Zambia’s economy has been hit by the falling commodity prices a lot harder than many other countries, with their national currency, the Kwacha, falling 45 percent against the US dollar in just months.
The price of copper, Zambia’s main export, has fallen to levels unseen since 2008 (in the midst of the global financial crisis) and China, the main consumer of Zambian copper, is currently suffering a economic slowdown of sorts. Throw in the power shortages and soaring food prices and it would seem that the southern African nation is teetering on the brink of calamity.
So, what does President Edgar Lungu do? He calls for a national day of prayer to end the crisis, banning all domestic football matches and closing bars until 6pm in the process.
When I first heard the news, I laughed thinking that it was one of those crazy Internet hoaxes that will spread online like wildfire. Imagine my surprise when not only was the idea mooted by the president himself, it would actually take place. And so it did this very Sunday.
Addressing the more than 5,000 Zambians that gathered to pray, President Lungu said, “Our God has heard our cries; he has forgiven us our sins and we are sure he will heal our country. We face serious socio-economic challenges”.
Curiously while addressing his citizens, and almost like an afterthought it would seem, President Lungu added, “there are many out there who have brilliant ideas. Let them come forward”.
I honestly don’t even know where to start.
I understand that religion is a big thing in this continent of ours, and I can respect that. However, I have an issue when this religiosity becomes an excuse for inaction and personal initiative. What Zambia is going through economically isn’t a punishment from God, rather it is simply a facet of the international system; there are boon years and there are lean years.
When China was gobbling up all the commodities that it could because it was growing in double-digit figures, Zambians were, figuratively, dancing in the streets because copper prices went up and up. The high prices didn’t come from heaven; they came from Beijing.
As with most commodities, copper prices go up and down, down and then down and up depending on the vagaries of the international commodity traders. It’s the curse of countries like ours that sell our minerals (or coffee and tea in Rwanda’s case) without really transforming them into finished products. Our fates are in the hands of others.
There are a couple of things that we can do to mitigate these external shocks. Firstly, we can save some of the money we make (or invest it wisely) during the good years and use it to tide us through the lean ones. Or, we can invest in transforming our economies, by making ourselves less reliant on export of unprocessed commodities and more reliant on other sectors such as tourism and services.
The one thing that we cannot do is rely on prayers to make things miraculously better. If they actually able to stave off economic downturns, don’t you think we’d already know?
President Lungu, in my opinion, is doing the thing that politicians love to do, which is to pass responsibility. President Harry Truman is famous for putting a sign on his desk that said ‘the buck stops here’. If only more politicians lived by those words we’d have less blame-gaming and more action.
This is not an attack on the Zambian people or their president. Rather what I’m asking is that we take more responsibility for our stations in life and understand that we do have the ability to change our situations for the better. When I look at my country today I don’t see a situation that was handed to us by a Higher Being; what I see are the fruits of hard work, persistence and innovation.
This is not an attack on the religious and prayerful (although certain practices such as ‘seeding’ seem to enrich church leaders and not their flock). I understand that belief in a Higher Being brings comfort to those buffeted by trials and tribulations. What I don’t want to see, whether here in Rwanda or in Zambia, is people waiting for manna from heaven when their fate in their very own hands.