African nation weighs return of a ruler

June 07, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

LUSAKA, Zambia -- This was the first country in Africa to see its Big Man -- the ruler who seemed entrenched for life, the one with his picture on the money and his portrait everywhere -- peacefully leave office after losing an election.

It may now become the first African country to invite its Big Man back.

That would be Kenneth Kaunda, now 71, the charismatic figure who was Zambia's only president from the time Britain granted it independence in 1964 until he lost the country's first multiparty election in 1991. And now one hears kind words about Mr. Kaunda and little but complaints about his elected successor, Frederick Chiluba.

Mr. Chiluba has presided over the painful process of creating a free market economy. He has done much of what Western donors wanted, cutting government subsidies and opening the country to private enterprise. That liberalization has, as hoped, flooded the markets with goods. But it has also brought layoffs and higher prices, most importantly for corn, the staple of almost every meal here.

"When Kaunda was in, there was plenty of money, but nothing to buy," said Richard Chimba who lives in a small village near the town of Mazabuka, summing up the dilemma facing Zambians. "With Chiluba, there is plenty to buy, but no one has any money."

Mr. Chiluba's problem was created by the policies of Mr. Kaunda. During the Kaunda era, Zambia was an island of relative calm despite seemingly permanent revolution in neighboring Angola and Mozambique and chaos in Zaire. But the country's economy crumbled.

When Mr. Kaunda became president, Zambia had rich deposits of copper and some $7 billion in foreign reserves. When he left office, Zambia was still rich in copper but $7 billion in debt. Mr. Kaunda had used the reserves to subsidize the price of corn and almost everything else, propping up state-run industries.

On a per capita basis, Zambia's 7.5 million people now owe more money than any other in the world. This is also one of a handful of countries that have defaulted on loans to the International Monetary Fund. All of this means that Zambia has essentially had to start obeying the orders of those holding its debts.

"What other choice does Zambia have?" asked Malcolm McPherson, an economist in the Ministry of Finance. "If you want to see the alternative, you just have to look across the border into Zaire," a country virtually without a functioning government.

Taking Zambia off the Kaunda-era subsidies was like treatment for an addict -- the withdrawal was painful. Added to that is a two-year drought that has threatened subsistence farmers with famine, plus an epidemic of AIDS that is devastating the trained managerial class.

"When you start doing what we have been doing, with all the dislocations, all the disruptions in life, you have to be a very committed politician," Mr. Chiluba said in a recent interview.

"The going is rough and tough and it is never achieved in a week, a year or even in one term of office. But I do not think our country is ready to take a step backward."

Plans for return

Mr. Kaunda has already announced his intention of running in next year's election. A former schoolteacher, his fame in Zambia dates back to the 1950s when he led the struggle for independence from the British for what was then Northern Rhodesia. A near-legendary figure because of his early support for various liberation movements, he is already campaigning and drawing enthusiastic crowds.

"Mistakes were made," Rupiah Banda, a former government minister and now an aide to Mr. Kaunda, said of Mr. Kaunda's years in power. "I think he learned from that. It changed him. It will make him a better leader. He now knows what it is like to fall."

According to Mr. Banda, Mr. Kaunda knows he should not have turned Zambia into a one-party state, should not have mixed the government and the party, and should have offered subsidies to producers, not to consumers.

Mr. Kaunda, though, has been very short on specifics in his campaign, depending instead on his image as a man who cared for his people in a way he claims the current government does not.

Whatever his intentions, few people think he could actually do much to change the country's course. "Where could he get the money to do anything else?" asked a Western economist in Lusaka. "The country is broke and no one is going to lend him any."

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