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Essay: The Challenge of Leadership and the Poverty of Ambition

Essay: The Challenge of Leadership and the Poverty of Ambition

The following essay, titled "Just another African country: the challenge of leadership in Zambia and the poverty of ambition", was written by Tutu Fellow Linda Kasonde.  It examines African leadership and more specifically, leadership in Zambia, as the country recently celebrated its 50th independence anniversary.


She looks at issues such as poverty, disease, corruption and other structural challenges and how leaders have often stumbled at the hurdle of unifying leadership, choosing instead partistan, tribal or lesser pathways that have not advanced nations on the continent. She also discusses how women and young leaders are an excluded voice for leadership in the country. She suggests that by looking at Zambia's leadership history, it provides some insight into the challenges facing leadership in the broader African context.

The essay:

Following the November 2014 parliamentary debate over the South African President Jacob Zuma’s infamous overspending on his Nkandla estate clearing President Zuma of any impropriety, a South African friend of mine remarked, “It’s so sad, we’re turning into just another African country”. Putting aside my friend’s disappointment at a loss of perceived superiority, as a Zambian, I started to think about what it meant to be “just another African country”. African countries are often associated with poverty, disease, corruption, nepotism and autocracy. That is the leadership challenge faced by countries on the African continent and Zambia is no exception. Zambia celebrated fifty years of independence last year. As the country celebrated its golden jubilee, Zambians have been reflecting on what they have achieved as a nation and whether or not they are truly independent and, in the words of the national anthem, “proud and free”. The national coat of arms adopted on Independence Day, 24th October 1964, has on it the slogan “One Zambia, One Nation”, a call for the nation to stand united. In the words of a Tanzanian proverb, ‘without a leader ants are confused’. Ultimately, much of the fate of a nation rests in the quality of its leadership and their ability to provide purpose and direction to the citizens of the country. In doing so, Zambian leaders need to act in accordance with the words of President Barack Obama by steering clear of the “poverty of ambition”, “where people want to drive fancy cars and wear nice clothes and live in nice apartments but don’t want to work hard to accomplish these things”.

However, in my opinion, the poverty of ambition in Zambia and in Africa in general goes beyond just selfish ambition. It is the inability to visualise a brighter future for society beyond the present circumstances. It is the inability to see that an individual can lead without being the leader. It is the inability to embrace nationhood over tribal, sectorial or religious affiliation. In short, it is a lack of vision. The history of leadership in Zambia is but a microcosm of the wider African leadership challenge.  I will look at whether the leaders of the nation have given the type of purpose and direction that is required and is it inspiring a new breed of selfless leaders. In doing so I will look at the role past Zambian leaders, women and the young emerging leaders have played and can play in redressing the poverty of ambition and indeed the poverty of leadership in the country.

The Old Guard
Zambia’s first President, Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda had been the leader of the liberation struggle from the British. After Independence his task was to build, and develop a national state. In a speech addressing the issue of African development and foreign aid on 18th March 1966, Dr. Kaunda stated as follows:  “We are pioneers and, in a way we are faced with more problems than a pathfinder who has no beaten track before him. The pathfinder who enters a forest has got to find his own track. This in many ways is easier, because certain things have been done in a certain way by certain people from whom we have taken over and we are trying now to redirect things in our own way… We tread on very tough road for we are not only trying to change the course of history but we are also laying down a foundation…We must think and think and think again about how best we shall serve and not about how important we are as leaders of our people, or how we can safeguard our own positions as leaders”.

Kaunda strove to build a unified the nation from the desperate tribes that comprise Zambia. He was to do this by ensuring that no one tribe was more dominant than the other tribes in government. In addition he implemented development programmes to provide education, health and a better livelihood for Zambians. Zambians for the first time began to see the country as one nation. Most of the foundation of the development that we see today in the country was initiated during Kaunda’s rule. Zambia was a member of the frontline states and in that capacity played a pivotal role in supporting the struggle for independence of many of its neighbours in the Southern African region. As the economy faltered and economic discontent increased, Government repression increased.  The initial multi-party democracy gave way to a legislated single party socialist state; Kaunda’s grip on power tightened and tolerance for dissent lessened. The country’s economic problems worsened in the 1980s and this led to increased agitation for a change in government.  In 1991, after twenty-seven years of what had become autocratic one-party rule, “KK” as he is popularly known, allowed multiparty politics to resume in the country. In the elections that followed Kaunda was defeated in a landslide victory by Frederick Chiluba of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). The people of Zambia were tired of economic hardship and the stifling of freedom of expression and freedom of association. After twenty-seven years of rule it appeared that Kaunda had lost sight of the ideal of service over self-preservation.  Zambians decided that they needed a new direction in the form of multi-party democracy.

When President Chiluba came into power he inherited a broken economy dominated by state enterprises. Chiluba agreed to a World Bank inspired structural adjustment programme. The economy was liberalised and state enterprises privatized. Severe economic hardships and job losses followed. But Zambia turned the corner economically. Private investment began to flow and the economy began to grow.  Following a government policy to sell government houses to citizens, many government employees became homeowners for the first time. Chiluba’s charisma inspired the nation and created hope for many. Chiluba started what has now become a trend of successive governments of prosecuting former heads of state. Kaunda’s citizenship was challenged in court and he was also implicated in the 1997 coup attempt. But ultimately what brought Chiluba down was allegations of corruption and self-enrichment for which he was eventually tried and found wanting in a civil claim brought against him in a London High Court in what is popularly called the “London judgement”. In addition, a bid to amend the Constitution to provide for a third term in office proved hugely unpopular. As one shop assistant reportedly told the BBC, “we don’t hate you Mr. President, but please just do the right thing and leave”.  Amidst protests, Chiluba abandoned his third term bid. In 2001, the country again went to the polls this time to elect a successor to Chiluba whom he himself had handpicked, Mr. Levy Patrick Mwanawasa SC who was also a member of the MMD.

President Mwanawasa was voted in with the lowest percentage of the electorate’s vote in the history of the country. While he was never a hugely popular president he was hailed for being tough on corruption and upholding the rule of law which led to the trial of his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba. Mwanawasa died suddenly on 3rd September 2009 during his second term of office, leaving his Vice-President Rupiah Banda to take over the presidency for the remaining two years of his term.

Mwanawasa left what was termed a “living will” for the people of Zambia in which he stated as follows:  "I believe that national development could only be sustained if good governance, respect for the rule of law and democracy were encouraged and not taken for granted. To spur these virtues, the fight against corruption had to be waged relentlessly without treating anybody as a sacred cow… I was driven purely by a love for my country and the urgent need to transform it from poverty to prosperity. I have always been grieved to see so much poverty, hopelessness and anguish in the faces of our children, the leaders of tomorrow. It has always been my belief that nobody has the right to take away what we should be giving to these children and keep them in their selfish pockets”.

Following Mwanawasa’s demise, Rupiah Banda’s acceded to the presidency. His term was short-lived. In 2011 he was resoundingly beaten at the polls by Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front party, due to widely perceived self-aggrandisement and corruption. Banda’s defeat brought to an end the twenty-year rule of the MMD party in government. At the inauguration of his successor, Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front, Banda conceded that his party had lost touch with ordinary Zambians.

Frederick Chiluba led us to a genuine multi-party state and introduced the private sector to our key industries. Zambia was liberated by an MMD ideal but maybe we became complacent with our ideals. Maybe we did not listen, maybe we did not hear… The Zambia we know today was built by an MMD Government. We know our place in history and we know that we can come back to lead again in the future. A new leadership will be chosen, and that leadership will be from the younger generation.

The Patriot Front Government, under the presidency of Michael Chilufya Sata came into power on a populist platform promising the people of Zambia “more money in your pockets”, jobs and an end to corruption. President Sata pursued pro-poor policies and infrastructure development amidst some concerns that the management of the economy and respect for the rule of law were on the decline. He was in office for three years until his untimely demise on 28th October 2014. President Edgar Chagwa Lungu succeeded President Sata, following a heavily contested presidential by-election that saw him win by the narrowest margin in Zambian electoral history. Whilst the Patriotic Front remains popular, there is some debate on whether their leadership is having a positive impact on the economy, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law in Zambia.  After having spent ten years in the opposition, questions have been raised about the Patriotic Front’s preparedness, willingness and ability to implement the policies laid out in its party manifesto. Certainly, there are well-meaning Government officials who have the people’s interests at heart.

However, certain elements like the former Minister for Southern Province Daniel Munkombwe, an octogenarian, typifies the kind of leadership which leaders should not be aspiring to. He has served in three different governments under three different political parties and is on record as being in favour of the “politics of benefits”. According to Munkombwe – “There is nobody who is not using my philosophy of politics of benefits. There is nobody who goes into Parliament naked; we go into Parliament because of allowances. There is no more patriotism. Patriotism was only there when we were fighting colonialists…I know people will say Munkombwe has gone into government because he wants to eat but who does not want to eat?

If indeed patriotism is dead, that is a sad indictment on the Zambian nation. But what can be done about it?  Is women in leadership part of the answer to the problem?

Women in Leadership

According to one writer  -  “In 2011, only 11.5% of legislative positions were held by women, a decline from its 2006 value of 14.6%. Only 106 of the 709 candidates selected to stand for Parliament in 2011 were women, according to the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Further, the Electoral Commission data for 2011 shows that female representation in local government is also worryingly low at less than 6% while only 19 of Zambia’s 287 traditional leaders are women. This imbalance continues in the civil service where men hold the majority of decision-making decisions”.

So the question is why aren’t there more women leaders? According to Alisha Patel – “Conceptions of gender roles are such that women are faced with structural disadvantages and have less access to formal education and employment opportunities than their male counterparts. For example the female/male income ratio is 0.56, while the tertiary enrolment ratio is 0.46. This lack of financial resources, a prerequisite to politics in a country where election campaigns are increasingly expensive, often serves as an insurmountable barrier to political office”.

Added to that, as the Republican Vice-President’s wife, Dr. Charlotte Scott has stated, “a dangerous and unfortunately growing tendency to introduce hate-speech and viciously anti-women speech into political and civic debate” prevents women for standing for positions of leadership. According to Patel – “The 2011 Gender Sector Analysis noted that women are taught to refrain from voicing opinions and to behave modestly in the presence of men, including their husbands. Furthermore, women who have the relevant qualifications and expertise to apply for political positions are less confident of their ability given the prevailing social attitude, as well as being frequently looked down upon for not meeting the standards of femininity that traditional gender roles require”.

This leads to the small number of female leaders in the country at all levels. Thankfully, there are still women leaders prepared to step into leadership roles. Mrs. Lucy Shirley Changwe, former deputy minister for gender and women in development once said – “There were really two main reasons why I went into politics. The first was that I was struck by the expression “politics is a dirty game”. If it really is, then that is something that has to be addressed, because development will have to come through politics. Secondly I saw that educated, so-called elite people were not getting into politics. But for me, I thought that if I’m going to be educated, I must be able to get into the game and make a difference” .

This comes back to the point about the poverty of ambition; unless women are prepared to “have a dream” and see a future where there is equal opportunity for them in the sphere of leadership beyond the hardships they currently face to be recognised as leaders then we will never see a Zambia where women leaders are revered, uplifted and adequately represented.

Emerging leaders

How can the new generation of emerging male and female leaders stop the rot? Are the young, educated and talented Zambians prepared to stem the tide of the poverty of ambition to provide true self-less leadership to their people? Dora Siliya, a young politician and former minister in the former MMD government, insists that the poverty of leadership starts with the electorate who demand very little accountability from their leaders. According to Siliya, “the leaders are as good as the people they lead”. The lack of interest in governance issues in between elections seems to be the main cause of this problem. She says the people are not interested by leadership agendas of their leaders and would rather look at personalities rather than issues. Siliya says, “Your interest in leadership is directly proportional to the kind of leadership you will get” As Siliya puts it, the young, educated middle-class are not interested in politics because they are comfortable with their economic status. She advocates for increased numbers of educated people in the highest offices of government, as she puts it “Government business is business … good politics leads to good business”. Siliya says politics is about public service and personal and financial sacrifice, “There should be something honourable about public service". She says that if people believe that politics is for “others” the population will be “lead by fools”.

On the issue of women in politics, Silya says that she was liberated by her family who helped her believe that she could be anything she wanted to be. The support of her family has been important to allowing her the freedom to enter politics. “It’s about the ability to have choices” which many women do not have in terms of childbearing, child rearing, marriage and economic freedom and freedom from the fear of being insulted in the public sphere. It is very difficult for young people and women to get into political parties without resources. On encouraging young emerging leaders, she says that it is not about replacing one generation of leadership with another there must be “a conscious movement to creating a pool of leaders so that at any given time we should not fail to identify leadership”. Additionally, if women are to fully participate in politics, economic factors that keep women from fully exercising political participation rights need to be addressed. Women are responsible for most of the caring for children, the disabled and the elderly. The factors impede women’s political participation and keep them from realizing their full citizenship rights. Women also face gender role stereotypes, male resistance to women’s participation, limited resources with which to participate and political structures that impede women’s political activity.

The youth make up the majority of the population and are largely underrepresented in decision-making positions. Elias Chipimo Junior, one of the new emerging young leaders of the country, had this to say on the role the youth can play in shaping the nation’s future - “Given motivation and inspiration to act [the youth] can play a vital role in eliminating poverty, corruption, delinquency and other social vices. We know that the energy, intelligence and resourcefulness [they] possess – if fully and properly utilised – can prosper the country greatly. [They] have the power to change this country to one that moves us towards the politics of issues from the politics of insults; the politics of ideas from the politics of ignorance; the politics of freedom from the politics of fear. [They] have the power to recognise and solve yours and your communities’ problems. [The youth] are indeed the power of the present and the future”.

But in considering the roles senior leaders, women and the youth can play in ensuring good leadership one thing is for certain; it will require a concerted effort of all stakeholders to ensure quality leadership.


In terms of the challenges of leadership in Africa, after fifty years of independence, is Zambia “just another African country”? Africa is a continent made up of fifty-four different countries. In order to be seen as such, each country needs to distinguish itself based on its own heritage and national identity. One thing is clear from the above narration of the history of leadership in Zambia, the nation has experienced peaceful transitions from one leader to the next. It is still “One Zambia, One Nation” - of that Zambians can be proud. However, the question remains, how can Zambians build on that foundation and redress the poverty of ambition and leadership in the country? I believe that the answer lies in cultivating a deep sense of patriotism that was prevalent in the leaders of the struggle for independence, in having a sense of pride in being the creators of their own destiny, and in the belief in a united Zambian nation. The answer for Zambia’s leadership challenges lies in every citizen, young and old, owning the issue of governance in the country at all levels by taking an active interest in governance issues. What is required is increased awareness of the civic duties and civic rights of every citizen in order to truly reap the benefits of good leadership in the country. The answer lies in moving the citizenry from the poverty of ambition towards the belief in the power of ambition in Zambian citizens and their leaders as the implementers of the nation’s vision for the future. In the words of the philosopher Eric Hoffer, “the only way to predict the future is to have the power to shape it”. If only Zambians knew how much power they have.

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