ZAMBIA: “Zambians love to vote”
Thomas Cromwell

Unlike many African states, Zambia is peaceful and its people are fully engaged in the democratic process. “Zambians love to vote,” Ambassador Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika told in a recent interview. Many in rural areas walk miles to polling stations, and in urban areas lines start forming hours before the 6am opening time. The ambassador discussed the recent elections, the revitalized copper industry, discoveries of oil and gas, Chinese investors taking up opportunities passed over by American companies, the fight against the spread of HIVAIDS and other issues.  

Recent elections
These were the best-prepared elections ever. The Electoral Commission, led by Justice Irene Mambilima, an outstanding Zambian woman, did a remarkable job in preparing the Zambians for elections. Sometimes we emphasize voting day, but what is more important is preparation for the vote. They had good support from the United States and other partners, such as Britain. For example, all the candidates were informed as to who was making the ballot boxes, and all were able to visit and check the boxes for themselves. Also, Zambians said ‘no’ to voting by computer. The preparation was transparent and people participated in it.  

Nevertheless it was the only election out of nine in which we had violence, for about two days. This was mainly in the urban areas. Petitions [challenging the outcome] were only for parliamentary seats, not the presidency. Last time [a challenge to the outcome of the presidential election] took about a year, and there was more hostility between the sides.

Most Zambians now would like to move on from the elections. They are happy with them. The voter turnout was about 77 percent. Zambians love to vote. In the rural areas they are walking the whole day to vote. In the urban areas our voting is 6am to 6pm but at 2am already people are in line. Zambians love to participate. They understand the power of the vote.

Now that the elections are behind us the government wants to reconcile all the differences. Zambia is a peaceful country. It is really an oasis of peace in our region. We have not had a conflict and we helped the liberation of all of southern Africa: Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. All those liberation movements were based in Zambia. So reconciliation is very important.

Seeking private investment
People are looking for basic services. We don’t have too many people working. Our tax base is very low but the people’s expectations are very high. This is why we are encouraging private investment. The government alone is not able to meet the needs of the people. Starting in the early 90s we went through a privatization process that resulted in most people losing their jobs. Almost 80 percent of Zambians lost their jobs between 1992 and 2001. The administration at the end of 2001 had the challenge of addressing this massive unemployment. People who had bought [public] companies sold them and laid off Zambian workers.

When we are looking at investment it is foreign and domestic. Partnerships are very important. Foreign investors can own 100 percent of their operations in Zambia, and repatriate profits, but we are encouraging corporate responsibility and foreign-Zambian partnerships to keep more of the wealth in Zambia.

Development priorities
In the colonial days we were a mining colony, so we have had a tendency to do mining, but this administration has focused on putting our eggs in many baskets, not only one. The number one priority is agriculture. Zambia has a lot of good land and 40 percent of the water in southern Africa is in Zambia. But we need a lot of technology to use the water for farming.

Tourism is our second priority. It has produced the most jobs. [Zambia has some of the best destinations in Africa, including the Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River and 16 national parks, including the second largest after Kruger, Kafue, and some of the richest in wildlife, notably South Luangwa.]

Mining is our third priority. This includes small-scale mining because we have a lot of precious stones. There is a strong group of women called Women in Mining that has been pioneering the mining of precious stones. We are also trying to add value. For a long time people have taken our stones for polishing elsewhere.

Copper prices used to be very good, which is why Zambia was a middle-income country in the 1960s. But the copper was processed in England, creating a lot of jobs there. But copper prices fell and the copper mines were privatized in the 90s, along with other industries. In the Copper Belt we have five towns, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. These mines opened in 1921. But recently, a lot of copper deposits were found in the province next to the Copper Belt. Also cobalt was found. Chinese and Indian companies have bought some of these mines. [New mines and the high price of copper] have really boosted the economy and employment. Mining is catching up very quickly with tourism in the number of people it employs. 

The energy sector is our fourth priority. [Our abundant water] is also useful for generating electricity, and most of our electricity is hydro. Some used to moan and groan about Zambia being landlocked, but a good thing about it is that if you generate electricity with this water, you can sell it to nine countries: Zambia and eight bordering neighbors.

Geological surveys have indicated that we have oil and gas. Right now the government is calling for foreign and domestic investors to explore for it. Since colonial times it has been thought that there were these resources. You could smell the oil. In 1814, in Berlin, when African borders were drawn by colonial powers, there was an effort to distribute resources. Most of the countries have done quite well with these borders.

The problem of cutting forests for charcoal
This started with urbanization. Before that, there was a tradition that you could not cut a tree without getting permission from several leaders, including the village headman. And when you got permission you had to plant a tree before cutting one. With the influx of people to urban areas (often from other countries, for mining), where there wasn’t the traditional system, this is when the tree-cutting started. There was no gas or electricity for cooking. Miners lived in hostels, and started collecting wood and then started using charcoal [made by slow-burning earth-covered wood and sold in sacks].

The Ministry of the Environment and many NGOs are working on this. But many trees have been felled. The campaign is there, but I think we need to do much more. Washington and many other parts of the United States look more African than Africa. We have refugees from other, often unstable, countries. If they see a tree and nobody is there, they assume the tree belongs to nobody, whereas local people know that for each tree there is a criteria system to cut it.

The long-term solution is to find affordable alternative sources of energy. Most people cannot afford electricity. Also, more efficient charcoal burners are being used. A traditional source of fuel is cow dung, but with urbanization this is a limited solution. After South Africa, Zambia is the most urbanized country in Africa, because of the mining industry. Zambia has about 50 percent of the people in towns; compared to a typical 20 percent for Africa.

China’s role
The number of Chinese has increased in recent years. Zambia is part of the United Nations and is looking to partner with any member country that is willing. The Chinese have responded to our call for investors. They have invested in mining, in farming. The potential in Zambia is so high that once they come they see other opportunities.

We have been inviting the United States to come for much longer. We were not even inviting the Chinese before. But we have tried to get the United States to invest in Africa for many years. But the media in the US is very negative about Africa, which tends to be seen as one country. For example, Zambia has never had a conflict, but the media tend to present Africa as a conflict area. Countries like China and Japan just go where the potential is.

We work with the Corporate Council on Africa to interest American companies in investing, but even the companies that are in Zambia, and are doing well, don’t help us. These include Johnson and Johnson, Coca Cola, Land-O-Lakes and Dunavant [cotton]. Zambia has some of the best cotton in the world. American companies that have been there for years are credible. Because of historical ties, most of our trade is with Europe, but US trade is quite substantial. The more the US imports from Zambia, the more we can buy from the US. Many in America think that they will lose if they trade with other countries, but the opposite is true.

The fight against HIV/AIDS
For the first time the administration has been active in the health field. There is a lot of awareness. As a result the infection rate in Zambia, even among young people, has been going down, dropping from 21 to 16 percent. Most people have been either infected or affected by AIDS, and are doing something about it. For example, in my office all of us are supporting orphans of AIDS. The churches are supporting orphans. My sister and I run a community school. We have 550 children, most of them orphans. Even the teachers are orphans. You will find a lot of feeding programs and trying to teach the young people skills.

But the numbers are so great. I think Zambia has among the highest number of orphans (about 600,000) in the region. So although the infection rate is going down, the effects are still high. Many, many families have been affected, and are trying to do something about it. But the problem is so large that we need partners. We encourage the Americans and others to support existing NGOs in Zambia, rather than starting their own, especially in the rural areas.  

The war on terror
When the US embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania it was a signal that nobody is safe. We had better work together. Nobody can say it is a war only for America. It is a war for all of us. Our government is committed to be anti-terrorist. One of the people who bombed London during the G-8 meeting [last year] was found in Zambia the next day. Fortunately our immigration people are very quick and smart, and were able to catch him and hand him over

Zambia has always been at peace, so we are not really security sensitive. We think everyone is loving and peaceful as we are. This is where partnerships with people who have been attacked helps us be more alert and to work on our border security and be more suspicious. Zambians are not suspicious and they love foreigners.

The Zambian difference
Zambians are not violent by nature. It is difficult to explain. There have been instances in our own political history where in other countries there would have been violence. For example, the first government after independence banned all opposition parties. The pressure from the people grew so great that the first president had to succumb to the wishes of the people and allow parties. But despite the intense opposition there was no violence.

Biography of Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika

Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika is currently Ambassador of the Republic of Zambia to the United States of America.  Before her appointment to Washington D.C. she was Ambassador and Special Envoy to the Zambian President during his term as Chairman of the African Union.  Dr. Lewanika served as a Member of Parliament in the Zambian Parliament from 1991 to 2001.  She was the first Chairperson of the Zambia All Party Women Parliamentarians Caucus and also founding Vice-chairperson of the Southern, Eastern and Horn of Africa African Women Parliamentarian Caucus.  At a very critical time just before national elections in 2001, Dr. Lewanika chaired the National Crisis Committee of the Alliance of Opposition Political Parties.  She is a former candidate for President of the Republic of Zambia in the December 2001 Elections.  She is an Educator by profession and has worked in various levels of Education.

Prior to her involvement in politics, Dr. Lewanika worked with UNICEF in key leadership roles in Africa overseeing more than twenty countries at a time.  Jim Grant, the former head of UNICEF once called her “the most knowledgeable person about the children of Africa.”  Dr. Lewanika was among five women from various continents to brief members of the United Nations Security Council on the first and unprecedented debate that resulted in UN Resolution 13 on WOMEN, PEACE and SECURITY in the year 2000.  She was among sixteen (16) eminent African Women Members of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) Committee on Peace and Development, an Advisory Group to the African Union.

She was President of Federation of African Women's Peace Networks (FERFAP) from 1997 to 2002.  As President of the Federation of African Women Peace Networks (FEFAP) she contributed to mobilization of peace activities.   In that capacity, she was selected to be among ten prominent African Women Peace Workers that visited Rwanda soon after the genocide.  She later led a United Nations delegation to Burundi and Rwanda to assess the effects of the genocide on women and children and recommend intervention strategies.  She led the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) Observer Mission of 96 Southern African Academicians, Researchers and Members of Civil Society to the Zimbabwean Presidential, Mayoral and Council Elections in 2002.  She was one of the International Youth Foundation’s founding board members.

The following Awards are only a few of those that have been conferred on Dr. Lewanika:

2006 Ambassador of the Year Award
Jointly given by Howard University and the Women Ambassadors Foundation

2006 Athena International Award
For leadership and improving the lives of others

Other Awards such as the UNICEF Award for Distinguished Service for the children of the World and the African Womanhood Award for promoting African women and being a mentor and role model.

Dr. Lewanika holds a Ph.D. in Early Childhood and Primary Education from New York University.  She is a mother of two grown daughters, a grandmother to four boys and a grand daughter.  She has lived in five countries and speaks eight languages.