A minister in President Edgar Lungu’s Cabinet and the leader of Zambia’s main opposition party have become the latest high profile public figures to be embroiled in a twitter war with Sishuwa Sishuwa, an outspoken academic whose acerbic political commentaries have frequently placed him at loggerheads with leading political figures in government and the opposition.
A tweet by Minister of Transport and Communications Dr Brian Mushimba on the benefits of automatic air navigation backfired spectacularly when it was met with a hard-hitting response from the University of Zambia (UNZA) lecturer.
On 29 June 2019, Dr Mushimba alighted from a plane at Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport minutes before he tweeted to share his experience of landing on the automatic navigation aircraft system.
“I have just experienced automatic landing at Lusaka airport; the plane landed itself with no pilots on the controls”, wrote Dr Mushimba on Twitter.
Over 80 of the minister’s followers liked his tweet while others used the opportunity to present outstanding grievances. A Twitter user who goes by the name of ‘Zambia in the Sun’ tweeted ‘Please tell President Lungu to reopen CBU’. A few others stuck to the subject of technological advances, praising the minister for what one follower termed ‘an awesome experience’.
As opposed to offering platitudes, Sishuwa used the minister’s experience to draw an analogy of the experiences of Zambians under the leadership of President Lungu and his government.
“What you felt momentarily is exactly what many Zambians have been feeling ever since Mr Lungu and you landed in public office: that Zambia has been on an autopilot mode with no leadership to control its drift towards a costly disaster of a protracted and endemic general crisis”, tweeted Sishuwa before he added that “The major difference is that while you may have had a smooth landing in the end, despite the lack of controls, Zambia, with no leadership to control its dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift, is headed for a catastrophic crash. Sadly in Zambia’s case, it is less a case of a functioning autopilot and more a case like the Malaysian Airlines flight where the pilot and his cabin crew (read Mr Lungu and his friends in Cabinet) deliberately crashed the plane (Zambia) into the sea (of corruption, division, etc.)!”
Sishuwa’s reply went viral, with several Zambians such as prominent musician Chama Fumba, popularly known as Pilato, governance activist Kupela Clarke, and ActionAid Country Director Nalucha Nganga-Ziba retweeting it with their own comments and praising it as expressing what many citizens feel but lack the courage to say publicly.
Later, the outspoken political commentator picked another Twitter argument with opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema, whom he sharply questioned for his growing turn to God in place of offering policy appeals to voters.
Hichilema had tweeted that “If there is something the PF should be afraid of, it is not us. It is the divine consequence of stealing from the Zambian people and embracing the evils of brutality while pretending to be Christian. God is fair and His will shall prevail”.
Nearly 300 of Hichilema’s followers on Twitter liked and praised the tweet. Trevor Mumba commended the UPND leader saying “What president HH is saying is that karma is a bad woman and she never forgets. A time of reckoning is coming”. Several others echoed Mumba’s sentiments.
But Sishuwa criticised the tweet and accused Hichilema of desperation and pandering to the Christian faithful in an attempt to win votes. He said the UPND leader should have instead promised to prosecute those responsible for pillaging public resources, if elected, charging that the obsession with God is holding Zambia back.
“I detect increasing piety in your posts, HH”, tweeted Sishuwa. “I cannot help but wonder whether you are pulling all stops now in getting that Christian vote or you actually believe what you write, including ascribing agency such as the power to punish wrongdoers to a deity. And what kind of God is this one, who, like a typical Zambian, stands and looks while all manner of plunder and destruction takes place? This obsession with God isn’t helping us at all, Mr Hichilema. In many ways, it is holding us back. We must exercise our minds a bit more”.
Hichilema subsequently responded rather dogmatically, tweeting “We are not ashamed of our reliance on God to give us strength as we endure our struggles. We are determined to change Zambia and we’ll continue to work tirelessly, even under difficult circumstances. Faith without works is futile.”
The UPND leader’s reply was met with choruses of “Amen” from his supporters, who also descended on Sishuwa’s tweet, taking turns to condemn it. The leading condemnation came from international trade and business consultant Trevor Simumba, who accused the critical academic of attacking the opposition leader’s faith.
“Sometimes we forget that HH was brutally attacked in his home with his family in real danger”, tweeted Simumba in response. “He was detained on trumped up treason charges and many attempts have been made on his life. Truly, I can understand his faith in God. It’s not easy being an opposition leader in Zambia”.
But Sishuwa dismissed Simumba’s reaction, saying it lacked substance and had little to do with anti-corruption reform. “I think this has little to do with the argument I raised. This isn’t about HH nor what he has or hasn’t gone through. I worry that you are conflating an idea with its proponent. A person is not the idea. Consequently, they do not begin to be attacked or defended as one”.
Simumba, who recently declared that Hichilema is the best option for Zambia, responded that “I can tell you as someone who has been threatened directly with death for holding an opposing view to the powers that be that without God, I would have given up and just stayed quiet like many good Zambians do. I fully relate to HH’s recent growing faith in God”.
“Trevor, I am not saying Hichilema shouldn’t believe in God. I am against surrendering our human agency to that God. If it takes God to punish thieves who are stealing public resources today, I might as well vote for that God, not Hichilema if I want a corrupt-free Zambia, no? You probably are closer to Hichilema. Please advise him properly including on the need to stop playing to the gallery. I am beginning to fear that should HH become President tomorrow, some will sing him praises pretty much like the guys in PF are doing to Lungu now.”
The respected international trade and business consultant who has announced plans to stand as a member of parliament in the 2021 election then accused Sishuwa of being angry. “You seem to be very angry lately and I think it’s clouding your very formidable analytical mind”, Simumba tweeted.
“How can I not be angry”, tweeted Sishuwa in response, “when public resources are being looted with impunity by Mr Lungu’s administration and the leader of Zambia’s main opposition responds by citing divine, not natural, consequence of stealing from Zambians? How about promising to prosecute those responsible?”
Another supporter of Hichilema’s tweet, Caesar Cheelo, said there is need to leave matters of corruption to God’s judgement, tweeting “But we are also rationale, talented and determined thinkers who have constantly exercised our minds. We could all do well to talk less and listen more! There’s wisdom in leaving God’s judgment to Him”. Unconvinced, Sishuwa hit back, tweeting “You are missing the point, Countryman, and are not helping Hichilema. The consequence of stealing from the Zambian people is natural, not divine. Why didn’t HH simply promise to prosecute those who are corrupt and stealing public resources today? Why leave the matter to God?”
Felicity Kalumba Kalunga, who supported Sishuwa’s argument, charged that Zambians are burdening God with unnecessary additional responsibilities, tweeting “In what sense does the will of God prevail over plunder when he’s given us wisdom and the means to prevent and prosecute crime? I am afraid we are giving God too much work”
Others questioned if Zambians have any identity beyond religion. Sampa Kangwa wrote “[I] wonder what us Zambians would do if God rejected us for a month refusing anything to do with us including mentioning his name”, to which Sishuwa responded “We possibly would have neither identity nor voice for the whole duration of the suspension or rejection!”.