<<A Gift Today for a Vote Tomorrow Is Nothing Noble>>
|NOBLE CAUSE: First Lady Esther Lungu meets PF women clubs in Mpika|
By Nyalubinge Ngwende
Zambia's First lady Esther Lungu has been up and about the rutted terrain of the rural Zambia trying to engage women, encouraging them to form clubs and distributing gifts.
At the surface of it, the first lady’s traverses and engagements are a noble cause. She is reaching out to constituents—rural women, who are left out in the economic activities of the country. They need her support. Through her initiative, they can get access to various resources that can help them to embark on start-ups that supply the rural needs.
The activities of Esther Lungu are not new to this country. These activities have been done by previous first ladies. Vera, wife to President Frederick Chiluba had Hope Foundation, Maureen, wife to President Levy Mwanawasa had Maureen Mwanawasa Community Initiative and Tandiwe wife to President Rupiah Banda undertook an agriculture and environmental related cause, while Dr Christine Kaseba wife to President Michaela Sata ran Ubutala Wa-bumi (granary of health) project.
However, there are two perspectives to the work of first ladies that are nothing new and nothing strange. These causes carry both a noble cause, the heart of a woman to give, and obviously the subtle political campaign messages for their husbands.
Unfortunately, the latter is the most effective, most emphasized, not deliberate, but because of the nature of politics in Zambia and Africa as a whole. And it is that aspect that builds into buying votes which motivates First Ladies to be seen to be busy-bees, reaching out to the poor rural women. The best explanation is found in the form that the African State, like that of Zambia, takes.
In Africa a President is a whole powerful figure. It is a figure that takes on the traditional attributes of a chief and modern bureaucracy rolled into one. All the people, including opposition political parties, are subjects to the President.
Everything good or bad that happens to the subjects revolves around the presidency. Those who are loyal to the presidency, direct or through individuals and institutions associated with this office, get rewarded while those who are defiant get punished. Loyalty in this case means not having a different view point, even if you have a more sensible thought, you are restrained to do so for fear of being considered an outcast.
The view point that one supports is sometimes symbolic. In the multiparty system, among the rural poor, this would also mean the party campaign regalia one chooses to wear or choose to wear none. For women clubs, if you wear the chitenge for the ruling party, you are with them and, if you don’t, you are without them.
The opinion leaders who are in the fore front to encourage these groups are political appointees—who are no other than the District Commissioners. The DCs are intermediaries, working with party officials, to monitor the activities of women and youth in the community and reward those who are toeing the party-line and punish those who are active elsewhere or are just neutral. The intolerance is so huge for those who do not conform.
|First Lady donates to the needy at Kalilamoyo Village|
Therefore it is around these principles of ‘we and them’ that the women political groups disguised as development clubs have evolved. Whether the First Lady intends it or not, at the end of the day the distribution of benefits to these groups tend to be overly partisan, towards her husband’s political wishes—more electorates associating with the ruling party.
It is a crazy-list of clientelism that the presidency arranges from State House down to the smallest unit of the community, including the ordinary man and woman in the market place. Those who donate goods and services that the First lady distributes in her noble cause are powerful people in business who do it for business favours from the country’s first mansion.
The only problem is that these activities evolve on short-term mentality that makes the first mansion pay more to powerful business people for contracts which the national budget can less afford, for rewards of less value goods that the First Lady distributes to women in clubs in form of vary basic capital that hardly helps to lift them out of poverty.
What can a sewing machine meant to patch torn trousers and dresses really give to women in the village? These are sewing machines and other basic equipment that front companies to bigger multinationals from India and China donate to First Ladies’ causes.
In turn the multinationals demand huge contracts on which government leaders ran around the corridors of the IMF and other lending institutions to borrow. Gaining voting numbers is more important in the short-term as long as the tenure of office lasts for the incumbent, than taking long term projects that will empower women so that they are fully empowered to start making independent decisions.
The First Ladies initiatives in this country just do that. Dr Kaseba’s activities could have been different and focused on the health of a woman and may not be bundled with these less quality activities, but at the end of the day the whole idea was to gain a positive image on behalf of the husband, President Sata (MHSRIP).
It is for this that no matter how President Lungu’s minders will try to defend Esther’s women clubs movement as a noble cause, if one would link all the activities: from the donations being received, the people paying for these trips, the people joining in these trips and partisan conditions on which women are being reached; it all boils to one thing—campaign for the husband.
Lastly, the bottom line is that the First Lady’s Office has no line in the national budget, but the State is still spending hugely on her. Think of the vehicles, choppers and state machinery that are accompanying the First Lady and ministers with her in terms of government money.
If all the money were invested in a long term project to revive the pineapple industry in Mwinilunga to standards of export, the country would gain and distribute wealth other than poverty as it is the case at present.
It is for this reason that Esther Lungu must sit down next time she returns to State House and think to do something real noble.