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Zambia's battered economy resonates on election

Chrispin Mwakideu in Lusaka
August 10, 2016

As Zambians head to the polls on Thursday, tough economic times will be on the minds of most voters. Inflation is high and prices of commodities have gone up.

A street vendor in Lusaka pushes a handcart laden with tomatoes and onions
Image: DW/C. Mwakideu

Nkole Mushula's working day begins at 8.00am and ends at around 6.00pm. The 46-year-old father of one is a street photographer by profession. Passport photos of several people are hanging on a tripod stand that he has improvised in one of Lusaka's busiest streets.

He has plied the trade for more than 15 years but says he has never witnessed business being slow as it is right now. "The business situation today is pathetic. When I first came on the streets, things were better and you could at least go home with a packet of maize meal," Mushula told DW. "Unlike nowadays, when if you even walk away with ten Kwacha ($1.1 euro), it's hard on the streets," Mushula said.

Mushula, who says he will vote for the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), blames the leaders at the top who, he says, are corrupt and think only of themselves. "But we the (masses) are also to blame. We vote for the same people even though they skip from one party to another," he added.

According to the World Bank, between 2010 and 2014, Zambia's economy grew at an annual rate of seven percent. But in 2015, growth fell to three percent as a result of a global downturn and local pressures, particularly the fall of copper prices. Zambia is Africa's second biggest copper producer after the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Street photographer Nkole Mushula holds up a banner with the face of the opposition's candidate
Street photographer Nkole Mushula supports the opposition's candidateImage: DW/C. Mwakideu

PF's legacy

The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has adopted as a campaign slogan: 'Look what we have done'. The PF has been selling itself as the party that managed to transform Zambia within the short period of President Lungu's tenure, by initiating various infrastructural projects such as the construction of roads and clinics, and by upgrading schools and extending rural electrification, among other achievements. But for Neo Simutanyi, a political analyst in Lusaka, those claims are only half the truth. "Most of the projects that the PF has completed were started by the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) party," Simutanyi told DW.

MMD was the party of former President Rupiah Banda, defeated in 2011 by the late Michael Sata's Patriotic Front. The MMD is also credited for ending the 27 year-rule of former founding president Kenneth Kaunda. "The issue here is not what the PF has achieved in the last five years," Simutanyi said. According to the analyst, the real issue is the extent to which the PF administration has improved the lives of the majority of Zambian people. "People are concerned about the state of the economy," he said.

60 percent of Zambians are living below the poverty line and 42 percent are considered to be in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Since 1991, the number of the poor has risen from six million to nearly eight million in 2010.

Copperbelt troubles

Zambia's copperbelt has been hit hardest. Following a drop in global prices, mining companies have had to lay off thousands of workers. Taulo Chewe is one of the miners who lost their job: "Life has been very challenging. These retrenchments came at a time when no one was expecting them," Chewe told DW correspondent Kathy Short in the copper producing town of Kitwe.

Machines extracting copper at a mine in Zambia
The mining sector has been hard hit by the drop of the price of copperImage: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Tips-Images

The layoffs led to some of the first incidents of violence prior to the election period, when police forcefully broke up protests against the retrenchment by the miners, the African Arguments, an online site which analyses African current affairs reported.

Lubinda Habazoka, a Zambian economist, said the country is currently in a crisis. "The mining industry is almost not producing and all the related industries are not functioning as they depend on the mining industry," Habazoka told DW.

The President of the Mine Workers Union of Zambia, Nkole Chishimba, said diversification is now the only solution. "It may even mean mining companies going into power generation like one mine has done in southern Zambia," Chishimba said.

Chishimba's view in Kitwe is shared by Mushula, hundreds of kilometers away in the capital Lusaka. The street photographer says the next president should give priority to agriculture. That way, he can be sure of going home to his family with a packet of maize meal.

Kathy Short contributed to this article.

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