Zambia’s President Sata: A Populist ‘Clown’ With Interesting Off-the-Wall Ideas

President Sata at his swearing in.

In September, Michael Sata became one of the very few African opposition leaders to win an election, when he beat incumbent Ruphia Banda to take the Zambian president.

Immediately, he set on a course that has drawn accusations that he is reckless, a populist, even a “clown”.

Going by his outbursts and erratic behaviour, some of that characterisation seems justified. For example, weeks into his rule Sata threatened to dissolve parliament, because he was fed up with the opposition blocking his bills – especially those to do with fighting corruption.

Then, on one occasion, he set out for the tourist-haven of Livingstone, a city at the border with Zimbabwe, where he was headed to meet  ailing Robert Mugabe.

State House prepped his transport, but when Sata emerged, he headed out to the bus station in downtown Lusaka. He made the journey to Livingstone by public bus, and he paid his bill at the exclusive hotel, where he met “Uncle Bob”, from his wallet.

Many African leaders have started out like Sata, but disappointed. Will he hold the course? It is too early to say, but some of the things he has done, which have not made headlines, give faint reason for hope.

After his public bus experience, Sata was shocked by what he saw. He decided that the people he had just appointed to oversee transport and infrastructure were good folks, but not up to the challenge he had witnessed. He fired them.

But it is his treatment of donors that is most instructive. Zambia needs aid, alright, but when Sata looked at the numbers, he saw that nearly 30 percent of aid given to his country NEVER gets to Zambia. It remains in the donor countries, as salary for experts, and “handling” costs.

Sata told the donors the aid was welcome, but the Zambian government did not want to touch any of the money. All Zambia wanted was completed projects, and the donors were free to hire whoever they wanted to work on them, to take on the number of consultants they pleased, and to pay the contractors whatever they thought fit for the projects.

Thus if they were building a hospital, all he needed were the keys to a completed hospital. That threw a spanner in the works. The aid business is a very corrupt business, and some donor officials  get a cut as much as the African officials and politicians.

The aid money needs to come to “corrupt” Africa, because it is the only way the crooked donor functionaries can also get their slice. In addition, there is a lot of political posturing over aid, which is done through cooking the books. If a European Union country gave an African nation $10 million for a project, and kept $3 million, the books would still show that it gave $10 million.

What Sata’s proposal did was to make it very difficult for donors to lie about the amount they are actually spending on the ground. Though I am not yet placing any bets yet on the Populist of Lusaka, in his first 100 days he has been great fun to watch.

©Charles Onyango-Obbo | twitter@cobbo3

12 comments on “Zambia’s President Sata: A Populist ‘Clown’ With Interesting Off-the-Wall Ideas

  1. David
    December 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    Sata did not travel to by road from Lusaka to Livingstone, thats a lie,get your facts right before sitting down to blog… he flew to Livingstone and from there, thats when he got on public transport of which he’s security aids took control of…. and if you had any facts about the AID you ‘ve written about,you could have atleast quoted him where all these sentiments where made.

  2. Ogola Vitalis
    December 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    Be optimistic Obbo,what Sata has done is way far better n bold than even some of Europeans rulers let alone Africa…commend him he has done well av been following I wish Kenya had a Sata

  3. Michael
    December 30, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    I have great hope for Zambia and its good that the election body is one of the best in Sub-Sahara Africa to usher in an opposition party. Better days are ahead for Zambia don’t be surprised if many Africans start flocking it Lusaka for economical empowerment.

  4. mmnjug
    December 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    I think that one on donors is most interesting…… I’ll be watching out for that… Sata handles them might be a case study for the rest of Africa…..esp now that China is getting in here and EU/US feel sidelined by that.

    December 30, 2011 at 4:34 pm #

    Definitely NOT a clown; I would do exactly the same.

  6. Simunza Muyangana
    December 30, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Correction: when Michael Sata travelled to Livingstone, the tourist capital of Zambia, he asked for a public mini-bus to take him from Harry Mwanga Nkumbula airport in Livingstone to the David LIvingstone Hotel. He did not ask to be transported from Lusaka to Livingstone (a 5 hour drive).

  7. Gershom
    December 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    Mr Onyango-Obbo, your fourth para is not entirely true. Mr Sata FLEW to Livingstone. If you decide to twist facts to justify your label of Mr Sata as a clown, I’m afraid your mission has failed, and miserably so!

  8. Robert Okumu
    December 30, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    Beautiful piece. Keep up the good work. May you continue the great work in 2012.

  9. Mukiza Edwin
    December 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    Populism may be fun to watch from the sidelines but the reality of populism is dire to those under it.

  10. Norah
    December 30, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    Populism, it might be, I think that his suggestion about donor grants, if he goes through with it, would certainly be illuminating of the so called ‘participatory development partnerships’. It is a could way of using elimination to arrive at the root cause of the problem of corruption …

  11. Robert Morori
    December 31, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    good piece of work

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    January 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

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