Fighting corruption and abuse of power in Zambia
By Dr Mbita Chitala
In recent days, many people have been complaining about corruption in Zambia. Our bilateral partners beginning with the American and Swedish ambassadors and several eminent citizens such as Fred M’membe, Sean Tembo and so own have complained of the existence of grand corruption in our country.
Corruption or the abuse of power for personal gain has become a prominent problem in Zambia. Corruption is a term originally used in biology referring to the decay of matter or oxidation. It makes matter lose value and causes corruption of other matter. Corruption is therefore the worst enemy of all people and preventing it must be a major focus for all governments.
How to punish and prevent corruption is a key element in avoiding social risks. The fall of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring Revolution that began in Tunisia, the mutiny in the Philippines against Ferdinand Marcos, the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo DR and the recent coup d’etat in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso are all extreme indications that corruption is the major enemy of any ruling group and a major source of social instability and disturbance. There is always a present danger where some weak –willed public officials who are unable to stand the test of integrity, fall prey to various temptations. Even a sensible person with a strong mind can sometimes fail to resist the lure of temptation.
Corruption is caused by both the greed of public officials and the deficiency of external oversight. Greed is part of human nature. Once a man of power is not effectively supervised, the greedy nature surfaces.
Power – a double-edged sword
All scholars and thinkers are agreed that the exercise of power by public servants must be caged by the system. All persons exercising power must be restrained or restricted from succumbing to the vice. Montesquieu (1962) ‘The Spirit of Laws’ , Commercial Press, p154 said; “Constant experience shows that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it and to carry his authority as far as it will go. To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.”
Lord Acton (2001, p343) ‘Essays on Freedom and Power’, Commercial Press” said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” History tells us that once power is not subject to checks and balances, corruption will follow. Only when power is caged by the system, can it be exercised appropriately and free from abuse.
Power is of course a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be used to do good such as maintain law and order and promote economic and social development. On the other hand, it can be used to seek personal gain and lead to corruption if left without the necessary supervision. The challenge is to check and supervise power in three aspects.
First, the power of decision-making, execution and supervision cannot check each other. For instance, it is wrong for the IDC to be under the presidency. The President is the appellant authority and cannot be seen to be chairman of the IDC board which he appoints to manage all state enterprises. Another example is where the ACC, DEC appointed by the President are subject to the authority of the presidency.
These institutions will suffer from political manipulation and cannot be professional. The same is true where all judges of the senior courts as well as members of the Electoral Commission of Zambia are appointed by the presidency. They cannot be expected to be independent and impartial in their work.
Secondly, power is usually exercised by a few people at the top of organisations. For instance, managing directors of state enterprises appointed by the presidency are not subject to the control of their boards of directors. Another example is where, the members of both the Public Service Commission and the Local Government Commission are appointed by the presidency from his ethnicity or party who then retire or transfer public servants and replace them with persons from their ethnic or party grouping. Such awesome power is not good as it cannot be checked and may be subject to abuse.
Thirdly, power is often not well defined. For instance the Secretary to the Cabinet from one unwanted ethnicity is often overshadowed or even overruled by the deputy secretaries to the cabinet appointed by the President from his ethnic grouping. Such duplicity or lack of defining power may lead to abuse such as when one Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet overruled the Secretary to the Cabinet in the appointment of a chief executive for the Food Reserve Agency which led to the patriotic chairman of the FRA resigning in protest.
Fourthly, power may not be checked according to the law.
For instance, all the provincial police commissioners apart from one are appointed from one ethnic group who in turn ensure that the district police in charge are from their own ethnic orientation. Another example is the power of the Speaker of the National Assembly who defied [law and] recognised the illegal appointment of leaders of the opposition in parliament, defying the principle of sub-judicae as the matter was before courts. And this abuse of power is repeated in all government departments and statutory institutions as well as state enterprises and diplomatic missions.
Fifthly, power may not be exercised transparently. For instance in single sourcing for fertiliser, for petroleum, for construction projects, for supplies to government departments including defence and security without subjecting tenders to competitive bidding. Often, selected bidders are allowed to present three proforma from associate companies to meet some conditions. However, abuse of power by those in authority is rampant as this seems to be the general practice in government procurement.
Sixthly, supervision of power may not be effective. For instance district commissioners appointed by ruling political parties from their cadres do not report to the provincial administration and are answerable only to the presidency. Another example is where funds such as the CDF are subject to control by the Minister of Local Government who alone authorises disbursement. This awesome power of one person can be a subject of abuse. Because of these challenges, power may not be subject to effective checks and balances and may often result in abuse and corruption. If power is not contained, if it is not monitored and supervised, public officials will succumb to temptation to abuse their powers and commit corrupt acts.
It is generally agreed that public servants must only use their power to serve citizens instead of riding roughshod over the people. Public servants should never use their power to seek personal gain, making power-money deals without restraint and demanding bribes at every opportunity or making decisions that are ethnic biased instead of adopting meritorious systems. Public servants should never be blinded by greed to audaciously and unscrupulously stop at nothing to benefit their own pockets.
Corruption in Zambia
In Zambia, the rate of corruption is high. For instance, it has been known that public officials sell access to the presidency and ministers and other senior public officials, bribe the judiciary, under-perform in government construction contracts where they use inferior materials; receive bribes and so on. The level of corruption is high too as many public servants are found with property bought from bribes. Corrupt officials are found in all ministries, departments and statutory institutions including state enterprises where they give a bad image to the country.
Furthermore, corruption cases are hard to investigate as some culprits conceal and use high-tech methods such as use of stock option awards, some culprits receive benefits after they leave their positions and other corrupt acts may involve foreign jurisdictions.
Some ways to curb corruption
Zambia must adopt zero tolerance to corruption. This has been said by various governments but never practiced. No matter what kind of a person is involved and no matter how high his or her position is, how long he or she has served and how many achievements he or she has made- must be investigated and if found guilty, be resolutely punished. It is important that senior government officials conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion; for if they become corrupt, they not only adversely affect losses to their organisations but also to the country.
In addition to the lack of integrity of individuals, the deficiency in systems and institutions also causes massive corruption. An example is the procurement in spending ministries, state enterprises and departments of organisation who decide on pricing of works and supply. Officials often collude with private enterprises. This is the case in medicine prices where pharmaceutical companies are eager to bribe officials and as a result, medicines in Zambia are forever high holding back the country’s public health initiatives. The same is true in public works such as road construction, power projects including mining licences, and so on where public officials take bribes.
A recent method as mentioned earlier is where one company provides three pro-forma invoices after colluding with public officials where they share the loot. The notorious abuse of power is where the government officials approve single sourcing to their favoured suppliers or contractors from where they share the loot.
One possible solution to ending corruption in government procurement under our market economy is that the power of administrative approval (single sourcing) should be delegated to the market, allowing entrepreneurs to regulate themselves, and institutions must be used to prevent the abuse of power for personal gain.
First, we should reduce or abolish administrative approval known in Zambia as ‘single sourcing’ in Zambia. This will be a permanent cure to root out corruption. It is rampant in fertiliser purchases, road construction, military purchases, procurement of government vehicles and requisites.
Secondly, there must be open selection and competition for posts in the public service. This approach would limit corruption, abuse of office, and would curb the malpractice of using nepotism, ethnicity and so on as methods of employment selection in the public service. This in Zambia arouses the most anger among citizens and is currently the most divisive conduct by officials hated by all Zambians.
This happened in the later years of the MMD administration under President Chiluba. This abuse was rampant under President Levy Mwanawasa when he was accused of having a ‘family’ tree. This was practiced by President Sata under the PF administration when he was accused of having a ‘family forest’. This is happening under the UPND administration when they too have been accused of providing only for the people from the areas where they won, which becomes an ethnic distraction.
Thirdly, there must be openness of ministry and spending agencies’ budgets, centralised treasury payment, separation of revenue and expenditure, government procurement and transfer payments.
The treasury functions must be separate from the capital budget, otherwise the capital budget will be subject to abuse. Openness will check extravagance and misappropriation which in Zambia according to the yearly reports of the Auditor General is rampant.
Fourthly, there is need to establish a market-oriented system of allocating resources in such areas as construction, land-use rights and mining. We must establish an integrated and standardised tangible market; create a legal environment to regulate invitation for bids and all bidding activities. Land-use rights must be granted using a system of open competition. Government procurement must be based on public bidding. Rights to prospect and exploit mineral resources must involve open bidding, auction or for-sale notification and not only be given by single individuals as is currently in practice.
Fifthly, civil service examinations must be re-introduced and citizens must be allowed to sit competitive examinations to be employed in the public service. The current system where the senior officials such as the chairmen of Commissions use criteria other than competence and capability must come to an end. All unlawful acts must be investigated and severely punished. The best way to prevent corruption is to place things under the spotlight. Transparency is the natural enemy of corruption and the more transparent the government is, the more effective corruption control efforts will be made.
Disclosure of government information is the best oversight of corruption. The new law in Zambia enacted in 2023 for disclosing various types of public information is a progressive attempt to address this imperative in Zambia. Freedom of information must be the rule and secrecy an exception. We must enact laws and regulations that require government departments to disclose information in a timely and accurate manner to guarantee the citizen’s right to know, participate and supervise governance. The freedom of information is the ultimate right for all citizens and the current law must be amended to reflect this as earlier suggested by many citizens.
Furthermore, we must eliminate power rent-seeking by requiring all departments to publicise their functions, legal grounds, duties and powers, administrative procedures and supervision methods. We must adopt a system of personal asset declaration, registration, and disclosure by public officials as this is most crucial for the anti-corruption fight. Sweden was the first to introduce such a system in 1766 which requires all public officials to declare their assets and offering citizens to such information. The former statesman Lee Kua Yew of Singapore said that without disclosing personal assets of public officials, combating corruption in a country would be just empty talk.
We must legislate that government officials at or above director level to the presidency report their incomes twice a year to designated departments. The incomes to declare should include salary, bonus, allowance, subsidy, remuneration for personal services as well as incomes from contractual operations. Furthermore, all senior officials must declare their family assets as well, that is assets of spouses and children. And this information must be available for public access via the internet. Officials found wanting must not be allowed to hold positions in government of any type.
Finland is a good example that practices transparency in governance. In that country, all officials and government employees must record official banquets on a website for public scrutiny. With power exercised in a transparent manner, Finland is one of the cleanest governments in the world.
Lastly, the Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC) must be made a relative autonomous body. It must be made a creature of the Constitution subject to parliamentary confirmation and control and whose members would have security of tenure unlike now when it is subject to the control by the Executive.
Furthermore, in its work, the ACC must have an interactive website which it must use to disclose information, release news, interpret policies, collect public opinion and receive online complaints. The website must be a platform for information disclosure, publicity and education, display of achievements, interaction, exchanges and online supervision, and a database of discipline inspections. The website must include written reports, photos and videos and so on.
I submit that these proposals if attended to by our government will go a long way in improving the conduct of public officials so that they uphold their integrity and will also help in combating the crime of corruption in our country.
Lesson from China
China provides a good example of how to fight corruption. From early on identified corruption as a danger to the Chinese Revolution. In 1933, Mao Zedong signed an order on punishing corruption and wasteful behaviour which stipulated that those embezzling 500 yuan or more of Soviet currency would be sentenced to death.
Because of this recognition of the dangers of corruption, China carried several campaigns against corruption beginning with the “Three evils” of embezzlement, waste and bureaucratism. Next was the movement against the “Five Evils “ of conduct that included bribery, tax fraud and evasion, theft and defrauding of state’s property, cheating on labour and materials on procurement, smuggling, currency arbitrage and theft of economic intelligence.
In the 1990s when China started building a Socialist market economy, Jiang Zemin said: “The fight against corruption is a severe political struggle vital to the very existence of the Party and the State.” That is why China adopted a zero tolerance against corruption and created ant-corruption institutions that are well funded and independent.
The author is a Pan Africanist who served as deputy finance minister in the first MMD administration. He has also served in various other government portfolios, including as Zesco board chairperson. His PhD thesis is based on public debt management. Reach him at: +260-0976030398.