Monday, August 17, 2009

Neoliberalism on Trial in Zambia

The former president of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba was regrettably acquitted on charges of corruption and stealing public money from the country. The press today has run a series of articles presenting criticism of the decision and the lack of justice for corrupt African heads of state in general. The cruel irony is that the BBC, New York Times and other media outlets conveniently neglect to mention that it was neoliberal policies imposed by western technocrats that facilitated the secrecy and corruption in Zambia during the Chiluba presidency.

I first learned about Frederick Chiluba writing a college research thesis about the development of opposition to privatization amongst civil society organisations, particularly trade unions in Southern Africa from 1991-2001. Chiluba won presidential elections in 1991, unseating socialist president Kenneth Kaunda who had held power since independence from British colonial rule in 1964. Chiluba's victory was heralded as a triumph for multi-party democracy and anti-statism but eventually his administration plunged the country deeper into socio-economic crisis and political corruption.

Like in other African countries, western financial institutions sought to exert their influence on public policy in Zambia by extending liquidity on the grounds that the state adopt anti-social external conditionalities. Chiluba egotistically accepted the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the World Bank and IMF cutting price controls, ending public subsidies to various sectors of the economy, and most importantly privatizing public-owned assets like the strategically important mining industry. With the backing of international financial institutions and under the rhetoric of liberal democracy, President Chiluba purposefully ignored the human consequences of his policies on mineworkers, their families and other poor communities---not to mention trampling over basic civil liberties when opposed.

Today, the adverse impacts of neoliberalism in Zambia have made it politically unpopular to ignore the terrible human consequences and economic shortcomings of such policy prescriptions. Despite this fact, other African governments continue to routinely accept unjust external conditionalities on the cash that they receive from foreign investors. Frederick Chiluba may have escaped justice for his crimes against the Zambian people, but the neoliberal prescriptions that facilitated his downfall and ruined the economy should not.

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