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Zambian Politics, Health Issues Are Similar to US

Rupiah Banda's campaign banner

The campaign banner of Rupiah Banda, Zambia's current president, boasts "Security. Stability. Prosperity." He also promises to transform key sectors such as education, health and agriculture for all Zambians. Image by Antigone Barton. Zambia, 2011.

Zambian newspaper highlights the debate on Banda's legitimacy.

Rupiah Banda's legitimacy has become a hot political issue leading up to the presidential election in September. Image by Antigone Barton. Zambia, 2011.

The health care system is a shambles, unemployment continues to run high, the global economic crisis has cast a shadow over the land--and with a presidential election on the horizon, the big news in the headlines is that the opposition has questioned not whether the sitting president was born in this country, but whether his parents were.

Here, the charges that President Rupiah Banda does not meet the criteria to be president center on missing "proof" that his parents were born within the figure-8 shaped outline of colonial interests in the middle of Africa that, upon achieving independence in 1964, became Zambia. The law barring those whose parents were born outside of what then was Northern Rhodesia was put in place by the second president, the late Frederick Chiluba, to rule out a return to power by the first president, Kenneth Kaunda. Here, even politicians who focus on such technicalities have had to recognize that proving each candidate was born in a nation that didn't exist 50 years ago may be unreasonable. Zambian parentage, however, confers a sort of ancestral citizenship for presidential eligibility purposes.

It is complicated reasoning, so in case the legitimizing resemblance to American politics was unclear, opposition candidate Michael Sata has urged the Zambian president to emulate US President Barack Obama who responded to doubters when he released his long-form birth certificate.

Another common theme of campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic has centered around debate on the rights of gay citizens. This topic, which has heated political discourse in recent US elections, fuels candidate charges of upsetting established cultural orders here, as well.

In the US, the debate has focused on the rights of gay people to marry--in a country where AIDS prevention efforts targeting school children have emphasized "abstinence until marriage."

In Zambia, where sex between members of the same gender is a criminal act, the debate has focused on opposition candidate Sata's apparent suggestion several months ago that gay citizens be recognized. According to the government's National AIDS Strategic Framework, that lack of recognition has interfered with collecting data on incidence of the virus that leads to AIDS among men who have sex with men and hampered an appropriate response to the epidemic. All the same, while candidate Sata has since insisted he never suggested overturning the law, the government-run Times of Zambia newspaper has run front page stories on a weekly basis ever since, quoting pastors and politicians who say decriminalizing homosexuality would "encourage the practice" and harm Zambian society. None of the stories have examined the link between policy and health.

Another similarity between this country and the US that has not made the headlines at all is the increasing toll that heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory disease--diseases all associated with wealthier countries--are taking here and in other low- and middle-income countries. Together, these diseases now cause more than half the deaths in developing countries and are overwhelming Zambia's under-resourced health care systems.

According to those working in media and nonprofit sectors here, though, coverage of that growing problem will be edged out until the election by coverage of the presidential campaigns. The election is scheduled for Sept. 20.