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Zambia's unsung success story in Southern Africa

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — It’s not often that the southern African country of Zambia makes headlines.  Fortunately the country has had none of the military coups, civil conflict, nor  political strife which has tragically befallen much of Sub-Saharan Africa.  It has however been cursed in the past by the usual state planning and African socialist models which were so pervasive and ultimately harmful to developing countries.

Being aware of the economic travails of this resource-rich but oft underperforming landlocked country, when I heard that a pro-free market opposition leader had been  elected the new President, I knew that with good governance, Zambia once known as Northern Rhodesia, was poised to prosper.

Zambia's President Michael Sata addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 26, 2012. / Mike Segar / Reuters

Best known for the Victoria Falls, the natural wonder shared with neighboring Zimbabwe, and magnificent game parks, Zambia wants to expand beyond tourist images.

“Zambia is open for Business” President Michael Sata told investors here in New York.

“As one of the most politically stable African states since independence in 1964,”

he acknowledged “market oriented policies since the 1990’s which have promoted stability through good government and the rule of law.”

“The Zambian economy is open for business and trade,” Sata stated adding that a GDP growth rate of  7% or higher is expected for this year.  Even during the past years of global economic recession, Zambia averaged over 6 % growth since 2007.

The World Bank ranks Zambia as one of the top ten economies in doing business in Sub-Saharan Africa, a fact which has eased the way for both large and small investors.

Sata stressed that “fighting corruption” was one of the priorities of his new government. As he told a UN meeting on the Rule of Law, “Since my government assumed power a year ago, Zambians have embraced a reinvigorated program to promote respect for the rule of Law by fighting vices such as corruption.” Fighting corruption, “has significantly helped in restoring confidence in the governance system.”

Speaking separately to business executives, Sata added that “socialist countries offer guarantees” for business and is through those guarantees that corruption often comes.

The populist  president, a practicing Catholic, once worked as a railway porter in London before entering post-independence politics. Known to court controversy, President Sata (75)  remains close with Robert Mugabe, longtime dictator of neighboring Zimbabwe.

Strategically situated in south/central Africa, Zambia profits from membership in the Southern African Development Community, (SADC) a regional trade bloc including South Africa. .

Robert Sichinga, the Harvard-educated Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry told

executives that Zambia has attracted an impressive inflow in foreign investments. Investment surged from $72 million in 2001, to $357 million in 2005 to $1.7 billion in 2010.  The figures are expected to reach $4.7 billion this year.

Canada, the People’s Republic of China, and Britain,  the former colonial power, are among the leaders.

Copper has long been king in Zambia.  With high world commodity prices, the country is reaping benefits. But getting the copper out of a landlocked country required railroads to the coast, and this was one of China’s original entrées into the country in the 1960’s through the TanZam railroad from the copper belt to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.

Chinese investment in the mining sector, long a bone of political contention among Zambia’s political parties and including an early campaign issue of the current government, has become a given.  PRC investment stands at about $2 billion and is growing  beyond the mining sector.  The controversial Huawei telecommunications firm is entrenched as are many construction companies.

A recent article in the Times of Zambia outlining Chinese economic penetration cites some statistics.   In 2010 two-way trade between China and Zambia reached $2.5 billion an almost hundred percent increase over the previous year.   Road, bridge and soccer stadium construction are added to the list including the reconstruction of the historic

Lusaka Independence Stadium in the capital.

The PRC owned China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation (CNMC) is planning to invest an additional $400 million as part of a mining and project engineering venture.

Though Zambia offers special initiatives for Canada and China, one official stated privately that “We are business people. The Chinese have come here the Americans did not come.” Minister Sichinga later told this writer, “We want a spread and balance in investment so we are not subjected to the whims and impacts of one country.”

There’s little doubt that a combination of rich natural resources plus political stability has attracted investment to Zambia but as is increasingly the case throughout Africa, it’s the People’s Republic of China who is “buying up the board” in mining and resources. Beijing is now Africa largest trade partner.  Think about it.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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