By Concerned UNZA Staff
For the past 20 years, the University of Zambia has experienced many institutional challenges which have always dented the reputation of the premier university in the nation. Most of these challenges have mainly been a creation of the successive governments. Each year that has passed has been blighted by different forms of institutional problems which have been a source of students’ protests and staff strikes.
With the coming of the new dawn government, the University community and the nation at large breathed a sigh of relief hoping that the new government will have a different style of managing the institution and addressing its many challenges. However, the situation is far from changing. What is being experienced now is what one would call a repeat of the previous regimes’ style of doing things; a lack of clear policy direction, poor governance, nepotism, micromanagement of the University by the Government and non-payment of terminal and contractual obligations to staff and retirees.
The University community has been waiting for the new Government, the custodian of the University of Zambia, to provide a clear vision and policy direction for the University and higher education in general. One year into the new dawn’s government, there has been no policy pronouncements from the Government with regard to their vision for UNZA and higher education. The Government seems to be more interested and focused on basic education than higher education. A good illustration of this is a lack of mention of what the Government intends to do to reform higher education and specifically address challenges that UNZA and other public universities have faced over the years in the Presidential speech given to Parliament a few weeks ago.
The institution is again witnessing poor governance and the ugly face of nepotism resurfacing. Six months ago, for example, the Ministry of Education through the new Care Taker Committee of the University of Zambia Council, removed from office two principal officers namely, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Luke Mumba and his Deputy, Dr Tamara Kambikambi. The duo was removed on account of failure to run the University although what is on the ground is that they were suspected to have had links with the former ruling party. They were also accused of having been appointed on ethnic lines than merit which made the University of Zambia top management appear as though they were only two ethnic groups in Zambia.
A month ago, the purge continued with the removal of Dr Jason Mwanza from the office of Dean of Students Affairs without giving him any reason for his removal. His removal brought the total number of dismissed top officials of the University to three within six months. The three are now challenging what they term unfair termination of employment. There is credible information that the Government will continue to systematically remove high ranking officials from the University of Zambia who are suspected to have links with the former ruling party.
What is ironic in all these acts is that while the removal of these officers is said to be based on the officials having been appointed on tribal and political considerations and lacked merit, the same is happening under the watch of the ruling UPND. For example, in a leaked letter to the Chairperson of the Caretaker Committee of the University Council, the Minister issued instructions to the Committee to appoint two individuals who clearly had links with the ruling party and were equally from the south-west region, to act as Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor, respectively. This very act was a nullity at law because the Higher Education Act of 2019 stipulates how appointments of principal officers of public universities must be done. In this regard, the Minister receives recommendations from Council and based on the recommendations, makes appointments and not the other way round. It is surprising that Unions at the University which were once vigilant and vibrant are failing to see this act of bad governance on the part of the new dawn Government.
Further to bad governance practices being exhibited at UNZA is the ugly practice of nepotism which was frowned upon by the UPND while in opposition and the Unions too. To illustrate this, the acting Vice Chancellor, Prof Annie Sikwibele is a mixed breed from Western and Southern province while her Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, Prof Borniface Namangala is from Southern Province. The Acting Dean of Students Mr. John Munkombwe is from Southern Province. This same Munkombwe is being deputised by a Mr. Habbunu, who is also from the Southern Province. There is information that these and a few more friends of the party are being prepared to be confirmed as substantives through a user friendly Search Committee and Care Taker Committee of the University Council. Evidently, these tactics are deliberate and well calculated to favour members of one region over the others and no different from the previous acts of the former ruling party. While the President of the Republic is preaching one Zambia one nation, his government officials are doing the opposite. It would be important for the public to take keen interest in the appointment processes of top officials at the University including the manner in which the Search Committee to appoint principle officers will be constituted.
The University of Zambia has continued to be poorly governed. For the past seven years of the PF Government, for example, and now one year in the new dawn Government, the University has never seen a University Council, which is equivalent to a Board, put in place. The University of Zambia has mainly been run on a caretaker basis for eight years now. In industry terms, one could say the University has been run on a care and maintenance basis for that long. Could this be the reason for the chaos that the University goes through year in year out? The new dawn Government does not seem to worry about this lack of a substantive Council (Board) to run the affairs of the University because they seem to want to have a grip on the management of the University which is against the best practices for running any public institution. It is not surprising that six months after the removal of principal officers from office, no advertisement has been called to replace the dismissed. This further means that the University is likely to be run by non-substantive officers for over a year which in itself is very bad for the institution and against the best human resource practices and good governance principles.
Furthermore, while other public service workers have been paid their terminal benefits in the first year of the UPND in office, UNZA workers and retirees remain behind by seven years. It is therefore surprising to hear Government brag that all retirees have been paid their terminal benefits yet thousands at UNZA and other like institutions are still dreaming for their hard earned money. It appears the Government does not seem to care about the plight of UNZA workers and this is clearly seen in the lack of commitment shown in the Presidential speech. UNZA workers and retirees continue to wonder when their issues would be sorted out in the new dawn Government.
In conclusion, the lack of seriousness being shown by the new dawn Government will continue to hurt the university. Soon or later, students and staff strikes will resurface in the the University if this Government does not do the right thing for the University that include improved governance, transparency in appointments of key officers in the university devoid of nepotism and improved funding to the institution.