bemba speaking legion led by former defence minister Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba (GBM). And between them was the outspoken Roan MP Chishimba Kambwili had his own “Jerabo” and Copperbelt following.
Bob Sichinga, Emmanuel Chenda, Miles Sampa, Mulenga Sata and even former first lady Christine Kaseba were among the others jockeying for position, intensifying their contest in tandem with the decline of President Sata’s health. And with the PF’s second-in-command Mr. Guy Scott technically out of the running, the office seemed all the riper for the taking.
But Edgar Lungu, then a minister in Vice President Scott’s office, was nowhere near the political chess board. Instead, he dutifully went about his business in his usual humble-yet-effective manner. As a result, when President Sata embarked on what was to be his final departure from the country, he handed the reins of his party to his most loyal minister.
But the hand-off did not come without a fight.
A cool, calm and level-headed politician, President Lungu, the former MP from Chawama, was thrust into the limelight. Nevertheless, he remained true to his principles, and carried on in the same fashion that had earned him the respect of his late predecessor. Even when under extreme attack, President Lungu stood tall and paid no attention to what many deemed to be petty politicking.
By then, he’d held was holding significant roles in the party, including that of
Secretary General and Minister of Defence in the government.
Having served as PF Secretary General and Zambia Minister of Defence, his eventual ascendance to the PF top leadership in 2015 transpired without the kind of drama stirred by his detractors. And even though he assumed this new role with only a month to campaign, Mr. Lungu went on to State House with a healthy mandate.
And today, the PF Central Committee has entrusted President Lungu with the task of carrying out the same development agenda that had previously catapulted President Sata to office. Yet even still, his candidacy for next year’s general election has attracted its fair share of opposition, both from within and outside of the ruling party.
Those who never accepted his ascendance to the PF top role have yet to abandon their desperation and have scandalized his leadership relentlessly. And the opposition UPND are equally hostile toward this man who, in their view, comes from too humble a background to deserve the highest office in the land over their perennial nominee.
But the core of the Patriotic Front and their supporters across the country see President Lungu for what he is: the best man for the job.
After mounting a one-month campaign in 2014-15, President Lungu defeated the UPND’s veritable monarch, Mr. Hakainde Hichilema, whose name in 2016 was appearing on the ballot for the fourth time in 10 years.
As one might expect, the PF Central Committee’s selection of President Lungu as their candidate for 2021 is tantamount to rattling the hornet’s nest that is the UPND.
Yes, President Lungu will meet the undemocratic Hichilema for the third time at the ballot in 2021, having defeated him in 2015 and again one year later.
But the UPND is not in their frustration. Echoing their objections is the Zambian Socialist Party, formed by a minor group of former supporters of the ruling party. And still others, under such banners as the Rainbow Party and the National Democratic Party, are working tirelessly to see the incumbent’s reelection bid fail.
No matter, even if they managed to consolidate their organizations, combine their resources and coordinate their efforts, these minority opposition groups hardly threaten to replace their common rival. For President Lungu, whose time, energy and attention are occupied by such pressing national issues as climate change and national debts, those vying to remove him from office are a distraction at best. The national development agenda has been and will remain a State House priority.
Under his management of national affairs, he has re-organised the Ministry of Finance with the appointment of Dr. Bwalya Ng’andu as minister, a move widely credited with restoring stability to and global confidence in the financial sector.
And President Lungu’s decisive action against Vedanta, the abusive majority owner of Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), the country’s largest, has won him hearts of many in the Copperbelt.
Today, even amidst liquidation proceedings, management of KCM has stabilized the mining sector on the Copperbelt. And when new owners are identified, one of the country’s largest sources of revenue will be on track to significantly contributing to the GDP.
But even such objectively positive moves as this have been targets of the opposition, such as Roan MP Chishimba Kambwili who’d previously attempted to capitalize on the disgruntled elements that were taking advantage of Vedanta’s delinquency.
And when President Lungu’s prudence shone through in his State of the Nation address, where he made the politically costly decision to address the effects of climate change on the country, his entrenched opponents shielded their eyes, covered their ears and opened their mouths.
This is despite the fact that climate change poses a greater threat to Zambia (and its neighbors in Southern Africa) than perhaps anywhere else on Earth. The challenges this global phenomenon presents to the country are lost on no one, but the opposition would rather fight Mr. Lungu at every step rather than admit he’s correct. It’s now been several months since this pivot toward climate action and they’ve yet to budge, even as hydropower facilities sputter and food supplies dwindle.
And on anti-corruption, President Lungu has further re-organized the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to streamline operations. His action has divorced the ACC from an institution that became known as an agency used by politicians to settle political scores. In short, the initiative is helping the institution win back the lost confidence. But true to form, his opponents have yet to commend, let alone recognize this progress.
And on the issue of attracting greater international investment, the Head of State has recently returned from official visits to India and Japan, two of the world’s largest and most promising economies, with dozens of new agreements and memoranda of understanding in hand. Here, too, the president became the target of irreverent criticism.
Thanks to international co-operations and agreements, visitors to Zambia are witnessing grand scale construction with cities and townships receiving major upgrades. The road networks in Lusaka, Kitwe, Ndola, Chingola and Livingstone are a marvel to ride on, but avowed members of the opposition claim they see only broken pavement and potholes.
So how, then, might President Lungu and his Patriotic Front earn the favor of his political adversaries? The answers to such questions are not so obvious. Though I would venture that their dual compulsion to fight and reluctance to cooperate will ultimately be their undoing. But that remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, perhaps the best course of action for President Lungu would be to carry on as he has been, and provide still more evidence, still more proof to the opposition and the electorate that his leadership is what the country needs to move forward.