IMF squeeze tests the patience of Zambians: Hardship is increasing and could mean trouble for the Chiluba government, writes Karl Maier in Lusaka

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The Independent Online
AFTER paying for two bags of maize and for housing, Martin Lichomwa has little left over from the pounds 30 he earns each month as a night watchman.

'My salary is more or less enough for rent and food and to pay off my debts, but at the end of the month I cannot buy clothes or save anything,' said Mr Lichomwa, who works 12 hours a day, five days a week.

He does not have enough money even to buy a few imported goods to sell on the black market in his spare time. 'Things are more available now in the shops but the problem is that they are too expensive,' Mr Lichomwa said at his two-room brick home in the N'gombe township on the outskirts of Lusaka.

'In the old days even if you had money things were not there to buy.'

Three years after taking power in a landslide victory over Kenneth Kaunda, the shine on President Frederick Chiluba's government is wearing off in the townships around Lusaka, where the pain of the International Monetary Fund-backed structural adjustment programme is increasingly severe.

The Chiluba government has become a test case in Africa, promoting democracy and capitalism in order to reverse the continent's economic decline.

Whether or not President Chiluba's Movement for Multiparty Democracy wins a second term after elections in 1996, the successful passage of further reforms depends partly on continued Western financial support, as well as on increased economic prosperity for urban dwellers such as Mr Lichomwa, who form nearly 50 per cent of the country's 8 million people.

Public concern about the state of President Chiluba's cabinet is growing. At least a dozen ministers and deputy ministers have been sacked amid allegations of drug running and corruption. On Sunday, two deputy ministers were dismissed for 'gross indiscipline and impropriety', after they criticised the government's plans to privatise the Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines, the main foreign exchange earner.

Mr Chiluba is widely credited with maintaining a more open society than his predecessor. Zambia's political openness and the right to speak out wins points with town dwellers such as Mr Lichomwa. 'At least there is freedom of speech, and you can say what you want.'

Some of Lusaka's elite would not agree with that assessment, especially journalists at the Post, a rowdy newspaper that was heavily critical of Mr Kaunda but which, since the election, has turned its guns against Mr Chiluba's party. The Post is facing nine libel cases that have been lodged by the government or members of parliament.

'We feel it is persecution, not prosecution,' said Masautso Phiri, editor of the Post. Stories about corruption and drug running, not to mention headlines such as 'Chiluba smokes dagga (marijuana)' and 'Chiluba is a twit', have earnt the government's wrath.

But the fact that the paper has been able to continue publishing has given people courage to air their own, more individual, grievances. 'I would like to tell Chiluba to bring down the prices of food,' Mr Lichomwa said.

'The general necessities are just too expensive. The government is fine, but it has not moved to help the social well-being of the people. We have no water, no health clinic and no school. It is too much to ask people to wait for so long. I would like to see some positive changes, but so far there are not any.'

It is not surprising that the government lacks the funds to invest in infrastructure. Much of the dollars 1bn ( pounds 630m) pledged by Western donors this year has been used to help Zambia to maintain its balance of payments and service its foreign debt which, at dollars 6.5bn, makes the country one of the most indebted in the world. Zambia is, in fact, a net exporter of capital to the IMF, to which it will pay at least dollars 62m this year to remain in the fund's good books.

This means that the government, which has instituted a 'cash budget policy' of spending only the revenue that it has in hand, has few funds with which to deliver on the promise of economic well-being that it made to the poor during the elections in October 1991 .

As Mr Lichomwa was speaking, five children of his neighbours were sitting on his veranda. None of them was in school. The only school in the N'gombe township is private, and its monthly fee of 1,000 kwacha, (about pounds 10) a student is too high for most families, not to mention the additional cost of uniforms, books and writing materials.

Mr Lichomwa is luckier than many of his neighbours in N'gombe. His boss, a white Briton, helped to pay for Fabian, his son, to complete high school.

But the nearest source of water is a pipe, which works only sporadically, about 500 metres away, and two boreholes that are not equipped with pumps to bring the water to the surface. The closest health clinic is in a township a 30-minute walk from N'gombe.

Mr Lichomwa says that conditions in Lusaka are better than those in the countryside. A Lozi-speaker, he quit his job as a maker of straw mats in 1983 and first found work in Lusaka with the air force, tending a garden.

He left his mother and five brothers and sisters in the Western province and has no intention of going back. 'There is no work there, just suffering and surviving.'

(Photograph and map omitted)