Zambia’s coffers are empty? Did Mobutu’s spirit cross over there?

Tuesday September 07 2021
Hakainde Hichilema

Zambia's new president Hakainde Hichilema. PHOTO | FILE | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On Wednesday a story from old Africa popped up in Zambia.

Zambia's new president Hakainde Hichilema told the BBC that he has inherited an "empty" treasury, while "horrifying" amounts of money had been stolen.

We still get stories of new presidents who find an economy in crisis, but these tales of empty treasuries are supposed to be a thing of the past. It's even more surprising when they come from Zambia, where Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu and came into office through a civilised democratic transition after the latter gracefully conceded defeat.

A country where that kind of transition is possible should have a semblance of a professional state, which looks after the national good and keeps things like the national reserve reasonably protected. That would contrast sharply in the military-coup-plagued Africa of the 1970s to 1990s, where governments were little more than an outfit of the dictator and his bandit friends running the State like a criminal enterprise.

In those days, when a ruler was ousted, there would always be stories of “how much money he ran away with” as mutineering soldiers or rebels “approached the gates of State House.”

When we were young, I remember my older brothers marvelling about a story of a West African dictator who was ousted in a coup, and was cornered, barefoot and trembling in fear, in a sugar plantation as he clutched a briefcase full of dollars.


One of the last of these buccaneer Africans was thought to be Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who was in office from 1997 to 2003. With a country recovering from the ravages of civil war, diplomats spoke of Taylor having a safe installed in his office where quite a bit of the foreign exchange that came through was kept.

An official delegation travelling would go to him, and he'd pull the key out his pocket, open the safe, count out the dollars he chose to give them. It was not uncommon, reportedly, to find a mistress perched on his lap as you walked in. He would also hand her her fistful of dollars for the week.

We’ve come a long way. These days Big People’s money is moved through secretive wire transfers and clever financial instruments to offshore accounts and to dummy companies. You don’t quite immediately find or see the hole from which he looted. It takes some forensic work to catch it.

That within days of taking office, Hichilema’s government can immediately see an empty Treasury is tragic, but it is also a worrying decline in standards.

But then, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. There is a creeping rehabilitation of the figures who represented that old Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a monument built in memory of former president Mobutu Sese Seko has been unveiled in the northwest town of Gbadolite.

By the time of his ouster in 1997, the notoriously corrupt and ostentatious Mobutu was alleged to have looted up to $5 billion (about $8.5 billion today) over 32 years.

The town’s mayor showered praise upon Mobutu, who died in exile in Morocco in late 1999, calling him a “statesman”.

Zambia is DRC’s neighbour. Maybe Mobutu’s spirit crossed the border too.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]