IN a region where politicians are wrongly (or perhaps rightly) perceived as corrupt, one man stands tall as a beacon of probity. After eight years in government, four of which he served as Zambia’s foreign minister, Harry Kalaba resigned, saying his decision was prompted by ‘swelling’ levels of corruption ‘perpetrated by those who are expected to be the solution.’
When the news of his resignation broke in January 2018, I said to myself, ‘Here’s a man of integrity. If only there were more like him, Africa would be a better place.’
So I considered it an honour and a privilege to meet the dapper, affable and youthful Harry Kalaba during his brief visit to London in mid-February. Obviously, my opening remark when we sat down for the interview was about his resignation.
‘The point of departure, firstly, is that I didn’t enter politics for my own sake,’ he said. ‘I entered politics because I thought I could make a difference and when I came across evidence that the leadership I was serving under was not committed to fulfilling the people’s intentions I didn’t see any honour in me then continuing as foreign affairs minister.
‘The most honourable thing for me was to resign because I saw the insatiable greed for money and material things by my leaders, I saw that the people who should have been talking for the vulnerable, who should have been talking for the poor people were no longer doing that. Instead, they opted to pursue their own agendas. That I thought for me was counterproductive, it was unhealthy, and I didn’t want to be part of such a regime, so the only thing I could have done was to resign and redeem my conscience.’
The ensuing recriminations could have permanently driven a man of lesser conviction out of politics. On the contrary, they hardened Kalaba’s resolve.
‘There were demonstrations organised against me almost in every part of the country to denounce me. There were issues of getting me investigated, people were making up stories against me, trying to paint me black and there were also moves to get me arrested by the head of state [then president Edgar Lungu].
‘Luckily for me, all those manoeuvres that were deployed would not work. They didn’t find me corrupt, they didn’t find that I had gone against the law on anything and so they harvested nothing, but it’s just sad that independent minds are not celebrated, that people are made to feel that if you’re not in the pack, not in the group then you are wrong. I decided that it was better to be lonely with the right decisions rather than to be in the company of many people who were on the wrong side of history.’
His attempts to form his own political party were equally frustrated at every turn, including the authorities’ refusal to register the party for ‘security reasons.’
‘The moment they realised I had taken the initiative, they blocked me and said they could not register the party for security reasons, until I went and revived a party that was already in existence – the DP [Democratic Party] – that’s when I had a chance of participating fully, but then again the DP wasn’t even registered when they heard that Henry Kalaba was behind it and were going to fight court battles for almost two years until we won in the court of appeals.’
In last August’s presidential election, which was won by current President Hichilema, Kalaba came third. He did well, considering there were 16 other candidates vying for the presidency.
‘Yes, we managed to come third,’ he says. ‘We could have done much better but the election we had in 2021 was about a revolution. People didn’t want the [Lungu] government that was there and decided they were going to give it to the longest serving opposition leader [Hichilema] and that’s how he won the election,’ he explains.
A bullish Kalaba believes that coming third in a field of 16 contestants was a vote of confidence by the electorate. ‘It’s a mark of confidence by the people that they are taking us [DP] seriously. That in the not too distant future we will be able to come to the first spot.’
In a region where 55 percent of the population is below the age of 65, but where the ages of the majority of their leaders are far beyond the retirement age for workers, the general clamour is for the youth to be given a chance to manage the affairs of the continent. But 46-year-old Kalaba believes that the capacity for good political and economic governance is more important than age.
‘We find that the biggest economies like America have demonstrated to us that it’s not about age, it’s about the capacity of one to steer the nation to greater levels. Clearly that must be a sign of what the young ones have to offer. When you look at the UK, you have had young prime ministers that have steered multi-billion economies, and yet there was nothing to do with age. The point I’m trying to drive home is it’s not about the age it’s about what one can offer. Whilst we celebrate our elderly statesmen and women we also have to be eulogising and celebrating the upcoming leaders, so that there should be even space to contribute to their economies’ emancipation.’
Zambia has the dubious reputation as the first country during the Covid-19 pandemic to default on its sovereign debt, with the country’s total external debt currently exceeding $12 billion. This Kalaba attributes to corruption and misplacement of priorities by the previous administration of Edgar Lungu.
‘We have invested a lot in projects that have seen a lot of corruption thriving. Zambia has been constructing roads at sometimes three or four times the actual costs. We have gone into contracts that siphoned the little monies that we have in the treasury. At the end of the day, people have been looking at ways of getting revenue from the treasury to go in their own private hands – and this has decapitated economic growth. So really it is true that the external debt doesn’t reflect the potential that our country has, but I think it reflects a deficiency in leadership and a lack of focus on the things that really matter.
‘So, the debt issue is just about leadership. I’ve always said that the biggest challenges we have had in our country – it’s just about three problems we have had – the first problem has been leadership, the second problem has been leadership and the third problem has also been leadership. If we can fix this we’ll be on the right path to economic emancipation.’
He disagrees with the current Hichilema administration’s borrowing of $1.2 billion from the IMF saying, ‘The potential that we have as a country and the kind of money we are getting from the IMF doesn’t reflect who we are.’
According to Kalaba, between 2014 and 2018, Zambia exported about 1.5 million tonnes of copper to China, yet only about 400,000 tonnes were recorded, meaning slippages of about $680 million in monetary terms. ‘So, if the slippages in the resources could be plugged, we should not be able to lose the amount that we are losing, I don’t think there is any need to go to the IMF and borrow $1.2 billion,’ he says.
Zambia’s first first problem has been leadership, the second problem has been leadership and the third problem has also been leadership
Kalaba believes that Zambia has not properly exploited its massive mineral resources for the benefit of the country. ‘We have a lot of mineral potential in our country, which has not been put to good use. That is why I am proposing if I am elected as president of Zambia that we have a statutory body like the one that Dr Kaunda previously had. We had a body called Memarco, which basically dealt with metal exports from our country. Memarco was a board that regulated the exports of our mineral. So, we used to know the quantities of copper that was mined in a particular area because you could not export without going through Memarco – we used to know the gold, and every other mineral exported.
‘But today we have several mines opened up, especially in the south west of Zambia, and yet these mines export on their own, Zambia doesn’t know, we don’t even have the capacity to know how much they are exporting. They will tell us they have exported copper when they have exported cobalt, they will tell us there were no diamonds. So we have been losing a lot of revenue as a result of lack of plugging holes in the mining sector. I am proposing that unless we do the plugging of holes in the mining sector, unless we remove that veil of secrecy around the exports of our minerals, we will continue wallowing in poverty as a country. And leadership must be firm, but the first thing they do is begin patronising the mining conglomerates when they win government – how can things change?’
Kalaba thinks that with proper management of its agricultural and mineral resources, Zambia can become self-sufficient and redress what he sees as a massive trade imbalance with regional economic powerhouse South Africa. ‘We have become an economic colony of South Africa – you come to Zambia but think you are in South Africa because the Shoprite stores which is South African, everything that is in South Africa has come to Zambia. We used to have our own traditional shops, but all these have collapsed and now we have become an economic colony of South Africa,’ he laments. ‘Right now, between Zambia and South Africa, both member states of SADC [the trade balance] is about 72 to 28 in favour of South Africa. That’s not good for us.’
He is equally sceptical about the much-heralded Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA). ‘Even when I was foreign affairs minister I was quite sceptical of it because while the idea sounds splendid, in practical terms it will be a challenge because of various economic issues. The challenges that Ghana has are unique to Ghana, the challenges that Nigeria has are somehow only peculiar to Nigeria and to just allow others to open like that all across the African continent I think is an ambition too high to implement and successfully achieve because a lot of parameters need to be put in place.’
On a personal level, the deeply religious Kalaba doesn’t see any conflict between his beliefs and politics. ‘The short and truthful point is that even politics is a service to God’s people and so those of us who want to become leaders must also submit and read scriptures that leadership comes from God. Therefore it becomes important that we become God-fearing. The Bible says we shall be the heads and not the tails, so it’s our inescapable responsibility as Christians to ensure that the values we have in the Christian faith are transported into the politics and help our brothers who think politics must be a game of killing one another, must be a game of deceit. Politics cannot be trivialised and reduced to that – it’s a very important component because everything in society hinges on politics.’
His full recovery from a near-fatal accident in 2015 reinforces Kalaba’s conviction that he is destined to lead his country. ‘I should have died in 2015. I had a very terrible accident – hit by a train. I was unconscious for two weeks, basically incapacitated for about six months and the whole year I never went for work because of the train accident I had,’ he recalls.
‘So I have always believed that I am living on borrowed time, extra time the Lord has given me, I could have died that time, and since I am alive there must be a purpose for which he has preserved me, because in this life nobody lives by accident, all of us exist because God has allowed it. So I can only suspect, I am not a Jewish prophet or am I related to any Jewish prophet but I can only suspect that God has preserved me for a purpose. And now that I am still in politics in Zambia, it is most likely to lead Zambia and allow the people of that country see the different type of leadership that can emancipate them, a leadership that will be able to listen to them, a leadership that will be able to empathise with them as opposed to a leadership that is all about self. So I am supremely confident that is what God is leading me to do’.