Anti-corruption has been the campaign theme of past and present democratically elected Presidents of the Republic of Zambia (POROZ), which is ironic given how many of them have been accused of being corrupt, though none has ever been convicted. Founding POROZ, Kenneth Kaunda, was awarded a lifetime Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani International Anti-Corruption Excellence (ACE) Award in 2019 for his dedication to fighting corruption. Levy Mwanawasa (POROZ 3) established a Task Force that nabbed officials from the previous administration, including his predecessor Frederick Chiluba (POROZ 2) who was accused of stealing $58m. Chiluba was later acquitted as was the Rupiah Banda (POROZ 4), accused of stealing $11m from a Nigerian oil deal. Michael Sata (POROZ 5) was investigated for corrupt practices in 1992 when he was a government minister and a decade before he became president. The administration of Edgar Lungu (POROZ 6) topped them all with cases that shocked the country and led to his defeat on 12 August 2021.
Hakainde “HH” Hichilema (POROZ 7) has promised zero tolerance on corruption and to strengthen the fight against misuse of public resources. Corruption has become so endemic in Zambia that people sometimes struggle to disguise it from what should be the norm.
Corruption in public procurement
Corruption is most endemic in the procurement of public goods. Road infrastructure is Zambia’s third highest budget expense after domestic and foreign debt repayments. It is also the most corrupt. One kilometre of sub-standard road, which develops potholes by the next rainy season, costs $1m in Zambia compared to a good quality, long-lasting road in South Africa which costs $250k. Contracts are awarded to political friends and cronies, including one company registered as a stationery shop. This has given birth to a new profession called “tenderpreneurs”.
Oil and fertiliser procurement are the other key sectors where contracts are inflated, and the spoils shared between government officials and suppliers. The government subsidises the agricultural sector via a Farmer Input Support Program (FISP) where fertiliser is a key input. Zambia’s fuel pump prices are among the highest in the region – mainly because of corruption which inflates the costs across the petroleum value chain.
The medical sector has not been spared. A $17m contract was awarded to a yet-to-be-registered company which later distributed expired drugs, including paracetamol given to infants.
Corruption in the provision of government services
Bribes or ‘buy me lunch or a drink’ is a common practice when visiting government offices and getting services such as a new passport or national registration card, getting a driver’s license, registering a business, getting a business license, opening an account with a state-owned utility company, etc. Getting land registered is especially problematic as there are multiple, unnecessary steps and an expectation of reward to “do you a favour”. It has also been alleged that previous presidential gatekeepers charged investors money for an audience with the president. Nothing is sacred.
Petty corruption by the police
The most annoying form of corruption involves police at traffic checkpoints. These usually spring up around key holidays like Independence Day (October) and Christmas when the police need extra money for booze. They are sometimes flexible and happy to take goods instead. In offices, some police demand a payment to issue police reports and it is not uncommon for them to issue a ‘charge out fee’ when you call for help, usually in the form of fuel.
How will HH deliver on his ‘zero tolerance’ promise?
HH is independently wealthy, and many believe that his administration is less likely to be as corrupt as his predecessor who was a failed lawyer prior to joining politics. However, as we’ve seen in Kenya where corruption has increased under the presidency of the fabulously wealthy Uhuru Kenyatta, this theory does not always hold in practice.
The first step will be to ensure that HH and the people he has entrusted to deliver for the next five to ten years are completely above aboard. The new administration will need to institute a strict compliance protocol to ensure that all outside business interests are declared and all conflicts of interest are avoided. In the past, politicians and the people around them used their new power as an advantage to fast track their personal businesses. Politics is about public service – it is not a place for people to make money and get rich. Levy Mwanawasa banned ministers and senior officials from bidding for contracts in 2003, but this precedent was reversed, and people used proxies to continue building their empires. Living by example and reversing the Zambian psyche that politics is a fast track to riches will be the biggest challenge for the HH administration.
The second and more important step will be to empower the very institutions that were set up to monitor corruption such as the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Zambia Public Procurement Authority (ZPPA) and Auditor General’s office. These institutions operated under challenging circumstances in previous administrations and were unable to discharge their duties effectively. What is interesting to note is how quick they are to pounce on corrupt officials whenever there is a change in government. It is reassuring to see that these offices continue to do their job despite being unable to act until they have the freedom to do so.
The third step will be to stamp out petty corruption such as paying the police a bribe to avoid a fine. The cash economy is the biggest enabler of petty corruption and going cashless will introduce a digital trail that disincentives corruption. Technology has evolved to allow offices and every police checkpoint (if necessary) to have a mobile point-of-sales device. All government institutions should stop accepting cash payments. Period. Government can also establish a hotline for people to report public servants seeking bribes. Better yet, set up a TikTok page and invite people to upload videos of these encounters. Name and shame to beat people at their own game.
It is not the responsibility of HH alone to stamp out corruption: every Zambian needs to take collective responsibility to rid the country of the biggest drain on public resources. Corruption is holding Zambia back from becoming a true economic and political powerhouse in Africa. In the words of Barack Obama: Yes, we can!