Zambia and Zimbabwe: So Similar, so Different

Shutterstock Image (Margaret/SACCO account).
Zambia and Zimbabwe: So Similar, so Different
Graham concludes his series on Zimbabwe & Zambia. Image: Shutterstock

In this article, I consider the histories of two neighbouring countries in southern Africa since they gained independence from Britain, and ask why their experiences have been so different.  

Zambia and Zimbabwe are two countries, sharing a border on the Zambesi River, sharing a history of being a British protectorate, but with such different experiences following independence. Why did these similar countries suffer such different fates?  

Both countries were autocracies (a country ruled by an absolute ruler).  Kenneth Kaunda is a former Zambian politician who controlled the United Nation Independence Party (UNIP), he ruled over the Zambian parliament and the government from 1973 to 1991. Robert Mugabe held absolute power over Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the Zimbabwean parliament and the government from 1987 to 2017. But Zimbabwe went through an economic crash that defies belief, while Zambia’s economy merely went through a depression that, while bad, was not unusual.  

Both countries were one-party states, and both were socialist. Does this provide an answer? Not really.  Mugabe was, politically, to the left of Kaunda, but the amount of state control under the two leaders was similar.  

Both countries went through elections that were less democratic than they appeared. Zambia’s elections (under the 1973 constitution) were controlled by Kaunda:  the presidential election was a yes/no choice, with Kaunda as the only candidate; in parliamentary elections, there were three candidates for each seat, all UNIP members and all chosen by Kaunda himself.  Zimbabwe’s elections were subject to more straightforward coercion – blatant vote rigging, and the fear of what might happen if you voted the wrong way.   In neither country could the elections be considered free and fair.  

Both countries are rich in minerals, in Zambia’s case copper, while Zimbabwe was rich in diamonds, gold, chromite and nickel reserves.   Both countries could be wealthy, if they harvested their minerals responsibly – and, of course, the world markets offered stable prices. 

Both countries have unused agricultural resources. The land invasions in Zimbabwe have destroyed its chances of developing its agricultural sector, to the point where it needs help to feed its own people, never mind export food. Zambia does not yet use all – ar anywhere near all – of its arable land. It may have to, if only to grow enough food to feed its population.  

Both countries have huge potential supplies of hydroelectric power.   The Zambesi River is the border between them, and the Kariba Dam (which they share) supplies a separate power station in each country.   The majority of the electricity needs for each country are met by hydroelectricity, generated from dams or rivers.  Such power stations may not be cheap to build, but at least they are cheap to keep stocked!  

Both countries got involved in foreign wars, either directly or indirectly.   Zambia did not take up arms in the Bush War, or in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, but Kaunda allowed the armies which did take up arms to use Zambian territory for their bases; this opened up Zambia to attack.  Zimbabwe fought against South Africa and in the DRC: a country that had been fought over, and a government that had taken part in the fighting, decided to inflict the same suffering and damage on another country: had Mugabe’s own experience not taught him anything?  

Both countries suffered from damaged economies. While both countries were socialist, both knew they needed foreign investment, so dared not do anything too radical.  The fall in copper prices in 1975 sabotaged Zambia’s economy. By contrast, Zimbabwe sabotaged its own economy by allowing, and even promoting, the land invasions, by pursuing vindictive attacks on areas that supported opposition parties, by denying food to opposition supporters, and by resisting economic sanctions – the sanctions may have hurt, but the additional burdens, such as the loss of help from the IMF, and the stopping of assistance from the World Food Programme, would have hurt even more.  

Where the countries differ, and differ significantly, is in the degree to which dissent was tolerated.   In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, dissent was crushed, often violently:  the Gukurahundi campaign in Matabeleland, the denial of food to MDC supporters.   By contrast, opponents of Kaunda’s UNIP were merely – merely! – denied a voice.  

As John F Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable”; in other words, if a country cannot change its government through the ballot box, it will change its government by a rebellion or civil war, but it will change its government.   Kaunda and Mugabe, both intelligent men, would have realised this.   They differed in their reactions to opposition, and in their – to put it bluntly – egoism.   As Mugabe’s biographer, Martin Meredith, wrote: “His record of economic management was lamentable”.   He had failed to satisfy popular expectations in education, health, land reform and employment.   And he had alienated the entire white community.   Yet all the while Mugabe continued to believe in his own greatness…. Whatever difficulties occurred he attributed to old enemies – Britain, the West, the old Rhodesian network – all bent, he believed, on destroying his “revolution.” Maybe Kaunda was not as egoistical as Mugabe. Maybe he was simply more ready to read the writing on the wall.  

Although both leaders took power having regard to legal procedures, and both were happy to change the law for their personal benefit, Kaunda stayed within the laws he had written.   Mugabe, on the other hand, could not even be bothered to do that.   He said “the courts can do whatever they want, but no judicial decision will stand in our way.” – this from the man who packed the Supreme Court in order to get whatever decision he wanted, who granted the army and police immunity for any “extra-legal” (that is, illegal) actions they took during the Gukurahundi campaign.   

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   This is as true today as it was when it was written in 1887.   Both Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe acquired power, and eventually acquired absolute power.  Both were corrupted, and both had to be forced to let go of the handles of power.   One left office at the hands of the people he claimed to serve; the other had to be forced out of office at the point of a gun.  

Both were corrupted by power.  Only one was corrupted absolutely.