Sunday 29 January 2023

Western Leaders Flock To Zambia As Hichilema Is Darling Of the West

President Hichilema with Dr. Yellen at State House
-Picture by State House Media
By Paul Shalala

January 2023 has been a busy month for President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia.

This is the month when loadshedding has become intense following the historical reduction of water levels in the Kariba Dam which has consequently reduced the generation capacity of electricity.

Zambia and Zimbabwe depend on the Kariba Dam for most of their electricity and with the current status, the two countries are left with a huge energy deficit.

That aside, the restructuring of Zambia’s debt has been a main feature of President Hichilema’s work this month.

Observers say the Hichilema administration is a pro-western one, breaking away from a decade of looking to the east for help.

With 10 years of the Patriotic Front administration were China was the center of the country’s foreign policy which led to over $6 billion of debt being contracted from the Asian nation, the new government is doing its best to be a friend of the west.

Between 22 and 24 January, 2023, Zambia hosted United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva.

Dr. Yellen was in Zambia to promote US investment and offer support to Zambia while Ms. Georgieva was in the country to follow up on economic reforms.

During her three day stay in Zambia, Dr. Yellen visited an American company which makes anti-retroviral and malarial drugs in Lusaka, she also visited Java Foods, a private company owned by lawyer and enterprenuer Monica Musonda.

The American official also opened the Emergency Operations Center at the Zambia National Public Health Institute which was funded by American taxpayers.

Here, she held a question and answer session with local and international journalists.

I asked her about the role the United States is playing in ensuring that China is brought back to the negotiating table over Zambia’s debt restructuring process.

The US Treasury Secretary called out China, saying it was a stumbling block to the talks.

The following day, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing issued a strong statement against Dr. Yellen’s remarks.

The other interesting part of her visit was to meet small-scale farmers in the central Zambian town of Chongwe who are benefiting from the Green Climate Fund which is helping them engage in climate resilient farming practices.

“We will work together to improve Africa’s access to global agricultural commodity markets and meet its growing demand for fertilizer. And we will promote effective agricultural practices and approaches, including strengthening climate resilience.

We must take urgent action to adapt agricultural practices and technology to the changing climate. The project we are visiting today helps small-scale farmers better manage the impacts of climate change. It’s funded by the Green Climate Fund, which the United States is proud to be a part of. We are committed to making sure that the Fund has sufficient resources to carry on this important work. We are also advancing climate adaptation through our latest $155 million contribution to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program,” said Dr. Yellen.

Later, she met President Hichilema at State House where they discussed several issues.

Key to the discussions is the estimated $13.6 billion debt Zambia has with its several lenders.

President Hichilema meets Ms. Georgieva

”The United States insists that all major bilateral official and private creditors meaningfully participate in this debt relief, including China. It is our view that timely and comprehensive debt treatment can serve the interests of both debtors and creditors. In addition, President Hichilema and I will discuss how Zambia can help to tackle global challenges that have serious ramifications at the national level, including food security, which has worsened in this country and globally over the past year, as well as investing in healthy populations and preparedness for future health shocks,” she said during the meeting.

And in response, President Hichilema thanked the support the US Government is giving to his administration.

Like in any other major meeting, the Zambian leader did not miss the opportunity to seek help on its debt crisis.

“We convey our appreciation to the American citizens for the support in many sectors of our economy over the years. Among the key areas of support to the Zambian people have been in health, education, and recently the signed US$8.3 million from the Millennium Challenge Corporation towards the second compact aimed at alleviating poverty in our country. We also underscored the need for speedy resolution of our country's debt restructuring process so we can quickly stabilise the economy and focus on creating more opportunities for Zambian citizens that will lead to job creation,” President Hichilema wrote after the meeting.

For the IMF Chief, hers was a visit which took her closer to the Zambian people.

She met the Minister of Finance, the Governor of the Central Bank and the President.

She also held a town hall meeting at the University of Zambia in Lusaka were students took turns, asking about the conditionalities of the $1.3 billion credit facility which the IMF gave Zambia in August 2022 as part of its debt restructuring programme.

Ms. Georgieva visited Matipula Primary School in Chongwe District where she saw for herself the implementation of the Free Education Policy which the new government started implementing in 2022.

There she saw for herself how children now come in their thousands to school and can attend class for free from Grade one to 12.

“Zambia is doing the most important investment of all—investing in its people. I saw today how “free education for all” is helping the bright minds at Matipula Primary & Secondary School, and how prioritizing social spending makes a real difference in people’s lives,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

Later, Ms. Georgieva met President Hichilema at State House.

The issue of debt was very topical during the meeting.

At the end of her visit, she issued this statement:

“Zambia is making tremendous progress on reforms, at what is a particularly a challenging time for the world economy. Zambia also needs a swift resolution of its debt situation to complement these reform efforts and preserve the positive growth momentum. We recognize that these are complex and challenging discussions, but it is clear from my visit that Zambia is doing its part, so I strongly encourage creditors to move forward and reach an agreement on a debt treatment as soon as possible.”

And Zambia’s Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane summed up the visit by the IMF Chief as follows:

Pearl Chunga poses a question to Ms. Georgieva
during a town hall meeting at University of Zambia
“We are grateful to all our partners for their continued, constructive discussions and work towards reaching an agreement on our debt restructuring. Finding a resolution to our debt burden as quickly as possible is essential for Zambia. It will help us achieve our medium-term ambitions of providing economic opportunities to all Zambians and becoming a middle-income country that is at the forefront of supporting the global energy transition. Reaching an agreement with creditors will help ensure that our economy rebounds and achieves sustained growth. This is in the interest of both our creditors and the Zambian people.”

Dr. Yellen and Ms. Georgieva are not the highest level officials to Zambia in the past one year.

In July 2022, United Nations Under Secretary General Vera Songwe visited Zambia at a time when the southern African country was pushing for an IMF financial bailout.

Dr. Songwe rallied the international community saying Zambia needed help to sort out its debt crisis.

And in October 2022, French Minister of State for Development, Francophone and International Partnerships Chrysoula Zacharopoulou visited Zambia and voiced French support for President Hichilema’s economic agenda.

Meanwhile, President Hichilema and US President Joe Biden will be co-hosting a US-African leaders summit to be held in Washington DC in March 2023.

The summit will be a follow up to the inaugural US-African Leaders Summit which was held in the American capital in December 2022.

And with President Biden visiting Africa later in 2023, Zambians have their fingers crossed, hoping he will visit Zambia too especially that the relations between the two countries are currently at their best.