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Zambia reaps rewards of positive neutrality and economic diplomacy while others flounder

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Christopher Vandome is a senior research fellow with the Chatham House Africa Programme. His research focuses on the political economy and international relations of southern Africa, as well as regional and continental peace and security, environmental issues and extractive industries. Christopher has a master’s degree from the University of Cape Town and is currently a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. 

Maintaining a balance of international partnerships is critical for Zambia’s economic development. Foreign powers play a central role in supporting domestic infrastructure, mining investment, and health and education programmes. 

African governments are rightly resistive to polarising views of geopolitics that seek to pigeonhole them into being aligned with the West versus China and Russia. President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia provides an important example that non-alignment or ‘positive neutrality’ can be more than just rhetoric and can bring genuine economic benefit.

This weekend, from 31 March to 1 April, Hichilema welcomed United States vice president Kamala Harris. Her visit is part of a charm offensive across the continent to counter perceived Chinese influence. She arrived only a day after US Secretary of Education Dr Miguel A Cardona lead the US Delegation to co-host the second summit for Democracy, an initiative of President Biden. Furthermore, it is only two months after US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen travelled to Lusaka to re-invigorate the stalling debt treatment process. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Yellen Criticizes China, Urges Headway in Zambian Debt Talks

But Zambia’s friendships in Washington have not come at the expense of important economic ties to Beijing. On Friday last week, president Hichilema commissioned the final of five new generators to be brought online at the Chinese-built Kafue Gorge power station. The president emphasised the ‘all-weather friendship’ between the two countries and his desire to further grow the relationship. Despite controversy over Chinese infrastructure-linked debt, new contracts are still being issued to Chinese companies for construction projects. 

Under his ‘chief marketing officer’ mantra, president Hichilema has secured investment, trade partnerships, and development support from a diversified mix of partners, including Brazil, DRC, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye, the United Arab Emirates, and Zimbabwe.

Other countries in the region have been less successful in their attempts to attract investment. For two consecutive years, Hichilema has outshone Ramaphosa on his own turf at Mining Indaba. South Africa’s confused messaging on Ukraine is starting to have economic ramifications — with BP pulling out of aviation fuel contracts for fear of violating western sanctions. 

So, what is Hichilema doing right? And should others be following his example? 

A new report by Chatham House argues that there are two key factors driving his international success: he has successfully articulated the national interest in economic terms, which has brought investment; and clarity and consistency on non-alignment have not deterred global partners from across geopolitical divisions. 

Navigating debt divisions 

Maintaining a balance of international partnerships is critical for Zambia’s economic development. Foreign powers play a central role in supporting domestic infrastructure, mining investment, and health and education programmes. 

Since his inauguration in August 2021, Hichilema’s foreign policy has focused on renegotiating Zambia’s significant debt burden and attracting inward investment, particularly for the country’s mining industry. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Zambia on the brink of historic debt relief deal

The government inherited an appalling debt situation. Progress on rectifying it has been slower than anticipated. International commitment remains strong, in part driven by the view of Zambia being at the interface of Chinese and western influence on the continent. However, credit must go to the Zambian government for taking ownership of its problems and solutions.  

In 2020, Zambia became the first country in Africa to default on a debt during the Covid-19 pandemic when it failed to pay a coupon on its Eurobond. It has not been paying off its debt since. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Zambia defaults economically and politically following ‘borrowing spree’

In June 2022 a creditor committee was formed under the G20 Common Framework process. However, while sovereign creditors have agreed in principle to cooperate on debt treatment, tensions remain. 

China prefers lengthening payment terms rather than a haircut, and it has already written off significant amounts. China’s Export-Import Bank (Exim Bank) agreed to suspend interest and principal payments worth $110-million in 2020. Much of the debt accrued by Zambia to Exim Bank was for work undertaken by Chinese companies who received the money directly — much of the finance never reached Zambia. 

The debt was not intended to build strategic leverage over Zambia, although the authorities are cautious of the precedent too easy a process might set for others. 

The participation of private creditors continues to be a hurdle. Many of these are western based but are wary of the opacity of Chinese loans.  

However, the Hichilema regime has been assertive in bringing partners to the table and forcing a functional reconciliation between Chinese and Western interests in the country. 

More significantly, the government’s progress on debt renegotiation and its economic reform agenda have been key to unlocking a $1.4-billion loan from the IMF. A key aspect of the deal is that, unlike the imposed conditions of IMF agreements in the past, most of the economic reform measures that are included in the deal were devised by Zambia itself and were already being implemented. 

Economic interests

Hichilema has made a clear case for the primacy of private enterprise and business-driven economic growth. This has underpinned the regime’s approach to economic reform, institutional capacity building and fiscal consolidation, despite negative domestic and global headwinds. 

A central part of Hichilema’s regional economic diplomacy has been a reversion to Zambia’s approach of securing international support for agreements with neighbours and regional markets, and triangulating investment and partnerships. 

For example, the Kazungula Bridge Project, originally announced in 2007, is an important example of national ‘buy-in’ to the use of blended financing for regional projects, with Zambia and Botswana both contributing to parts of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and African Development Bank-financed project. 

Read more in Daily Maverik: Zambia and South Africa are intertwined — xenophobia must not break that bond

In April 2022, Zambia signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the DRC to facilitate the development of value chains in the electric battery and clean energy sector. The MoU reflects the desire of both governments to capitalise on their endowments of minerals that are required for developing batteries. Industry figures are sceptical, viewing the agreement as a wish rather than a plan for action. Yet, the initiative was given further support through the signing of an additional MoU between the two countries and the US on the side of the Africa Leaders Summit, in a move indicative of the US’s imperative for securing critical mineral supply chains.

As a producer and a transit route for other regional deposits, Zambia is critical to the supply of minerals required for the global energy transition. 

Zambia aims to produce 3 million tonnes of copper per year. This figure may seem excessively ambitious, especially as legacy issues at Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) and Mopani (MCM) hamper current output. 

The commitment to the industry, a clear vision of what the country wants to achieve from it, and most importantly a willingness to engage with companies to overcome obstacles, has resulted in significant investments with more in the pipeline. The government has provided clarity on outstanding tax issues and expended significant effort in fixing its cadastre system. Although concerns remain — particularly around coordination between ministries and agencies on strategy and policy, including local content and empowerment — the revived engagement and improved relationship with firms has markedly increased confidence. 

In 2022 First Quantum Minerals (FQM) announced expansion at their Kansanshi mine, the development of a Nickel project, and a major solar plant to power their operations. Other major players are looking to follow. Anglo-American and Rio Tinto have joint venture exploration projects in the country. 

A conducive business environment is only the first step. This needs to be followed by investment, which takes time to translate into material benefit for the population, especially if it is via the mining industry. 

This will require significant investment in infrastructure to transport the material and a reduction of non-tariff barriers, such as border-post inefficiency. Beyond infrastructure, reviving the mining industry and supporting economic diversification, will require tangible cooperation and collaboration between ministries, national agencies, and companies across the region. 

Domestic political constraints 

Like many governments in the region, the Hichilema administration has had difficulty communicating the long-term benefits of structural reforms and international partnerships to an impatient young population demanding change and improved socio-economic conditions. 

It is vital for the legitimacy of both the Hichilema government and international creditors that much-needed economic reforms result in investment and concrete benefits for Zambia’s population. This will require structures and systems to strengthen the country’s capacity to absorb international investment and development assistance. 

Combatting corruption is the first step towards ensuring that citizens have an equitable and sustainable stake in the nation’s strategic industries, especially mineral production. 

Adherence to international norms and standards offers protection to Zambians as well as investors. These standards do not need to be prescriptive — Zambia can demonstrate leadership and build regional alliances and lobbying blocks within international organisations to shape these standards. 

Domestic institutional development strengthens the investment environment, demonstrates credible commitment to upholding agreements with investors, and allays fears of resource nationalism. There is also a need for structures and systems to strengthen the absorption capacity for international investment and development assistance. 

The government would also benefit from better promotion and acknowledgement of the importance of non-Chinese and non-Western partners, especially those from the global south. This would help de-polarise its international relations and also de-mystify domestic allegations of neo-colonialism.

The patient pursuit of institutional reform, and rejection of populist quick wins, will require the continued support of Zambian citizens. Transparent communication and consultation will be vital to ensure that ordinary people have a sense of ownership of the country’s future and understand the benefits they accrue from Zambia’s foreign relations. BM/DM

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  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    It is instructive that Zambia has a president who has risen above the puerile Cold War posturing of the ANC and EFF who cannot get beyond the ‘glory days’ of the USSR (ignoring the gulags, repression, misery and ultimate collapse of that catastrophe). Whilst we swagger to Moscow with our popgun populism by now banning weapons sales to Poland (not sure that will cause a crisis in Warsaw, home of the glorious, revolutionary, anti-Western, Warsaw Pact, but hey-ho), Hichilema illustrates how it is possible to skillfully negotiate a third way that taps into the benefits of strong relations with both sides – and how a small country can benefit from both without choosing sides.

    Zambia is not alone in this in our region: Tanzania’s first female, first Muslim (I think) and first Zanzibari president, Suluhu Hassan, has done a great job of re-establishing ties with the foreign investor community, especially those in the extractives sector, to the extent that it will unlock roughly US$35bn in investment in the next couple of years. Angola has recovered billions of dollars stolen by the Dos Santos family and friends over the decades they were in power and is rapidly attracting investment across a range of industries outside of oil. Tshisekedi’s DRC is moving in the right direction too, even if DR-Congo is a hellishly complex place! South Africa? Nope. Just corruption, posturing, denial and pompous idiocy.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      I meant to add that in the case of Tanzania, they have re-engaged with largely western investors without booting out Chinese investors or companies delivering critical rail, power and road infrastructure. In Angola and DR-Congo, it’s a bit more complex, given that much of the ‘development finance’ promised by China was linked to murky cash for commodities deals (oil and copper/cobalt respectively) and much of it wasn’t delivered, leading to a resetting of relations with China in those two countries. To take it a little further, in Uganda, Chinese and Western companies are jointly developing the oil industry and the associated infrastructure – and working together quite happily, despite the politics whirling above them. Bottom line is that governments with sophisticated thinking and decent levels of pragmatism are able to accommodate healthy relations with both sides of the global divide – and not get caught up in potentially economically devastating choices that would further undermine an economy already struggling with the choices made by the ANC over the last 15 years.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    In stark contrast to our idiotic, spineless and bumbling poor-excuse-of-a-government!! It is called putting the interests of the country first and foremost, and rising above the adherence to antiquated, miserable and failed communist dogma. This blind loyalty to the most vile and evil countries like Putin and his Russia is despicable in the extreme and it is going to come back and bite us. Whatever these idiots in the ANC touch, turns to stolen, broken or destroyed – as the last 15 years or so have clearly shown. Useless, incompetent, corrupt, self-serving and arrogant in the extreme. Away with this massive ball & chain around our necks, it is strangling the life and blood of this country.

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