In New Sub-Saharan Leader, Hints of an African Spring

Newly elected Zambian President Michael Sata is bringing populism and technocratic management to a part of the world that rarely sees either but badly needs both

gpz sep28 p.jpg
Supporters of Zambian opposition party leader Sata carry his posters outside the Supreme Court of Zambia / Reuters

Global political pundits are waiting in vain for an "African spring," in which the forces of mass, grassroots democracy course through sub-Saharan Africa, a region arguably in as much need of genuine political reform and civic participation as the Arab world. Ever since the North African countries of Tunisia and Egypt exploded in protest, observers of sub-Saharan politics have observed with envy the seemingly revolutionary activities taking place in the north of the continent.

The Democracy ReportWhile the Arab Spring may be moving to another season altogether -- with Syria's violence and Egypt's drift -- the point remains that what's commonly called "black Africa" deserves a prolonged encounter with the sort of extreme-makeover politics that has upended long-term tyrannies in the Arab world. There are plenty of entrenched presidents in sub-Saharan Africa that could give good impersonations of recently deposed Arab dictators. Zimbabawe's Robert Mugabe is surely a match for Libya's Qaddafi in terms of stubborn self-destruction and bizarre narcissism. Cameroon's Paul Biya, who has so rarely actually governed during his 30 years in power that he sports the nickname "the ghost of Africa," could give Mubarak a decent competition in the realm of complacency and corruption. Uganda's Yoweri Museveni is no less the wily autocrat the Yemen's embattled Ali Abdullah Saleh. And yet none of these African autocrats seem threatened by dissent in their own countries. Nor do a passel of other African presidents -- the heads of Congo, Togo and Gabon, for instance -- whose positions and power flow directly from their own deceased fathers.

Despite the paucity of protest indicators in black Africa, the region has seen important, quiet victories by democrats and progressives. The latest shy triumph came this past week in Zambia, where a sitting president was defeated by an opposition party leader. If that's not impressive enough, it was the second time in a decade that a Zambian president lost power through peaceful, democratic elections. Such orderly changes in power are a hallmark of maturing democracies, and in Zambia, an economic powerhouse in southern Africa, there are other reasons to rejoice as well.

A former British colony once called "Northern Rhodesia," Zambia is copper-rich country that has long been among the most urbanized in black Africa. Recently, according to The World Bank, Zambia's economy "graduated" from the ranks of the poorest countries into the "middle-income" category. Large cities in Africa have often incubated opposition politics; in Lusaka, Zambia's capital, this has been especially true, as Danielle Resnick, an American scholar based in a United Nations university in Helsinki, observes in a perceptive new article in the Journal of Modern African Studies.

"Urban centers have frequently represented the locus of political contention and change in sub-Saharan Africa," Resnick writes. But transforming urban dissent into meaningful political transformation has been difficult in the region. That makes Zambia's multiple peaceful transfers of presidential power even more striking. And in the latest case -- the election of longtime opposition leader Michael Sata to Zambia's presidency -- the outlines of new African populism are clearly visible.

In understanding the significance of Sata's victory -- and emergence on the world's political stage -- I rely heavily on the insights assembled by my dear colleague in Lusaka, Chanda Chisala, a former fellow at the Hoover Institution and the editor and founder of Zambia Online, one of the most important digital publications in the sub-Saharan. A longtime resident of Lusaka, Chisala has watched Sata closely for decades, and has in the past been a strident critic of the new president. Yet as Sata has grown so has Chisala's view of him. In an essay published immediately after Sata's victory last week, Chisala identified two of Sata's traits -- his effective management skills and his genuine populism -- as setting him apart for most African presidents.

Sata is indeed both hands-on and a man of the people. He formed his own opposition party after some successful turns as a government minister where he gained a reputation -- almost unheard of in African politics -- for getting things done, and quickly. Chisala, whom I first met in Lusaka several year ago, considers Sata a pragmatic radical who literally cleaned up Lusaka, completed complex housing projects, and even got the right roads built on time and on budget. "I have no doubt," writes Chisala, that Sata "is probably the most effective all-round executive that Africa has ever seen holding the office of president."

Most African presidents bring special meaning to the word "aloof." Even those who are not stubbornly out of touch with their own people and places are often condescending, elitist, and unabashed in their admiration of British, French, or American manners and society. Not Sata. Writes Chisala, "Whereas most political leaders fail to communicate easily to the poor uneducated masses," Chisala observes, "Sata was able [in the campaign] to effectively communicate all his ideas to everyone who listened to him."
Sata has a knack, virtually unknown among leading African politicians, for coining catchy phrases and promoting straight-forward ideas of justice and equality. "More money in your pockets" is among his latest.

For Zambians, economic equity remains an elusive ideal. Because of sky-high copper prices, the country's economy is booming; GDP growth exceeded 6 percent annually over the past three years. Mining is supplemented by a solid agricultural sector, giving this country of about 13 million an economy worth $13 billion (or$1,000 per person, impressive for the region). But inequality is rife in Zambia and rising. The rights to mine and sell copper are dominated by Chinese investors and many small retailers are Chinese-run and owned. In a smart political move, Sata has complained about foreign investors for years, risking approbation from the international community while at the same time raising the reasonable point that more of Zambia's economic power should be in the hands of Zambians. While in Latin America such a political position would be viewed as routine, even boring, in African politics -- where leaders fear upsetting foreign investors -- Sata's position is singular, even incendiary.

There's something else of Sata's populism that has echoes in the Arab Spring. "Don't kubeba," a phrase taken from a popular song that literally means "don't tell them," became Sata's signature phrase, encouraging his followers to accept the ruling party's pay-outs for votes -- but to then vote against the ruling party anyway. Sata managed to convince the urban dispossessed that the bribes were the people's money anyway, so "they could feel no guilt in pretending" to support the ruling party. In showing ingratitude for government handouts, Zambians displayed something similar to what Arabs in oil-rich Libya did in turning against their own bribe-happy governments.

After losing a number of past presidential elections, Sata's victory came as shock to Zambia's elites, who generally opposed him. Chisala and many of Sata's supporters, while proud of another peaceful transfer power in his country, know well that his success in governance is hardly assured. Sata has the chance to be, Chisala writes, either "the worst President Africa has ever seen or the best."

I am less worried about a failed Sata presidency. Already, he has stimulated a useful and overdue debate over race in sub-Saharan Africa by indicating he may appoint as vice president Guy Scott, a Zambian-born son of white immigrants who came to the country while it was still the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. Scott, already an elected official in Zambia, is vice president of Sata's Patriotic Front party; he would become the highest-ranking white elected politician in sub-Saharan Africa. A longtime political ally of Sata, Scott is both a crony of the new president and a symbol of his penchant for out-of-the-box thinking. While Sata sometimes rails against the excessive influence that Chinese investors appear to have in his country, he also seems to truly believe that Zambia will benefit from attracting and retaining foreign talent -- even if that talent is white, an often unpopular color in a southern Africa still hurting from the twin legacies of colonialism and racial segregation. By choosing Scott, Sata may be the improbably troubadour of a new, multiracial model for African society.

For all his charms, Sata is the latest African political leader who belongs the oldest generation. Sata, 74 today, would be nearly 80 by the end of his term. Too many African political leaders are similarly old, and generationally unsuited to lead or understand countries where, almost without exception, 50 percent of the populations are under 20. The continued political power of men born and raised while their countries were still colonies sidelines a more dynamic and fluent generation of potential leaders: men and women in their 40s and 50s who were educated in a more open, equal and progressive era. The Zambian election, for all its signals of a potentially new era in African politics, is also a reminder of one of the most serious challenges to politics there. A true African (political) spring will be unlikely to occur until a younger generation of leaders emerge with real power, at least in civil society if not in electoral politics, closing black Africa's generation gap and making men and women like Sata less of an exception and more of a norm.