A few days ago, President Edgar Lungu announced a 15 to 20 per cent reduction on his salary and the salaries of both cabinet ministers and the chief executives of parastatal companies. Lungu further directed the Secretary to Cabinet to extend the measure to top-earning non-unionised civil servants, which, in effect, means all workers in management positions. The president claimed that the savings realised from the move will ‘cushion the impact on citizens arising from the increase in fuel prices and electricity tariffs [earlier] announced by the Energy Regulation Board’, although he stopped short of explaining how exactly this would be achieved. Lungu conceded that Zambia’s economy was performing poorly but expressed optimism that it would recover in 2020, owing to a raft of austerity measures that his administration would implement. What do we make of all this?

The first point to note about Lungu’s decision to downgrade the salaries of top-earning public sector workers is that it is illegal and raises serious questions about the president’s understanding of the law. The president has absolutely no powers to unilaterally lower the conditions of service of workers who have clear contracts of employment. Lungu may have thought that as chairman of the Industrial Development Corporation, his powers extend to determining the conditions of service of heads of parastatal companies, for instance. They do not. The respective board of directors of these entities – not the president – employs chief executives of state enterprises and also determines their conditions of service.

Even the board, as the employer, has no powers to adversely and unilaterally vary the conditions of service of employees. The Supreme Court made this point explicitly in the case of Mike Musonda Kabwe versus BP Zambia (see S.C.Z judgement No. 10 of 1997). In that landmark case, the court held that an employer has no powers to adversely alter an employee’s salary without the latter’s consent. To unilaterally slice an employee’s salary, the court stated, amounts to that employee being deemed to be declared redundant or on early retirement from the date the decision is taken. Successive courts have upheld this interpretation of the law when dealing with employment law disputes. Earlier this year, the government moved to enact the Employment Act No. 3 of 2019, which codified the Supreme Court’s ruling. Section 55 of the cited Act expressly prohibits employers from adversely varying an employee’s conditions of service without their consent.

Unless President Lungu provides evidence showing that the affected employees consented to having their salaries sliced, his decision is null and void because it flies against the law and successive rulings of the courts on this subject. If implemented, it has the potential to cost taxpayers heavily. There is a useful precedent on this matter. In 2011, soon after his election, president Michael Sata sacked many lawyers from the Ministry of Justice who protested against his decision to unilaterally abolish their non-practising allowances. The affected lawyers sued the state and, relying on the Kabwe v BP Zambia case, won the matter. They were awarded hefty compensatory damages for breach of contract. Lungu would do well to learn lessons from that case and reverse his ill-advised decision. We taxpayers should not be made to pay for the president’s poor understanding of, or lack of respect for, the law.

The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services, Chanda Kasolo, now tells us that Lungu’s pronouncement on pay cuts was a ‘voluntary’ call. Kasolo is harassing the truth. Lungu’s statement was clear and a directive, not a voluntary call for workers to consider cutting down their salaries. Why not simply admit that Lungu’s announced decision is unsupported by the law? Kasolo’s assertion represents a weak effort at damage control and a ploy by the government to get around the contractual impediments by forcing workers to ‘volunteer’. Given the president’s interest in the issue, who amongst the targeted civil servants won’t ‘volunteer’? And how will the public know whether or not the affected civil servants ‘volunteered’?

The second point is that Lungu’s move to cut his salary and the salaries of his ministers is a populist strategy aimed at preventing public sector unions from making huge demands for higher wages amidst a poor preforming economy. An understanding of the wider volatile economic context is crucial here. Zambia’s economy has deteriorated to possibly its lowest ebb since the PF came to power, thanks to a combination of government incompetence, grand corruption, venality, a crippling US$20 billion public debt, adverse climatic conditions and external shocks. In addition, record depreciations in the exchange rates and foreign reserves have created inflationary pressure on the country’s import-driven economy. These negative economic indicators have led to rising costs of living for ordinary Zambians.

The recent massive hikes in the prices of electricity and fuel are likely to exacerbate the situation and encourage trade unions to demand better wages in order to offset this surge in the cost of living. Lungu knows that economic recovery is unlikely to occur anytime soon. By announcing a reduction in his salary, he is effectively hoodwinking union leaders to manage the aspirations of their members in these ‘tough economic times that require sacrifice from all of us’. This is the underlying motivation behind his announcement.

It is even possible that the president’s pronouncement will not be effected – where is the attendant Statutory Instrument (SI) showing the declared pay cut? We may not see the SI, but Lungu and the government won’t care much. Publicising the purported pay cut, notwithstanding the possibility that it may be a façade, provides the government the necessary pretext on which to ask public sector workers to emulate Lungu’s supposedly ‘inspiring example’ by way of accepting either a wage freeze, a drastic reduction in their pay, or a meagre salary increment in the name of ‘sacrifice’. Slashing the wage bills of the state and state enterprises may be a part of fulfilling the condition to access the much-coveted IMF bailout.

The net effect is to reduce to the barest minimum government expenditure in order to meet debt obligations. The greatest losers here would be the civil servants and other public sector workers, who, in real terms and thanks to inflation, have had to watch the diminishing purchasing power of their already miserable pay. Even if the treasury implements Lungu’s illegal decision, there is the question of whether the proceeds from the negligible savings will ever reach the vulnerable or poor Zambians or instead merely provide more revenue for government officials to steal.

If Lungu really cares about improving the pitiful plight of Zambians, he should consider cushioning them from his exceptional and self-perpetuating incompetence by cutting short his five-year term of office and stepping aside for a competent leader within or outside the governing party – though not the profoundly clueless and inept vice-president Inonge Wina, who should go with him. All considered, the real threat to Zambia, one that must be declared a national disaster or emergency is not the hunger crisis, Constitutional (Amendment) Bill No. 10 of 2019, grand corruption in government, massive public debt, deep ethnic divisions, serious democratic backslides, or a collapsing economy. It is having Lungu as president, a sad reality that once prompted opposition National Democratic Congress president Chishimba Kambwili to ask God a poignant question, one that the Lord is yet to address: ‘Mwelesa, kanshi Lungu mwamufumishe kwi?’

Zambia’s complex challenges require a highly competent and sufficiently educated leadership, one with a clear vision and ethical values – courage, compassion and love for fellow human beings, moral force of character, integrity, genuine humility, honesty, a predilection for consultation, consensus-building, communication, co-operation, active listening, and the selfless pursuit of the public good, and not the selfish striving for personal gain. It is hardly possible to look at Lungu’s cabinet today without being struck by the calamity of the absence of this kind of leadership. The burning question is: what are we going to do about our national plight before we sink further into the abyss? How can we move from simply knowing how bad things are to taking action?

The harsh reality is that Zambia is experiencing a crisis of monumental propositions, one that we must confront in its entirety. Yes, Lungu must go if Zambia is to live, but we Zambians must also wake up and demand better leadership – or sink with the rubbish we get. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Everything. I am not sure, however, if the challenges we face need a ‘good leader’ with all the qualities I have listed, without simultaneously igniting a mass movement to demand these values as the core qualities for new leadership. There is so much to undo, to destroy, and to create.

My worry, in addition to the meaningless shuffling of occupants of State House, is the perpetuation of the “messianic, prophetic, great leader” syndrome, which in fact is partly to blame for our circumstances. Political agency is stolen from the citizen who is turned into an immature, passive, child-like, fearful and respectful idiot before any “government” or “leader” no matter how rotten these could be. In fact, I dare say that with the current zombie-like, fearful Zambian, no “good leader” can help us; rather, we would destroy such a one: we are rotten through and through. There is simply no alternative to a mass political movement at whose heart must be the cultivation (imbibing, internalising, demanding and defending by popular mass power) of the fundamental values that are so essential to (public) life.