The eagerly anticipated presidential debate involving four candidates of political parties with parliamentary representation failed to take off Tuesday evening at the Pamodzi Hotel after UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema and PF’s Edgar Lungu opted out.
The debate which was due to start at 19 Hours attracted an impressively large crowd of people comprising dignitaries, senior citizens, NGO leaders and several students.
It however failed to take off after Mr Lungu communicated to the organisers, the Economics Association of Zambia of his unavailability at the eleventh hour.
This was after the four parties, the PF, MMD, UPND and FDD had signed an agreement committing their respective presidential candidates to participating in the debate.
Trouble started earlier in the day when NAREP President Elias Chipimo threatened to drag the Electoral Commission of Zambia to court if he is not included on the list of debaters.
In a letter to ECZ, Mr Chipimo contended that by allowing the EAZ debate without all the eleven candidates, the Commission was giving undue advantage to the four selected parties ahead of the election.
But the Commission after through consultations with ZNBC and its Chairperson Justice Irene Mambilima resolved that the debate should proceed as scheduled and will be later aired on ZNBC as a recorded broadcast.
Around 18:30, advance parties of three candidates namely Mr Hichilema, Dr Nevers Mumba and Edith Nawakwi had arrived at the hotel and were receiving some briefings from the organisers as the audience was filling up the auditorium.
Mr Hichilema’s team immediately stormed out of the briefing room after they learnt that Mr Lungu was not available saying Mr Hichilema was only interested in taking part in the debate because he wanted to take on the PF presidential candidate.
A few minutes after 19 Hours, Mr Hichilema’s team led by his campaign manager Dipak Patel were seen driving out of the hotel much to the disappointment of the people that were privy to the behind the scene happenings.
As time raced on, debate moderator Kunda Mando was at pains to explain the delays to the audience that was now growing impatient.
Shortly afterwards, Dr Mumba held an impromptu news briefing outside the entrance to the hotel where he announced that he was not proceeding with the debate after he learnt that Mr Hichilema had equally pulled out at the last minute.
Dr Mumba said the agreement was that the debate could happen if at least three of the four candidates were present adding that it is surprising that Mr Hichilema had pulled out after learning that Mr Lungu was unavailable.
‘To all those that are aspiring to lead this country, my encouragement is that it is important for us to use such opportunities like our friends in other countries do to allow the public to critique us, listen to us speak to issues off the cuff, that is important to the Zambian people to be able to assess the type of leadership that Zambia needs moving forward in this new generation and i think debates are the usual things,’ Dr Mumba stated.
He continued, ‘So we are deeply disappointed that some of our colleagues grew cold feet in dealing with matters that are going to help Zambians make a decision on the 20th of January but we came here to be able to present ourselves and to explain to the Zambian people what we have in store for them, they are not here and I feel terrible that EAZ has worked so hard and this thing has not worked for them. I do hope that we will fly back to Lusaka and do a programme, so I hope it works.’
‘There was an agreement that the four of us or at least three of us to slag it and we wanted everybody to be there. The arrangement was for the four political parties and we don’t want to short circuit it.’
The MMD leader added, ‘This is very disturbing, we had to fly down here, charter a plane from Kalaba to be able to do this national programme and the seriousness should be attached by all candidates and it is showing some signs that probably they don’t want to face the Zambian people in this set up where they can be challenged directly by the Zambian people.’
He said it is one thing to address a rally and speak to people and they are not asking you questions but that it is a nerve wrecking event to have them ask questions.
‘If you say you are going to provide free education, they want to find out how you are going to do it and where you are going to get the money. We have had situations in this country where a politician has cheated his way to State House because nobody could question how they were going to do the 90 day promises, that is why you the media want to hear us and ask us the questions now. It would be a great opportunity and i hope our colleagues would come back to do it.’
And Ms Nawakwi said she was taken by surprise that the debate failed to take place because of one or two candidate’s absence.
‘We are taken by surprise. It is not the first time a debate has taken place of presidential candidates excluding one or two candidates. You may recall that in 2008, 2011 the late President Sata did not appear on the set and I recall that we had a debate at ZNBC itself and I think President Hichilema was not on that set,’ Ms Nawakwi said.
She added, ‘We cannot depend on ZNBC as if ZNBC was the country. It is always very disappointing that as politicians we don’t take recognizance of the hard work of the men and women in the other print and electronic media. I think it is grossly unfair to belittle the effort of our brothers and sisters in other media houses, everybody has a role and they ought to be respected for their input.
Meanwhile, EAZ President Isaac Ngoma said he was disappointed that the debate failed to take place.
‘I am probably the most disappointed man in this country at this moment. The debate is being postponed, not cancelled because we still have firm commitments from the MMD, FDD and the UPND and we got apologies and commitments from the PF so we have to go round this,’ Mr Ngoma said.
He added, ‘Much as we have spent a lot of money as EAZ and we don’t expect to get a reimbursement from our dear partners Pamodzi Hotel, I believe we are going to sort this thing with ZNBC because there are legal implications and there is a commitment, there is a payment made and they have to do that which was paid for. I would like to apologise for what has taken place, it is not like the EAZ did not do every possible, we did everything that is humanely possible to try and ensure the success of this event.’
‘We hope that by tomorrow mid day we are going to re-establish the way forward and communicate through the media as to when this event can be held. All the candidates have committed that they will be able to make it at short notice. They have to make up. They have to be some point of restitution.’