By Sishuwa Sishuwa
Across 2018, Zambia experienced no shortage of disappointments and setbacks. Yet there are some individuals whose courage and principles made them inspiring figures in the political landscape. In this and the next article, I list two sets of citizens of 2018: those who through their actions offered hope to Zambians and those who were huge disappointments. Today, I focus on those institutions and Zambians who inspired public trust. Next week, I will discuss individuals and institutions who disappointed.
Zambia suffers a deficit of genuine, consistent heroes. Perhaps there are many unsung heroes whose quiet and diligent work in our own communities goes unnoticed. I apologise for overlooking them in this article. The people I discuss below are drawn from those in public life whose actions are reported in the mainstream media – those who try to contribute positively to our political life and are willing to risk the ire and repression of the government in defence of the public good, or what is just, ethical and principled. The shortness of the list, which is not put in any order of importance, speaks for itself and points to the great absence of commendable figures in our public life who inspire.
Magistrate Mwaka Mikalile: A rare example of judicial independence and integrity can be found in Mwaka Mikalile, a Magistrate in Lusaka who, in late December, handed down an unexpected and welcome judgement in the case of Laura Miti and five others who were arrested and prosecuted for daring to ask questions about corruption in public procurement. Miti and her co-accused, who included forthright and upstanding artist Chama Fumba popularly known as Pilato and opposition Patriots for Economic Progress leader Sean Tembo, were arrested in September 2017 for demonstrating against abuse of public funds, particularly the $42 million that the government allegedly spent on buying 42 fire trucks. Asking questions about corruption is no crime, affirmed Magistrate Mikalile, who also sharply criticised the police for their failure to enforce constitutional liberties such as the right to assemble and protest, especially in instances where citizens have complied with the legal requirements for conducting public demonstrations. Some people, especially in the ruling party, had expected a harsh fine or even custodial sentence for these brave activists. Clearly, however, there are still some judges with genuine respect for the law and I hope that Mikalile and others like her in future occupy leading positions in the higher echelons of our judiciary. Magistrate Mikalile’s understanding of the law and interpretation of the Constitution is worthy of a Supreme Court or Constitutional Court judge.
University of Zambia students: In the face of considerable and murderous repression from the government, the response of the University of Zambia (UNZA) students has been nothing short of heroic. Students have simply demanded the payment of monies owed to them. In reply, the government in 2018 suppressed student bodies, attacked students on campus, destroyed residences and arguably caused the death of a female student, Vespers Shimunzhila. Thousands of courageous young students rallied in the aftermath to put their slain colleague to a dignified rest, protest against police brutality, and demand justice for Vespers. Their capacity to organise even in the absence of formal leadership exposed the irrationality of the illegitimate decision by the Minister of Higher Education Nkandu Luo to suspend student union activities in public universities on the grounds that they encouraged protests. Luo was subsequently forced to eat humble pie when she reinstated student union activities at UNZA (the ban remains in force at Copperbelt University, however) while the public outcry that followed the police’s violent suppression of the student protests compelled the Director of Public Prosecutions to open an inquest into the death of Vespers. The students’ refusal to be cowed and intimidated, their keeping alive the right to assemble and protest, which has been heavily curtailed in recent years, should serve as an inspiring example to all Zambians on how best to respond to government oppression: constant peaceful defiance and civil disobedience.
Landilani Banda, Grace Kumwenda and McQueen Zaza: By representing anti-corruption activist Gregory Chifire, charged with contempt by the Supreme Court for questioning the court’s judgment in a high-profile commercial matter involving enormous financial stakes, these three young lawyers risked their professional reputation and livelihoods to defend a man who no one else would. As well as effectively arguing that the Supreme Court was interpreting contempt in a bizarre way, Banda, Kumwenda and Zaza raised questions about the legality and constitutionality of the procedure adopted by the court to institute the proceedings, especially since the complainants in the case were also the judges. For their inspiring show of courage, the Supreme Court justices disgracefully slandered them in court as being ‘misguided, perhaps arising from youthful exuberance which clouded their perception of the occasion’, and naïve. Yet the future hope of Zambia lies with brave lawyers such as these three and not the judges, whose own conduct, one may argue, should earn them an instant return to the Magistrates’ Court (with Mikalile going in the opposite direction) where they should be placed on apprenticeships or start all over again. Zambia’s judiciary needs figures who will stand up to judges and defend the rights of the accused without fear or favour.
Princess Kasune and Stanley Kakubo; Many MPs in Zambia’s Parliament seem content to follow instructions of party leaders, never raise their voice on many issues of national significance, and busy themselves with the misuse of Constituency Development Funds. Two rare exceptions are Princess Kasune, a United Party for National Development (UPND) MP for Keembe constituency, and Stanley Kasongo Kakubo, Kapiri Mposhi UPND MP, whose thoughtful and careful contributions have earned both lawmakers plaudits far beyond Parliament and their constituencies. In addition, Kasune’s willingness to breach taboo subjects is refreshing. She has disclosed that she is HIV positive, a virus that affects millions of Zambians but about which few will speak openly. She has risked public ridicule and exclusion for her courageous stand. Kakubo exposed the government’s lies that a bailout with the International Monetary Fund was on the horizon when in fact not, demonstrated the contradictions between the government’s supposed commitment to education and the contemptible percentage that the Minister of Finance allocated to the educator sector in this year’s budget, slated the government for its lopsided priorities (buying fire trucks at a cost of $42 million when most Zambians lack decent shelter, basic health facilities and agricultural inputs) and denounced the increasing levels of corruption, extravagance and theft of public resources under President Edgar Lungu’s watch. For this, he received death threats from supporters of the ruling authorities and faced a backlash in his own party, whose senior members accused him of harbouring presidential ambitions and preparing a leadership bid. Zambia needs more MPs and leaders like Kasune and Kakubo.
Mundia Mukubesa and Saboi Imboela: Slightly over 80% of Zambia’s population is below the age of 35 and a majority are female. A look at our national political leadership, both in government and the opposition, would make one think that the opposite was true. By leaving politics to older people and predominantly male, we are losing out on the energy, pragmatism and drive that women and young persons bring to the formal political and economic sphere as well as their experience in negotiating for a life on the margins. It was therefore very welcome to see so many youths participating in Lusaka’s mayoral by-election of July 2018. Inspiring examples included Mundia Mukubesa, a prominent local musician better known for his stage name Petersen, of the People’s Alliance for Change, and Saboi Imboela, a female youth from the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC). Although the governing Patriotic Front (PF) won the mayoral race through the power of incumbency, these people are not going away and will hopefully reinvigorate politics in future. Even if Mukubesa and Imboela did not win, they dared to dream and, summoning their instincts to lead, stepped forward in an era where many young people are preoccupied with social media and content with complaining. One reason why Zambia has so many bad leaders is because good people shun politics, leaving the field free for the likes of Bowman Lusambo, Freedom Sikazwe, Jean Kapata, Stephen Kampyongo and several others from both the opposition and ruling parties.
Vincent Mwale: Another unexpected addition to the list of 2018’s inspiring figures is Minister for Local Government Vincent Mwale. Mwale, unlike so many of his colleagues in President Lungu’s Cabinet, takes his ministerial position seriously. He performs his job competently, fulfils the basic functions of his office and does not spend his time debasing himself with sycophantic nonsense or ludicrous pronouncements like ‘Edgar Lungu was chosen by God’ or ‘Jesus Christ has entered into the boat and is now a fully-fledged PF cadre’. During the cholera crisis that ravaged Lusaka and other parts of the country at the beginning of last year, for instance, Mwale kept the public updated with regular and sober briefings. Even when he was forced, by virtue of his position, to give a ministerial statement on the controversial purchase of the 42 fire trucks, Mwale seemed so troubled that his usual self-confidence appeared to be at its lowest ebb, perhaps unhappy that he was being asked to defend the brazen theft of public funds by those who were involved in the scandalous procurement at the time of purchase when he was at another ministry. Mwale’s commendable willingness to engage with Zambians on his social media platforms was also on display throughout 2018. During such public exchanges, his nature and temperament, even in the face of provocation, were truly magnificent, as was his wisdom in judgement and charity in spirit. I can only hope that Mwale is not fired immediately as a result of this inclusion, as Lungu appears to detest competent individuals.
Harry Kalaba: It is unusual for a minister to resign on a genuine point of principle, but former Minister of Foreign Affairs Harry Kalaba did just that at the beginning of 2018 when he left his Cabinet position in protest against the ‘swelling levels of greed and corruption’ under Lungu’s watch. He also cited the government’s preference for outsiders, notably the Chinese, over Zambians in relation to business opportunities and the growing marginalisation of the country’s youth and the poor as the other key reasons for his exit. He was also the only former minister who offered to pay back the money that he and over 60 other ministers received when they illegally remained in office after the dissolution of Parliament in May 2016. Kalaba has since indicated that he will contest Zambia’s 2021 presidential election on the Democratic Party ticket. Like that of National Restoration Party president Elias Chipimo Jnr., Kalaba’s leadership style offers a refreshing addition to Zambia’s political market place as he, throughout 2018, refrained from engaging in the kind of name calling and mudslinging that passes for political debate elsewhere. It would be beneficial for all of Zambia if other political players could emulate Kalaba’s civility of expression and if other government ministers – such as Given Lubinda, a man who was previously accused by many people of possessing an active conscience but who now appears untroubled by injustice, corruption, abuse of power and the grand theft of public resources – rediscovered their principles.
News Diggers! During 2018, News Diggers really established itself as an important and credible player on the Zambian media landscape. The organisation reported on many breaking news stories and provided an alternative platform that had been missing in mainstream media. Without being sensational and sticking only to the news that was in the public interest, News Diggers exposed a number of scandals and reported on the decisions and pronouncements of public figures in ways that compelled action. The newspaper kept open the civic space (which was under pressure), presented non-partisan news (a rarity in Zambia) and published stimulating editorial comments whose depth and wisdom were truly inspiring. It contributed to public discourse on issues that really matter to Zambians. The fact that a band of young, passionate and courageous patriots owns, leads and runs the publication is most encouraging.
Chishimba Kambwili: The National Democratic Congress Consultant (whatever this title actually means!) and Roan constituency rebel PF MP might seem like an unlikely addition to this list. When serving as a minister in government, Kambwili was Lungu’s most vociferous and fervent defender. There was no action the government and Lungu could take that he would not try to justify. Out of office, he has experienced a conversion like St Paul on the Road to Damascus. To diffuse any potential charge that he was previously close to the levers of power, Kambwili has recast himself as the spokesperson for the ‘common man’, street vendors, university students, the workers and many others who are disillusioned with Lungu’s rule. In a context of what appears to be a systematic crackdown on free speech, he has also become one of the PF’s most trenchant public critics – exposing corruption in government, highlighting Lungu’s manifold inadequacies, denouncing economic exploitation by Chinese investors and refusing to be silenced. For all his troubles, he has been the subject of police harassment and prosecution, but even these State-driven manoeuvres have seemingly not slowed him down. Hate or like him, Kambwili cannot be ignored. He is well-liked, especially on the Copperbelt, as a ‘no-nonsense’ doer and a charismatic leader with the common touch. Throughout 2018, Kambwili galvanised opposition forces and raised an array of concerns that struck a positive chord with many Zambians, when Lungu and several of his colleagues in government – all seemingly tied by an invisible thread that seeks the corruption of the political order for personal gain at all costs and whose members measure success by the amount of wealth they can accumulate both by foul and fair means – appeared too preoccupied with self-enrichment.