IN September, Michael Sata became one of the very few African opposition leaders to win an election, when he beat incumbent Rupiah Banda to take the Zambian presidency.
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% 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.