On July 16, Robert Rotberg, President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and an American professor in governance and foreign affairs, published here on Think Africa Press an article entitled ‘Zambia: King Cobra Disappoints and Confounds’. The overriding argument of Rotberg’s piece was that “President Sata's many promises in 2011 have so far amounted to little but disappointment”. His commentary, however, is misleading and lacking in evidence.
The most serious flaw of Rotberg’s piece is its lack of context. Rotberg presents his narrative as though Sata and his Patriotic Front (PF) party have been in power for a very long time or even a full year. He contends, for instance, that Sata and the Zambian government have not dealt at all with the suspected failings of Chinese investment in the country, created jobs or improved the provision of social services. Rotberg remarks: “When President Michael Sata was elected in late 2011 by a clear majority of Zambians fed-up with the 20-year rule of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and thirsty for change, no-one expected him to underwhelm, disappoint, and confound as much as he has.”
What the professor does not emphasise is that Sata and the PF have been in power for only about ten months. There are certainly many challenges with foreign investment – both from China and the West – but to expect Sata to have dealt conclusively with such a major global player as China in such a short period of time is expecting too much.
The challenge of job creation is undoubtedly real too but, like the Chinese question, it should also be contextualised and understood as a result of unsuccessful free market economic policies pursued by previous MMD governments that led to job losses over its two-decade reign. US President Barack Obama who has been in power for almost four years now is still grappling with the issue of unemployment. Rotberg judges Sata as though he too is nearing the end of his first term.
It is true that Sata and the PF have not achieved many of the things they promised the electorate. But to present them as though they have done nothing at all, or in the words of Rotberg, to have “underwhelmed, disappointed, and confounded” is an aversion to reason and neutrality. His view passes a definitive verdict on Sata and the PF’s ability to deliver on their campaign promises, unmindful of the fact that theirs is a five-year mandate. A realistic and comprehensive assessment of their performance can only really be given towards the year 2016. It is simplistic expect Sata to deliver on all his post-election promises in less than a year.
In his piece, Rotberg cites a Human Rights Watch report which found Chinese investors in Zambia wanting. But this report was discredited and had many shortcomings. Instead of going to the tourist towns of Livingstone and Mfuwe, it would have been better for Rotberg’s research to visit the Copperbelt towns where most of the Chinese investment is concentrated, and to engage with those working on some of the Chinese enterprises by asking them whether they have noticed changes or improvements since Sata took office in September last year.
Later in the article, Rotberg criticises the government’s regulation that all transactions within Zambia have to be in the local currency, the kwacha. He places Sata at the centre of this move and even interviewed the president on the issue. However, Rotberg stopped short of talking to the Bank of Zambia, Ministry of Finance or any other important officials and actors who also played a crucial role in the decision to ban the trade in foreign currencies.
Concluding with his criticism of Sata’s relationship with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Rotberg says: “President Sata justified his close relationship with Mugabe by explaining that it is easier to influence Zimbabwe by being ‘constructively engaged’ with the president. Mugabe might be more likely to listen to criticism from a friend than a hostile enemy, although there is little evidence this approach has been working so far.”
Rotberg’s views on Zimbabwe are well-known and this is not the place to repeat them. However, his dismissal of constructive engagement as a useful and mature method of dealing with Harare unfortunately parallels the broader Western approach to Zimbabwe. Furthermore, it invites the question: is the current power-sharing government in Zimbabwe between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) not a product of constructive engagement?
Perhaps Rotberg is suggesting that Sata and the Zambian government should be used as instruments for helping to oust Mugabe, an objective that Rotberg has pursued for a long time. As Andrew Mlangeni told him when Rotberg advocated military intervention on humanitarian grounds to oust Mugabe, “the job of changing governments is the responsibility of the people concerned”.
Finally, some of Rotberg’s comments in making his case are simply misleading. For instance, Rotberg says many Zambians cannot understand why Sata often visits Mugabe. While it is true that Sata and Mugabe have met on a number of occasions since Sata's inauguration, it is worth pointing out that Sata has only been on an official visit to Zimbabwe once.
All this leads up to the question of whether Rotberg’s recent visit to Zambia was for tourism or research. Did his views arise from what he observed and learnt as a passer-by rather than a researcher? Was his trip taken simply to legitimate and confirm, rather than challenge, his previously held views on most matters such as Chinese investment and Zimbabwe?
Rotberg is entitled to his point of view. However, if he was writing as a journalist rather than a researcher, he should have said so because his views are extremely influential in Western establishments and they help shape the foreign policies of many governments.
Editorial note - further reading:
Robert Rotberg's article "Zambia: King Cobra Disappoints and Confounds".
Think Africa Press' analysis of Sata's first 90 days in government as the PF leader had claimed on the campaign trail that he would change the country within 90 days of his election.
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