LUSAKA,– Attacks on foreign-owned shops and violence in the run-up and after the general elections have marred Zambia’s peaceful records of the year 2016, Xinhua reports The southern African country prides itself on its relatively peaceful society and a history of holding peaceful polls. Both faced challenges in the year that will soon come to an end.
In April, shops belonging to former refugees, mostly from Rwanda, were attacked by local mob in Lusaka, the country’s capital, as they suspected the owners to be behind a spate of ritual killings that had hit some parts of the city.
In macabre killings that shocked the nation, seven men were found dead with body parts missing in various densely populated areas of Lusaka. The killings stoked suspicions against foreign businessmen, though police later said none of the four arrested over the killings were foreigners.
According to reports, at least 62 foreign-owned shops were looted in the ensuing riots. More than 250 local people were arrested. This is the worst attacks on foreigners that occurred in Zambia since the country got independence in 1964. The country is known for its hospitality, having hosted thousands of refugees fleeing civil unrest in their countries.
Though the government quickly moved in to quell speculations about the attacks’ xenophobic nature and condemn the attacks as acts of criminals who took advantage of the rumors to loot from shops, the image of the country has definitely suffered a blow.
According to the Economic Intelligence Unit, the attacks highlighted challenging economic situations in the country. Analysts say high unemployment levels among young people could have fueled the attacks as many young people took advantage of the situation to loot from foreign shops following the rising cost of living.
Some of the looters told local media that the government had failed to protect them as they have allowed foreigners, especially Rwandans, to takeover businesses in their communities. According to figures, Zambia’s unemployment rate has averaged 14.44 percent from 1986 until 2014.
The lack of formal employment has forced many people to venture into the informal sector and the emergency of foreign-owned shops which seem to do better than locals may have sparked resentment among local people, with some even accusing the foreigners of using “magic” in their businesses.
An even more alarming wave of violence hit the country in the run-up to the August elections, when supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) burnt properties of their opponents and battered those wearing clothes belonging to the other side.
Some experts believe the uneven political playing field, such as the unfair application of a law that governs public meetings and procession, could have fueled the violence as opposition parties were angered by numerous cancelations of their rallies while the ruling party had unbridled freedom to conduct their own.
Some of the violence was instigated by the police who stopped rallies of the main opposition party even after they had obtained permission. According to the Zambia Elections Information Center (ZEIC), a multi-stakeholder platform that brought together stakeholders in the run-up to the elections, key stakeholders such as the country’s electoral body and the police did little to manage the situation.
The coalition further indicated that animosity between the two major parties remained and despite signing peace accords to end violence, nothing came out of such as it was “cosmetic.” The general elections were also challenging as it was the first time the country held five elections at once, including choosing a president, lawmakers, local government leaders, city mayors and a referendum that was meant to enhance people’s rights.
The elections were also held under an amended constitution that provided that a presidential winner must get more than 50 percent of the votes and have a presidential running mate. The outcome of the elections, which saw President Edgar Lungu and his PF being re-elected, resulted in further violence in opposition strongholds, with a number of properties belonging to members of the ruling party being destroyed.
After the polls, the main opposition party felt the vote was stolen and accused the country’s electoral body of presiding over fraudulent elections. Although the opposition party’s decision to have the election results overturned was rejected by the Constitutional Court, the party is currently appearing in other courts over the matter.
ENHANCING GLOBAL IMAGE
Despite the negative publicity the political violence and attacks on foreign businesses have given to the country, Zambia’s international profile reached a crescendo in 2016 through hosting of several high-level international conferences.
This not only enhanced the country’s profile but boosted the country’s tourism with the huge number of delegates attending the events. Among the high-profile events was the 134th Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly in March, a gathering of parliaments from across the world.
The five-day event, which run from March 19 to 23, saw over 1,500 delegates descending on the Zambian capital to be part of the proceedings. About 700 of the delegates were members of Parliaments of various parliaments. By hosting the event, Zambia joined two other African nations, South Africa and Uganda that have hosted the event on the African soil.
According to a statement issued by the organizers, the hosting of the IPU Assembly was a testimony of the high level of confidence the leaders of the region had in the ability of Zambia and its leaders to strengthen democratic principles.
Other high-profile international events included the 51st Annual Meetings of the African Development Bank and the 42nd Meetings of the Board of the African Development Fund (ADF), both held in May.
“PAINFUL” ECONOMIC MEASURES AHEAD
On the economic front, the economic crunch that hit the country in 2015 following a decline in commodity prices and a power shortage continued into 2016. According to Finance Minister Felix Mutati, the country faced a number of challenges which resulted in growth declining to 3 percent in 2016 from the projected 5 percent, although it is expected to marginally rise to 3.4 percent next year.
The economic growth, the lowest since 1998, has been attributed to lower copper prices as copper exports account for about 70 percent of Zambia’s foreign exchange earnings, while low water levels in key reservoirs due to poor rainfall worsened the power deficit.
Industrial observers have called for resolute action to restore macroeconomic stability and pave the way for a return to high, sustained economic growth. The finance minister has announced an Economic Recovery Program while a planned bailout financing package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is planned for this year.
Among stringent measures that forms the recovery program were removal of consumption subsidies on fuel, electricity and agriculture inputs, which have been a drain on resources. The government further plans to cut its expenditure and instill fiscal discipline.
So far, subsidies on fuel were removed while plans to remove the other subsidies are expected to be done next year. Lungu was candid when he said his government will undertake serious economic measures which will be painful but necessary.
“I have five years now which is sufficient time to take more decisive action. I will take measures to grow the economy and control expenditure. Some measures will be painful but they will yield results and by 2021, people will reward us for having taken such action,” he said after winning the elections. However experts believe that the government needs to do more on fiscal discipline which has spiraled out of the way, resulting in the country recording deficits.
“What’s key at the moment is to have that medium-term plan which in a credible way addresses the fiscal imbalances. What is very clear is that if there is no action, particularly if the fiscal deficit stays at the level of nine percent or so of the GDP, then there is going to be a big problem,” Tobias Rasmussen, IMF Representative, warned during a discussion earlier in the year.