LEONARD Hikaumba says instead of sustaining perpetual hostilities, stakeholders in Zambia must reason together and see how the country’s mountain-high debt crisis can be resolved.
He cautions that indebtedness risks the country’s sovereignty.
Hikaumba is the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) vice-president in charge of politics and a seasoned trade unionist.
He is a former president of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
He started by talking about how it has been for him to transition from labour to mainstream politics.
“It’s really not very difficult to transition from a trade unionist to conventional politics. Industrial politics is not far away from conventional politics, only that the scope when you are a trade unionist is narrower, because you are mainly advocating for the workers,” Hikaumba said in an interview.
“But this time the advocacy goes beyond the workers – it includes everybody else. So, that is what it is. Of course, as a trade unionist you don’t take any partisan position.”
He, however, noted that conventional politicians were inclined towards their political party.
“You become partisan and so, that’s the biggest difference [between industrial and mainstream politics],” he explained.
Asked for any inroads that the MDC has so far made, Hikaumba responded that the party has hit the ground running.
The MDC is headed by former finance minister Felix Mutati and was launched on October 12, 2020 in Lusaka.
“We were quite focused right from the start. So, the level we have reached already is more than what one would expect a new party to have achieved,” Hikaumba said. “So, we’ve made quite some significant progress.”
On Zambia’s massive indebtedness, Hikaumba pointed out that the MDC, “whose focus is to liberate the country economically” gets worried a lot to have such a huge debt.
“We know the consequences of having a huge external debt – it means whatever monies that you raise, the revenues that you have, the first obligation that you have is towards servicing the debt,” he noted. “So, what this simply means is that with the high debt we shall see more and more reductions in most-needy areas. There won’t be adequate funding. In the end it translates into a lot of hardships.”
Hikaumba advised that going forward, Zambia should generate solid policies and plans, with regards to expenditure and contraction of debt.
He said the country ought to try to grow its own economy so that: “we are able to live within our means, and only borrow when it’s absolutely necessary.”
“Borrowing should be limited to levels that can be managed. We should contract manageable debt which we can easily pay back,” Hikaumba advised. “When you borrow, you must have a solid plan to back you up…”
He underscored his understanding of the implications of debt.
“We had this experience in the late 1990s and this is what we are going through now,” Hikaumba said. “Going to the year 2000, we had to take advantage of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative under which those countries that qualified had their debt written off.”
He recalled that when Zambia qualified as a HIPC country, “we saw the challenges that a Highly Indebted Poor Country has, because we had to stick to certain conditionalities which were, of course, not favourable to us.”
“But we just had to follow them in order to access debt relief and to continue receiving assistance. Now, if you are a highly indebted country, it means your sovereignty is at stake, because you are not so free as to make the sort of decision that you would like to make,” Hikaumba explained.
“You would be tied to certain conditions that might not really be so favourable to the people, to the country. So, there is need to work extra hard to clear this debt and there is need for those in government now [and] all of us, to reason together and see how this debt crisis can be resolved.”
Hikaumba added that it was not ideal for those in the government to ignore or disregard the advice that was coming from other people who were interested in seeing that Zambia gets out of her debt problem.
“It’s (debt) a national problem – it’s one that needs acting together. There is no need for those in office to disregard or ignore the concerns that are being raised by opposition parties,” he said.
Hikaumba decried the way politics in Zambia has been done in the past – growing trend of hostilities in form of name-calling and even insults.
“[It’s] making it very difficult, when it comes to problems like this, for people to come together and say ‘what do we do for mother Zambia’?” he noted. “If people were interacting on the political stage in such a way that…although they may have differences in the way they want to develop the country, it shouldn’t reach the levels of hostilities that we see now – which do not give people an opportunity to meet and discuss pertinent issues.”
Hikaumba further complained about the uneven political field ahead of the August 2021 elections.
“There are perpetual hostilities and they don’t help us and it’s not difficult to end these hostilities. They can be overcome if only people are willing and ready to dialogue meaningfully and reasonably,” he said. “We must have some level of trust in one another.”
Hikaumba also stressed that if there was a conductive environment for political dialogue, “probably we could not have even reached this stage.”
He recalled instances when advice was being given that the government should not over-borrow.
“I do recall even when I was a labour leader; we saw that being highly indebted is a very big hurdle, not only for the government to meet the needs of the people, but also for the workers. Their financial situation becomes extremely difficult,” Hikaumba said. “For instance, those days there was a conditionality that government was not supposed to spend more than eight per cent of GDP on personal emoluments. So, you can imagine going into negotiations and there is this conditionality from the international financial institutions. So, those are the issues.”
He said if there was room for effective dialogue, there would have been discussions on how to revive Zambia’s economy.
“I recall one time there was an indaba where so many things were suggested – that was during the MMD era. So, suggestions for development are there,” noted Hikaumba. “But what is important is for the government of the day to harness the different suggestions and engage the people who are suggesting, to see how workable their suggestions can be.”