The challenge of a New Dawn in a thoroughly damaged country
Those who heard and saw Zambia’s new president Hakainde Hichilema speak during his recent worldwide tours, which were meant to garner support for his fight against corruption and a ‘New Dawn’ for his country, would likely have been tempted to pull out their chequebooks. Here was a man of integrity, a former good governance activist and political prisoner who had succeeded in winning the trust of his people, and the elections, in his country a year ago, ending the disastrously corrupt rule of his predecessor. But a year and a bit after Hichilema’s win, the country is still waiting for the New Dawn’s first signs - beyond the PR, that is.
As we reach for glimmers of change, the brick wall we hit when trying to even contact the government might be the first indication that the road to functionality may be a long one. In State House, the seat of government, the one person who answers the phone does not know the extension for the correct office. ‘I work for human resources’, says a puzzled voice, before connecting an Amsterdam-based colleague to Foreign Affairs, perhaps because they might know what to do with this stranger. As for me, working from inside Zambia, I have been trying for months to get presidency spokesman Anthony Bwalya to pick up on my calls, in vain. The state institutions I have tried have also consistently ignored my questions.
The state institutions have consistently ignored my questions
I know I am not the only one. Trying to get our Zambian government to respond to questions about what it is doing for the public, with the public’s money, has always been such a waste of time that few of us try anymore.
No quick fix
Of course, no one in Zambia, where, despite billions in donor aid, sixty per cent of the population still lives below the poverty line, expects a quick fix. Especially not after the ten-year reign of previous president Edgar Lungu, whose clique’s looting incurred a debt of US$32 billion that still weighs heavily on our country of 18 million. We know we won’t get good health care, schools, or a clean environment overnight. But we need roads. As our president tours the world, advertising our abundant copper and other mineral resources to investors, the same investors will likely frown when noticing the mud, large cracks and ditches in front of toll gates on even our most important routes. The 300-kilometre road trip from Serenje to Mpika in northern Zambia part of the Great North Road gateway to East Africa, which in times long past used to take three hours, now takes over five. Without good roads, the promised economic rebirth or the New Dawn itself may not happen.
The provisional good news is that even despite our country’s debt, there is supposed to be money for roads. We know this because many of Zambia’s roads come with toll fees. According to a parliamentary report in 2022, the Michael Chilufya Toll Plaza on the Ndola-Kitwe Road alone generates about 12 Million Kwacha (US$750,000) per month. This translates to about 144 million Kwacha per year (US$9 million) on one road that has four toll plazas from Lusaka, the capital to Kitwe on Zambia’s famous Copperbelt. Other roads generate similar amounts. Recent totals are unavailable, but on paper, the entity that collects the toll fees, the National Road Fund Agency NRFA - a statutory body under the Ministry of Finance - has collected abundant amounts for years now. According to its own report over 2019, more than 2.449 billion Kwacha (US$ 59.2 million) was paid into it by motorists in that single year, an increase of 16 % when compared to the previous year. On paper at least, the NRFA is exceeding its targets.
So why is there so little visible proof that the money is used for maintenance, repair and upgrade of roads, which is literally the sole job of the NRFA? Travelling throughout the country in the past year and before, besides the occasional filling of one or two potholes I haven’t seen or heard of any proper repairs being done, or even started.
The roads agency put collected toll fees back into state coffers
Part of the reason for this may be that, according to Parliament’s Transport Committee’s report, “funds collected from road tolls, which formed part of the road fund, were directly deposited into the Single Treasury Account and thus mingled with all state funds, thereby making it difficult to segregate the Road Fund and access it for its intended purpose of road construction, maintenance and rehabilitation”. In plain English: the NRFA, which was established under the Ministry of Finance to use road toll fees for work on the roads, simply put all its collected money, un-labelled, back into state coffers kept in the Ministry of Finance.
Simultaneously, it says in the same report, it did commit money to contractors in several places in Zambia for repairs as well as new roads, but too ‘thinly spread’ to actually effect such outputs. An equivalent of US$62,5 million was pledged to contractors “(who) had worked and presented performance certificates”, but were not fully paid, the committee found: “funds were thinly spread across to reduce the debt burden.” The report did not explain how the NRFA had managed to accumulate a staggering total debt of 7.3 billion Kwacha (US$474.7 million) in the first place. If ‘part of those liabilities’ was the US$62.5 million owed to road contractors, where did the other 413 million US$ go? Why had the NRFA, instead of trying to pay off this debt, put collected toll fees back into state coffers?
I have called the NRFA at least three times to ask these questions and also sent an email. I have also called the Infrastructure Ministry, firstly to ask what the Ministry is doing with its own road budget of over 500 million US$ for this year, and secondly, to ask if it is a good idea for the dollar-pressed Zambian state, at this time of fundraising for the New Dawn, to maintain a separate Road Funds Agency of close to 600 civil servants with salaries, when the institution clearly suffers from bad and wasteful management.
Again, it needs editors from Amsterdam - what is it that catches our own leaders’ attention when the phone call comes from the West? - to start bombarding the State House with emails and phone calls, for me as a Zambian to be offered an interview by a Zambian official. But I count my blessings and present myself for an interview at the newly built sprawling shiny multi-storey building next to Independence Avenue, the road to State House, where I am to meet with Danny Mfune, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development.
The department needs more money
Mfune’s first response to the question of the deplorable state of our roads is to emphasise the need for more money. He insists that the present ‘resource envelope’ of 8.035 billion Kwacha (US$ 507 million), 7 % over the annual budget of K7.751 billion (US$ 485.150 million) - of which the lion’s share is paid by donor countries - is nowhere near enough. “This New Dawn government has decided that we need to bring on board other financing mechanisms or options.’ He adds that there are ‘several road projects’ in the pipeline, but that these are waiting for Public-Private Partnerships with the private sector.
So why are toll fees then not being used on the roads, I ask?
“The Tolls Act says that the money collected on a particular road is not supposed to be solely used on that road”, is the answer. “All the tolls collected go into the road fund to be used on all the roads. This is to not disadvantage citizens who may not have a toll road in their vicinity.” But asked if there is any example of a road that has been worked on solely by funds from toll fees, he admits that he ‘doesn’t know any of such roads’. He is certain though, he says, that ‘part of the money we use for rehabilitation (in general) is coming from toll fees.’ That would be those occasional pothole repairs then.
‘Pressure from the people’
Mfune then proceeds to explain the general debt problems of his Ministry due to ‘overcommitment’ and ‘over procurement’ during the previous administration, which he calls ‘these authorities who were there before us’. Puzzlingly so, because Mfune was also the Permanent Secretary under previous president Edgar Lungu’s minister Ronald Chitotela, at the time when the Ministry was notorious for massive procurement contracts running into billions of US dollars, among these the cancelled US$ 1,2 billion Ndola-Lusaka dual carriageway and the massively overpriced Ndola-Kitwe toll plaza which cost Zambian taxpayers US$ 4,3 million. And while Chitotela is in court on corruption charges, the Ministry he led is unchanged.
The Minister is in Court, the Ministry unchanged
But according to Mfune, the over-procurement was solely the result of the administration’s wish to accede to ‘pressure from the people.’ ‘People want to see roads, there are so many roads that people point at that are not in a good state. So (…) the authorities who were there before us overcommitted… there is always this appetite by those in authority to go by what people are demanding,’ he says. ‘By the time it was realised there was so much on the table, it could not be commensurate with the resources. It was too late. A lot of debt had been accumulated. Unfortunately, we started experiencing economic challenges. That is why we find ourselves in this situation.’
Asked why the government maintains statutory agencies like the NRFA, which are a drain on its meagre resources without performing much, Mfune only responds that such agencies ‘were created because of the situation that the government went through when this business was being done through the central government’ and repeats that the previous administrations’ ‘overcommitment’ was the source of the problems.
Phoning from Amsterdam
Now literally itching to put certain questions directly to Hichilema’s New Dawn presidency - about civil servants from the old administration, public sector reform and getting the government to work after decades of opacity and unaccountability, for example - the miracle happens: again, through intervention from Amsterdam, we obtain an interview with Anthony Bwalya, Hichilema’s personal spokesman.
Some changes have been made, says the spokesman
Bwalya readily agrees that there is a need for public sector reform. “The President has made that clear.’ But he doesn’t believe that to achieve such reform, a lot of the old bureaucracy needs to go, or old administrators fired. ‘Of course, new appointments will be made only on the basis of competence and qualifications. And we have made some changes. There are new Permanent Secretaries in a number of departments, and new directors here and there, and of course new ministers. But we cannot act against people based on partisan accusations or because they were political appointees previously.’ Bwalya says the President believes that ‘what is important is the tone at the top, the message that is sent out from the top to the public servants. Previously, with all the governance failures, the tone at the top had collapsed. We have now set strong basic criteria for procurement, for example.”
But Dr Neo Simutanyi, public policy expert and executive director at the Center for Policy Dialogue (CTPD), is not so sure that a new tone will be enough. “Can they inherit a structure and hope they can change the behaviour of people in that structure? But how? The structure influences the way people behave. Even good people get corrupt because they work in a corrupt system,” he says.
‘The executive is overly dominant and lacks accountability’
An extra problem for the New Dawn may lie in the lack of effective oversight institutions that can challenge the government and the state. ‘The system of political patronage renders all state institutions virtually beholden to the President. There is no real separation of powers, which (makes) the executive overly dominant and lacking in accountability,’ explains Dr O’brien Kaaba, lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Zambia. In his view, only a new constitution can address this issue. ‘Past reforms have not helped shift the power structure in any way. Even recently established institutions, such as the Office of the Public Protector and the Constitutional Court are of little use (as long as they don’t have real independent power.)’
Political will and a pay rise
As to the recently established team at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in Zambia, the jury is still out. Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa, the modern history lecturer at the University of Zambia, observes that, on the one hand, the appointment of the highly regarded former Attorney General, Musa Mwenye to chair this body, inspires optimism, since under Mwenye, several high-profile former officials who were untouchable barely a year ago, have been arrested. On the other hand, Sishuwa fears that without prosecutorial powers, the ACC may remain toothless. Hichilema’s spokesman Anthony Bwalya disagrees. ‘We are a country of laws. We do not need new laws, we must just use existing ones. What failed in the past was a lack of political leadership and political will. These are there now.’
For now, perhaps to inspire trust and loyalty to his ‘new tone’, President Hichilema has, recently offered pay rises to the entire Zambian civil service.
Charles Mafa is a multi-award-winning veteran Zambian investigative journalist. He is a co-founder and managing partner of Makanday, Zambia Centre for Investigative Journalism. His features and investigations have appeared on BBC radio, in the Mail and Guardian (SA) and the New York Times (US), and in many other international publications.