Early Hurdles for Zambia’s Daunting Fight against Corruption

In Zambia, corruption was paramount to writing the former ruling party's downfall

It has been nine months since Zambians voted in a new government. The previous government, led by the Patriotic Front (PF), had succeeded to alienate an inherently vigilant citizenry. Apart from political violence, tribalism, spiraling external debt and general fecklessness, corruption was paramount to writing the PF’s downfall. The increase in corruption had identifiable causes which if addressed can reduce it drastically.

Corruption was mainly due to institutional damage. The PF government compromised and undermined safeguard institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC). The ACC has the power to summon individuals or institutions suspected of corruption while the FIC is “dedicated to providing timely, high quality, impartial and actionable financial intelligence to law enforcement agencies and competent authorities in order to make the Zambian financial system resilient to financial crimes.”

According to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), corruption in Zambia worsened under Edgar Lungu. Zambia’s score was still below 40/100 (which was still bad enough) prior to his ascendancy. In 2021, the new government inherited a Zambia with a score of 33/100 which translated into the country ranking as 117 out of 180 countries sampled for corruption. According to CPI, on a scale of 1 to 100, the higher you go up the less corrupt you are.

There are indications that change might be coming. Almost on a weekly basis, Zambians hear of erstwhile government officials being summoned to answer allegations and charges of corruption. While this might bring some comfort to many Zambians, a proper diagnosis of corruption is needed, and a correct selection of the main players is cardinal.

Corruption increased because the institutions tasked with fighting corruption were undermined. Accordingly, if Zambia is serious about fighting corruption, these institutions, namely the ACC and the FIC, need requisite autonomy to discharge their duties. There is cause for optimism as the ACC has been imbued with a new board, chaired by highly respected lawyer Musa Mwenye.

The executive, without undue interference, plays a pivotal role in the fight against corruption. The PF government had shown inertia to follow up on concerns over corruption. This was brought out most vividly when the former president, Edgar Lungu, ignored and even mocked the findings of the FIC. He dismissed the 2019 FIC report, which cited public misuse of funds, as speculative. The change from Lungu to Hakainde Hichilema was billed as a sea of change in the country’s fight against corruption. However, what Zambians should demand of the current president is to refrain from presidential over-reach in prosecuting suspects and culprits of the former government.

By his own acknowledgment, Hichilema inherited empty coffers from the previous administration.

It is ordinary citizens who had to bear the brunt of Zambia’s freefall in previous years. If those demons are to be exorcised, therefore, there must be an institutionalised, not personalised effort, toward rectifying the mess and holding perpetrators to account. There are concerns however that this has not been the case. One of the first public assurances that Hichilema made to the previous order was to directly inform Lungu that he would be “safe”. Whatever the president meant, this assertion came across as if the president was sparing his predecessor from possible prosecution.

It is noteworthy that when it was clear that Lungu had lost the 2021 elections, he reportedly wanted reassurance from Hichilema that if he agreed to a peaceful transfer of power, he would not be hounded for a raft of charges. Eager to be sworn in as president after having failed to clinch victory on five previous times, so the story goes, Hichilema accepted. If indeed this is true, then it takes the country back to the same things that Zambians decried under Lungu; in a democracy, there should be institutions charged with the prosecution, without personal interference from the person of the president.

What has happened in the interim is that some members of the previous government have been arrested on charges of corruption, one of the most recent ones being Bowman Lusambo, who served as Minister of Lusaka Province. Lusambo comes across as an uncouth and unsophisticated politician who openly gloated about how the price of his wife’s hair could pay people’s rentals.

While such arrests are welcome, people will begin to ask why Lungu, as a captain of the PF’s sinking ship is spared; could it be that his minions, such as Lusambo, did all they did with Lungu’s complete ignorance? Will the ACC have the courage to go against Hichilema’s personal preferences and stick to its mandate objectively? Zambia has a bad history of prosecuting former heads of state for several reasons. However, what was obtained during the Lungu administration, which even the former president did not do a good job concealing, ought to be examined. The current executive will thus benefit Zambians if it strengthens and supports the work of institutions that should punish the misuse of public funds and property. Just like Lungu was not solely responsible for the behaviour of all who misused public funds during his tenure, Hichilema cannot be left as the sole key player in punishing the misdeeds of previous years.

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