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Country profile: Zambia


Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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Barely four months after he had resoundingly won the election in September 2011, an early-morning rumour did the rounds alleging that President Michael Sata had been assassinated. Wikipedia duly published his obituary. The false rumour spread far and wide, prompting a government search for the treasonable individual who had propagated it.

The rumour brought to the forefront an ongoing debate about who would succeed President Sata in the event of his demise. Opposition parties – the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in particular – cast aspersions on the idea of Vice- President Guy Scott stepping up, even temporarily. The root of their concern was that Scott is white, though the MMD ostensibly based its argument on Article 34 of the constitution. This was enacted in 1996 specifically to prevent the country’s first leader Kenneth Kaunda from standing for President – it stipulates that the parents of elected presidents should be Zambian by birth or descent, which technically rules out anyone whose parents were born before Zambian independence in 1964.

Map of Zambia

The furore has been viewed by President Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) party as an attempt to draw attention away from its zerotolerance stand against corruption, which has won it many internal enemies. The government recently reversed the sale of the country’s largest telecommunication provider, Zamtel, taking back a 75-per-cent shareholding that had been sold under suspicious circumstances to Libya’s Lap Green Network – corruption was suspected, but overturning the deal has provoked a legal challenge that could cost the taxpayer millions.

Sata’s apparent principled stance on corruption is weakened by the fact that his new cabinet is filled with members of his own Bemba ethnic group. This ethnic bias will intensify scrutiny of his performance on one of his main campaign promises – to honour the Barotse Agreement. This was drawn up at the time of Zambia’s independence from British rule in 1964 and made Barotseland (now Western Province) an integral part of the country. All Zambian governments since have failed to fulfil the terms of this Agreement and the province remains the most underdeveloped and most impoverished region of the country. Protests in the province in 2011 were violently suppressed by the police under the former MMD government, and Sata rode to power partly on the tide of opposition there, holding mammoth rallies in which he told locals that he was there ‘to mourn with them’. Now that he has power, however, rather than fulfilling his campaign promise, he is calling for a national ‘debate’ on the Agreement.

Zambian woman from Kitwe, Zambia's second largest city.

Paul Weinberg/Majority World

Zambia is still one of the most politically stable countries in Southern Africa, and its economy has benefited in recent years from the high international price of its all-important commodity, copper. But appalling levels of HIV and AIDS continue to cripple the country and rural poverty persists. These issues require urgent attention rather than the empty campaign promises which have been the order of the day since the country became a multiparty democracy in 1991, following decades of one-party rule under Kaunda.

Maybe Zambia’s victory in football’s Africa Cup of Nations for the first time ever in February will prove to have been a turning-point for Sata and his government. This was a doubly emotional moment – not only were they underdogs who overcame the overwhelming favourites, but they were also effectively consecrating the memory of the national team wiped out in a plane crash in 1993. Certainly, Sata made all he could of the event, mending political fences by flying former Presidents Kaunda and Banda to the final against Côte d’Ivoire. It was a well-played trump card, but after the football euphoria passes the government will still have to face up to the reality of its unpopular policies.

Fact file

Leader President Michael Sata.
Economy GNI per capita $1,070 (Angola $3,960, UK $38,540). Zambia’s economy has been growingat around 6% a year since 2005 andbenefiting from high copper prices– though it is too dependent on thatcommodity. The country benefitedfrom $6 billion of HIPC debt relief in2005. There was an abnormally goodmaize crop in 2010.
Monetary unit Kwacha
Main exports Copper/cobalt 64%, electricity, tobacco, flowers, cotton.
People 13.1 million. Annualpopulation growth rate 2.6%. Peopleper square kilometre 17 (UK 255).
Health Infant mortality 69 per 1,000 live births (Angola 98, UK 5). AIDS remains a crippling problem – the adult HIV prevalence rate is 13.5%, the sixth-highest rate in the world. Almost a million people live with HIV.
Environment per capita 0.2 tonnes (US 20.6). Copper mining and refining causes air and chemical pollution. Soil erosion is also a major problem. Rhinos, elephants and antelope are threatened by poaching.
Culture CO2 emissions per capita 0.2 tonnes (US 20.6). Copper mining and refining causes air and chemical pollution. Soil erosion is also a major problem. Rhinos, elephants and antelope are threatened by poaching.
Religion The 1996 constitution defines the country as Christian but there are many denominations, and traditional beliefs merge into official forms of worship. Small minorities of Muslims, Jews and Baha’is.
Language English is the official language but there are 6 main local languages and over 75 dialects.
Human Development Index 0.430, 164th of 187 nations (Angola 0.486, UK 0.863).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution An estimated 64% are below the poverty line and wealth from copper mining is not benefiting the majority, especially in rural areas.
Literacy 71%. Free basic education was introduced in 2002 but many families still cannot afford the cost of transport and uniforms. Primary attendance is around 80% and secondary attendance around 36%.
Life expectancy 48 years (Angola 51, UK 80). Only seven of the world’s countries have lower life expectancy. AIDS is largely responsible.
Freedom Since multiparty democracy was legalized in 1990, the country has enjoyed the cut and thrust of political debate, with scores of political parties and a vibrant independent press.
Position of women Women are still inadequately represented and unfairly treated, despite contributing over 60% of total agricultural output. Pressure from lobby groups forced Sata to include four women in his cabinet, however.
Sexual minorities Male homosexuality is illegal and punishable by 14 years’ imprisonment.
Previously reviewed 2002
New Internationalist assessment brusqueness and venomous tongue, President Sata does deserve a chance to prove himself. But he has not made an auspicious start – even the urban street vendors who voted for him en masse are now calling him all kinds of names and threatening that he will be Zambia’s first ever one-term President. He will now be hoping for a football-spawned honeymoon.

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