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Zambia's foreign minister pushes for debt relief
The Washington Diplomat / July 2005

By Larry Luxner

LUSAKA — Landlocked Zambia, one of Africa's poorest nations, is bearing the brunt of AIDS, low prices for its chief commodities and an influx of refugees from neighboring countries — most recently from strife-torn Zimbabwe.

That's why debt relief and stepped-up U.S. economic assistance were at the top of the agenda for Lt. Gen. Ronnie Shikapwasha, Zambia's foreign minister, during his recent visit to Washington.

"This country has eight neighbors, and the Zambian people have supported the liberation struggle in South Africa, and independence in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. We've also been the backbone for the survival of Congo," said Shikapwasha. "This has taken a toll on our people, and now they're looking for the government to deliver."

Shikapwasha, whose nine-day visit was arranged by the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program, spoke to the Washington Diplomat last month at his second-floor office at the Zambian Foreign Ministry in Lusaka.

During our one-hour interview, Shikapwasha said Zambia's copper industry generates 65% of all foreign-exchange earnings; other important minerals include cobalt, zinc, lead, silver, uranium and manganese. The Texas-sized country is struggling to boost foreign exchange by promoting tourism, high-quality coffee exports and foreign investment in a variety of sectors ranging from agriculture to telecom.

Yet the economy remains dependent on foreign aid and loans from international financial institutions.

Zambia, a former British colony, was known as Northern Rhodesia until it won its independence in 1964; Southern Rhodesia eventually became Zimbabwe.

Even though Zambia is one of the world's chief copper exporters, its 10.6 million people struggle with a per-capita income of only $380 a year — making it one of the poorest countries in Africa.

"At the time of independence, we had surplus revenue, and our currency, the kwacha, was worth $2.00. Today, it takes 5,700 kwachas to buy one dollar," said Shikapwasha. "You can't keep two million refugees in your country for so many years, with very little international support, and expect the economy to survive."

Shikapwasha, 57, is certainly old enough to remember the good times. The foreign minister was born in the town of Kabwe, and joined the Zambian Air Force at the age of 23, even though he had originally aspired to be an accountant.

Trained by the Royal Air Force in England, Shikapwasha qualified as a pilot in 1970 and spent the next three decades rising through the ranks. During his long career, he served as a military adviser in Tanzania, Pakistan, Mauritius, Rwanda, Burundi and the Comoros. In 2004, Shikapwasha was appointed minister of home affairs, and earlier this year became Zambia's foreign minister.

As such, one of the most critical issues he's had to deal with is the violent political situation in central Africa, which has had a direct impact on generally stable Zambia.

"We've had an unstoppable influx of refugees from the Congo [formerly Zaire]. Of the 280,000 people in our refugee camps today, about 30% of them are from the Congo. Another 50% are from Angola," he said. The remaining 20% are mainly from Rwanda, Burundi and more recently Zimbabwe.

"Around 60% of the farmers who have had to leave Zimbabwe have come to Zambia," he said. "These people's farms were taken over, and Zambia has given them refuge, resources and financing."

Despite the unrest in Zimbabwe, Shikapwasha declined to criticize that country's enigmatic president, Robert Mugabe, or his widely condemned policies of taking land from white farmers and "redistributing" it to blacks — often political cronies.

In the last few months, that situation has gotten worse, with widespread food shortages reported in the countryside, and increasing political strife in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. Several foreign journalists have been expelled, and those who remain operate in an atmosphere of intimidation.

"I think the Zimbabwe issue must be seen in several dimensions," Shikapwasha explained. "Both the U.S. and British governments have said that the recent elections in Zimbabwe [in which Mugabe was re-elected with 80% of the vote] were not free and fair. This process was monitored by a group of people under the umbrella of the SADC [Southern Africa Development Council].

"Their reports said the elections were indeed without violence, and that in fact they were much better than the ones held four or five years before. If countries like America observed the weaknesses they saw in past elections, then it's important to help and strengthen the SADC organs in order to iron out those issues."

Through it all, he said, "relations with Zimbabwe are good. Trade continues at a high level, and our ministers talk on a regular basis."

Zambia itself has had a turbulent past. The one-party, Marxist-orient regime of Dr. Kenneth Kaunda — an anti-colonialist who led the country from independence until 1991 — eventually gave way to the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) led by trade unionist Frederick Chiluba.

In an effort to satisfy the international community and receive badly needed aid, Chiluba's MMD removed all foreign-exchange controls, freed up interest rates, liberalized trade and privatized money-losing state enterprises. But the social costs of such reforms was high, and widespread discontent helped sweep Zambia's current president, Levy P. Mwanawasa, into power, following elections held in December 2001.

Next year, Zambians will go to the polls again. Under the constitution, the president may serve no more than two five-year terms.

"We have made a number of reforms so that the electoral process will be more transparent. We are also reviewing the constitution in order to remove some gray areas," Shikapwasha said without elaborating.

In the meantime, Zambia's priorities are to halt the spread of HIV infection and push for debt relief, without which he says the country cannot recover.

"Zambia's anti-AIDS program is probably one of the best in the world," Shikapwasha said. "We have reduced infection rates and are educating girls and women. We've gone down to the village level, where village chiefs and involved in the effort to change traditional practices that would have caused HIV to increase. We are also providing retroviral drugs to the population."

Shikapwasha claimed that until recently, 26% of all Zambians were infected with HIV, but that the government has brought this infection rate down to 14% with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"U.S. assistance to Zambia has increased dramatically," he said. "The picture looks good and we want that picture to continue."

On the other subject, that of debt relief, Shikapwasha argues that the United States and other rich nations should forgive Zambia's crushing debt because they've done little to help the country deal with its ongoing refugee crisis.

"Zambia owes the international community $7.8 billion. That's a lot of money for us," he said, noting that the country has fulfilled its obligations under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) program and thus qualifies for substantial debt reduction. "Our position is that the economy cannot grow if we must continue to service this debt. We believe the international community should have been sensitive to Zambia's position. So we're campaigning to have this debt written off 100%."

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