Lusaka - A decision by Zambia's president to slash a key
food subsidy threatens to hit the poor, stoke inflation and spark a popular
revolt against his government.
Earlier this week Michael Sata tore up his own populist
political playbook, stamped on it and set it on fire by announcing weighty
maize subsidies will be scrapped.
Reversing a policy he introduced on coming to power in 2011,
Sata said stopping government subsidies for the staple food would lead to
"real economic and well distributed growth".
It would also save the government much-needed cash.
But in reaching for fiscal probity, Sata has effectively
grabbed the third rail of developing world politics with both hands.
Famously, a 1977 decision to scale back bread subsidies in
Egypt prompted riots that killed nearly 80 people. The army was deployed to
restore order and the policy was quickly rolled back.
Zambia itself saw serious food riots in 1990, which helped
push the government from power.
The backlash this time around has been prompt, but, for the
Thirty-four-year-old Mooya Chilala, an unemployed father of
two, said there is only one response to the move: Zambians must vote Sata out
"I have many dependents and with this increase all I
can ask my fellow Zambians is to remove this government from power," said
In Lusaka supermarkets a bag of mealie meal - a coarse corn
flour that is a local staple - currently costs around 50 US cents a kilo.
In a country with high unemployment, 60% of people living in
poverty and the average income at $3.45 a day, any significant increase will
cause economic and social shocks.
Sata's political opponents have been quick to seize on
A coalition of civil society groups on Thursday demanded the
government reverse its decision.
"We are giving the government seven days," said
coalition spokesperson Guess Nyirenda vowing mass protests.
Njekwa Anamela, vice president of the opposition United
National Independence Party (UNIP) said the situation was a
"The government is failing to respond to the needs of
its people," he told AFP.
"Food is made unaffordable and inaccessible to its
citizens," he said. "What kind of socialists are these who have left
the poor to suffer," he added.
The UNIP has good reason to press the point.
The 1990 riots ultimately forced the then UNIP government to
adopt democratic reforms, which led to its ouster at elections a year later.
Economists are concerned that the move will stoke inflation
which is already running at 6.5%, and is on path to breech a seven percent
"With the increase in fuel prices, everything else will
go up and there is no way we shall meet the set targets," said Maambo
Hamaundu, an independent economist, referring to the recent removal of fuel
subsidies as well.
In the "2013 budget, there was no indication of such a
move, we are wondering why the rush to remove the subsidies. Where is the
pressure coming from?" Hamaundu added.
But price rises may not be inevitable, thanks to the fact
that the government subsidies went directly to millers.
According to a 2012 study by the Indaba Agricultural Policy
Research Institute, millers were not passing on their savings of around $340
per ton from the subsidies to customers but instead pocketing additional
Sata's spokesperson George Chella on Wednesday said the
maize subsidies "only benefit the already well to do middlemen and not the
targeted vulnerable groups of our society".
He vowed the government would instead channel resources
"to the very poor", and called on "all well-meaning Zambians
need to look at days beyond today and tomorrow".
The government has not detailed how it plans to target
support to the needy, however.