NG’ANDU Magande has pleaded with government officials to open their doors and hearts so that other people can help find solutions to what Zambia is currently going through. Commenting on concerns over Zambia’s public debt, Magande said when he was finance minister, he managed to bring down Zambia’s debt from US$7.2 billion to US$500 million because of his open door policy.
On Monday, economist Professor Oliver Saasa said during a briefing that the country now faces some tough choices that will determine how the economy and the lives of ordinary Zambians play out over the next decade.
He advised the government to be honest with the current debt levels and put in place “painful” measures to cut spending. Other civil society organisations attended and gave their concerns at the briefing. And Magande, who also attended the briefing, said he found it very easy to work with people and organisations that were already concerned about the country’s debt situation at the time he served as finance minister.
He said the involvement of civil society consequently helped Zambia have its foreign debt forgiven.
“I want to say that when I saw this list [Monday’s meeting] I recalled that many of these organisations when I arrived in government…all we did was really to organise a way of having conversations with them,” Magande said. “As you recall, the debt issue was not started by government. It was started by Jubilee 2000 and Jubilee was more less an organisation, not of even professional people, I don’t think some of the fathers (Catholic priests) who were there occupied, okay like JCTR, my good friend at the time at JCTR was a very competent economist but he had a following of people saying how are the poor dealt with? So for me, I found it very easy to help people who were already concerned about what the situation was then. All I did was to disband what they were calling HIPC project monitoring committee. I said it was too professional. I wanted other people who were not in those professions to get involved.”
Magande recalled that whenever the International Monetary Fund team came to Lusaka, it had an opportunity to have a meeting with NGOs.
“But what happened was unfortunate that…like I mentioned, the news people at one of the meeting came up with a very negative aspect to the meeting we held, but the IMF said ‘oh, we were lucky that you allowed us to have our own conversations with NGOs but now they are also attacking us, I think you have to defend us’ and I said we can only defend you as shareholders if you allow me to sit in your meetings and that opened up our conversation with the IMF. And whenever they came, we had the NGOs, we had the professional bodies because I didn’t feel…for some unknown reason, I didn’t feel that this was a problem for me alone or for [president Levy] Mwanawasa and that if it succeeded, I would benefit. But I felt that since I had a public job to do, if it failed, I was going to be a person on the platform who would be blamed so I wanted more people to come on the platform so that there is spread of the bad language when it came. They would say that team that was put on the stage, one of them we don’t know him but was not saying the truth and that obviously cushioned against what I thought would be a personal kind of arrangement,” Magande said.
He called for clarity on the debt situation, stressing that information relayed to the people should be in a manner they could understand.
“I am not quite sure this time there is a feeling that whenever perhaps some minister stands, what the minister says is the correct thing. … The people have not participated in cabinet meetings and the way that a decision is relayed to the people out there should be in a manner that they understand…. All I did and every so often…was to go on TV and explain, not as an economist but as somebody who had the responsibility together with the rest of the community to find solutions to our problems,” he said. “At the moment, like I said, this is the beginning and I always pride myself when talking about history that the change in 1991 was started by the Economics Association meeting. It was in a cold June meeting where we were gathered at Pamodzi [Hotel] and we said today we have to make resolutions on what action to be taken. And then we were told that in fact the Special Branch would be coming to arrest us and we went in the car park and we held our meeting in the car park up to midnight, 23:30 and that’s when we said, Aka (Akashambatwa Mbikusita Lewanika) and [Mbita] Chitala were president and secretary to organise Zambians who are interested in this. I think by that time president [Dr Kenneth] Kaunda realised that there was a problem and he didn’t send the Special Branch and none of us got arrested. By the time we were talking about the meeting at Garden Motel, people had forgotten who sat in that meeting,” he said.
“I think there is a sense of other people wanting to have a conversation with government. I want to plead that my colleagues who are there now, in the positions some of us already occupied, should open their doors and open their hearts so that the other people can try to find solutions to what Zambia is going through at the moment, if there is a problem.”
Magande said if institutions like JCTR and others joined in the quest to find solutions to the debt crisis, the matter would be dealt with effectively just like Jubilee Zambia did.
“I have heard quite a good number of you talking about this issue but I think if JCTR joins, the other organisations join, you will also become as effective as Jubilee Zambia and the government will have no choice but to listen even if they are avoiding,” said Magande. “Even at church, a preacher at St Ignatius will talk about it. That is what happens on campaigns on debt and you know what we had to do; I had sleepless nights but we solved it. From $7.2 billion of debt we brought it to $500 million, but it was me who had to sacrifice my sleeping but I am comfortable now because after I left I had to sleep comfortably without thinking someone will come to knock at my door that I want my money.”