- By Paul BonicelliPaul J. Bonicelli is the Executive Vice President at Regent University, and served as the Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.
We don’t often have reason to celebrate political developments in Africa, but Michael "King Cobra" Sata’s Sept. 23 victory in the recent Zambian presidential elections is a reason, indeed. The 74-year-old tough-talking opposition leader has managed to score a victory for democracy in Zambia and against Chinese neocolonialism.
Credit is due to the recent incumbent, Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy, who gave up power peacefully after a clear defeat to Sata and the Patriotic Front Party. In the aftermath of the election, both men appear determined that the peaceful change of power be accepted as normal with both retribution and sour grapes being set aside.
But a larger and more interesting issue is the fulfillment in Zambia, and in the person of the new president, of the idea that Africa should not become prey to a new colonial power, that of the Chinese. China-watchers have been observing for about a decade now the growing influence of China as it buys friends in the developing world among the producers of raw materials to feed the growing Chinese economy. A combination of Chinese party, government, military and preferred businesses have been extracting and importing raw materials — in the case of Zambia, copper — by means of cheap labor and sometimes abusive labor practices and with the complicity of the host country’s government.
Sata was transparent about his plans and tough in his talk regarding the Chinese during his campaign for office. He called the Chinese investors "infestors" and vowed that if elected he would put an end to the flouting of labor and tax laws and other abuses, abuses that cannot happen if the government is determined to stop them. In other words, through corruption and neglect, many African governments allow foreign interests to treat their countries as easily commandeered cheap resource pools. Sata was so insistent that the Chinese threatened, in an obvious attempt to sway the election, to divest in Zambia should the people elect Sata. The people were undaunted, Sata is now elected, and there is no sign that the Chinese will make good on their threat. They can hardly afford to do so given that Zambia is the continent’s largest copper exporter.
Sata has no intention of closing Zambia for business; rather, he simply is requiring that his country’s labor laws and safety regulations be respected by both foreign firms as well as the government itself. He has embarked without delay on his promised 90 days of reform, sacking people and reforming the government. He sounds like he’d perform well in the current GOP debates: not only is he announcing plans to battle corruption — that is a given for a newly elected leader in a developing country — but he is also announcing his intention to slash the size of government. Further, he intends to review all mining contracts with the Chinese to ensure they are in the interests of Zambians and to make sure that the wealth of Zambia is shared with the nation as a whole through fair contracts, fair wages, and a distribution of wealth not encumbered with corruption, cronyism, and bloated government.
We should wish him luck and our government should support him, because he will need it, but we should be encouraged given that few African leaders have been so bold to have staked their election in part on such a program of reform. Importantly, Sata’s election represents the working out of the predictions of some observers that if the Chinese, in collusion with dictators and de facto presidents for life, continued to unfairly exploit developing countries, there would be a backlash redounding to the harm of both the incumbent governments as well as the foreign interests. Those of us who have worked in foreign assistance often heard how unwise we were to let the Chinese provide visible support such as the building of infrastructure and schools while we supported the intangibles of democracy, the rule of law, fair labor practices and economic freedom. We averred that if we did the right thing, the best thing, in time the fruit of our labor would be the movement of developing states from the category of failed and dependent to stable and flourishing. I trust that we are being proven right in Zambia and that this example will spread. It is too soon to predict that a backlash is building generally across the globe against the Chinese exploiters and against aid practices that only further dependency, but the ripples of the Zambian election — and what it could mean for development policy — are likely to be felt beyond its borders.