Last week, Zambians woke up to revelations that President Edgar Lungu owns an enormous piece of land in a prime area of eSwatini, as the Kingdom of Swaziland is now known, one on which he plans to construct a multi-million dollar double-storey residential house, whose architectural drawings were widely circulated on social media.
The land, which sits on a luxury golf estate, was, according to Minister of Information and Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya, an unsolicited gift offered to Lungu by King Mswati III on a recent visit to eSwatini. Instead of quietening the storm, Siliya’s explanation invited more criticism, most notably from opposition National Restoration Party leader Elias Chipimo who, citing the 2012 Anti-Corruption Act, argued that Lungu’s receipt of the gift was illegal. Section 21 (1b) of the Act provides that ‘A public officer who uses that public officer’s position, office or authority or any information that the public officer obtains as a result of, or in the course of, the performance of that public officer’s functions to obtain property, profit, an advantage or benefit, directly or indirectly, for oneself or another person commits an offence of abuse of office’.
In the wake of Chipimo’s comments, Presidential spokesperson Amos Chanda, who was also given a plot around the same golf estate that holds Lungu’s land, insisted the issue was ‘purely a private exchange between two Heads of State’ that does not violate Zambia’s laws. ‘Those alleging any impropriety’, Chanda challenged critics, ‘are therefore free to come forward and state what kind of impropriety is involved in this matter.’
The first point I wish to make therefore relates to Chanda’s challenge to critics on how exactly Lungu’s receipt of the gift from Swaziland amounts to abuse of office. My attempt at addressing his call draws from what the Anti-Corruption Act cited above states. For a start, Lungu travelled to Swaziland in his official capacity as President of Zambia, not as a private citizen. In doing so, he was performing one of the functions of an incumbent President: traveling abroad to enhance Zambia’s relations with other countries. In this instance, Lungu was on a two-day state visit to Swaziland, the purpose of which was to promote bilateral relations between the two countries, according to what the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Harry Kalaba told Zambians in July 2017 when the trip took place. It was during this state visit, that Lungu, traveling as a public officer, received or accepted the land gift, thus obtaining in the course of the performance of his official functions a gain or benefit directly for himself. Herein lies the impropriety: the use of public office for private gain. Is this not a sufficient ground to charge Lungu with the offence of abuse of office?
The second point relates to the lack of a clear legal infrastructure that addresses the question of gifts that a President or any other public officer receives in the course of the performance of their official duties, and which, as a result, creates massive opportunities for corrupt ruling elites to do as they please. In other words, a factor that is assisting Lungu’s escape from consequences is our impoverished formal legal framework. I was personally quite sure that the Anti-Corruption Act criminalised the non-disclosure of gifts over a certain value by public servants. Many other informed observers appear to have thought the same. This is not the case. What comes close is the section of the Anti-Corruption Act cited above, one that is very imprecise in relation to the reception and giving of gifts or benefits by public officers.
We are now getting a sense of the scale of how Lungu may have used the public office of the presidency for private gain. Both his spokesperson and the Minister of Information claimed that the receipt of a plot on the exclusive gold estate in eSwatini was entirely normal, as Lungu has received many such gifts before. We Zambians have no way of finding out what gifts Lungu has received, how many, their value and from whom. In other countries, the law clearly provides for the declaration of gifts above a certain value to the presidency and that such gifts are to be the property of the State, not the individual office holder. Zambia has previously relied on the morality of the President to avoid abusing this privilege. The Swaziland case demonstrates that, clearly, this is insufficient. Our lawmakers need to urgently enact legislation that compels the President and other public officials to transparently declare any substantial gifts received in the course of performing their official duties and to criminalise the non-disclosure of such gifts.
Many questions remain around the land gift and we have no proper and legal way of obtaining the answers. It has been alleged, for instance, that Inyatsi Construction Group Holdings, a private construction company that owns the land that Siliya and Chanda claim came from Mswati and whose subsidiary does lots of construction work in Zambia, gave the gift to Lungu as a corrupt inducement for receiving lucrative government contracts. The problem is that we, citizens, have no legal basis for forcing the government to provide information on issues of public interest, such as those relating to public procurement. The tendering and bidding procedures for these contracts remain entirely opaque and secret. We have no way of requesting for information about who has bid for a contract, how much was offered, and on what criteria the successful bidder was chosen or awarded the contract.
As a result, it is hard to conclusively state that Inyatsi may have given the land in question to Lungu and Chanda in an attempt to influence the award of contracts in matters where the company has direct interest. A key reason why successive governments have failed to enact the much delayed Freedom of Information Bill is the fear that such legislation, if enacted and enforced properly, will almost certainly reveal widespread corruption, say, in the awarding of contracts and implicate senior public servants and potentially government ministers or perhaps even the President. Otherwise, if there was no corruption and contracts were being awarded fairly, then what harm would be caused to government officials by the release of such information to the public? Until this issue is resolved, suspicion will inevitably follow the awarding of large government contracts.
The final point to note about the Swaziland land scandal is that it is simply one of any number of political and financial scandals that have occurred with depressing regularity throughout Lungu’s presidency. Regular readers of this column will know that I am no defender of Lungu. Reflecting on this brazen abuse of public office, however, I can only come to the conclusion that the fault is not only with Lungu; it is with many of us. Lungu’s presidency does not exist in a vacuum; it is only the most prominent part of a deep-seated culture especially among public servants of corruption and theft of public resources on a grand scale. This is itself a reflection of Zambia’s economic malaise and persistent inability to achieve broad-based economic growth.
What would a lifestyle audit of many of Zambia’s public servants and pastors or bishops reveal? Any urban resident of Zambia can regularly see examples of public servants and clerics living beyond their means. Public servants are reputedly poorly and infrequently paid. Yet many can be seen driving expensive new cars, initiating business projects or building and furnishing upmarket homes. This is the culture of corruption that Lungu has emerged from and is embedded in. It explains the passivity of many Zambians in the face of the endless revelations about corruption scandals. On hearing about the Swaziland scandal, many offered brief expressions of shock, some muttering, some grumbling and then apart from providing some fodder for conversation, there would be no other consequences. One thing is certain: Lungu will get away with this, as he has done with all his previous scandals. After all, he must think, if one can possibly steal an election, then it is no problem to probably steal a few million dollars.
Put differently, our low levels of civic consciousness permit Lungu’s behaviour. We are generally a pacified and cowardly type of people that allows ourselves to be looted, abused in a variety of ways and to be trampled upon. What can’t Lungu do? When we allowed Lungu to ascend to the leadership position of the Patriotic Front in the most chaotic manner possible; to shut down The Post without any public protest; to contemptuously disregard the Constitution on several occasions without any consequence; to continue presiding as President amidst a properly filed petition against his election which required him to step down from his position; to threaten judges who do not do his bidding; to preside over the trumped-up detention and imprisonment of key opposition and civil society figures; to accumulate enormous public debt and continue borrowing to a point where we are now effectively in a debt trap; to shoot down the good intentions of the Commonwealth in relation to national dialogue, and so on, we confirmed to him that he could get away with murder. We have generally tolerated his scandals all the time, so why should he be scared or even contemplate leaving his lucrative post? Lungu can only exist in Zambia because we are the only people whose acutely low levels of consciousness can tolerate his lawlessness and impunity. We have earned Lungu. We have created Lungu. He is Zambia’s reward. He is our leader par excellence, one who is embedded in a complex network that reveals a society that is, on the whole, rotten to the core.
The question is: how do we stop producing Lungus – those who lead survivalist lives and for whom nothing is fixed, certain, moral, stable or durable? For the truth is that it would be a mistake to focus on Lungu alone, because the whole system is rotten. It is not Lungu who signs the public procurement tenders, arrests his political opponents on transparently silly charges, goes to the bank, rigs an election, loots the medical drugs meant for the poor, or writes corrupt court judgements. Even if he is removed, another Lungu will emerge tomorrow if we simply attend to the symptoms. We therefore need to identify long-term solutions to our serious national malaise or condition. The first part of successful treatment is diagnosing the ailment. Once we know the illness, we can prescribe the cure.
What is needed, as part of the required social transformation, is a new form of national consciousness, one generated by popular movements against, say, rampant theft of public resources, corruption and economic stagnation. We need activist pressure groups that recognise the power of political organisation, spark protests and creatively begin to cultivate a militant citizen with an attitude that challenges power to say ‘Not in my name’. For the moral is not separate from the people. Leaders are chosen from among us. It is not our leaders, it is us. This is it. Nothing else.
There will be no messianic essence or phenomenon in our country to liberate us. We are our own leaders, we are us, we lead ourselves, put in reverse. Any expectation of some singular external emergence of some leader to lead us anywhere simply makes us all pawns in the fulfilment of the desires of such a one. And this has been our historical experience. It is not the essence of freedom. It is servitude to the whims of an individual. This is not to deny the role of the individual in history (as actor, subject-object, author/creator and leader). Rather, it is simply to acknowledge the most obvious fact to me: that it is society, the forest, which produces the leader, the most beautiful tree, and not the other way round. No single tree can make a forest. Trees, on the other hand, are found in forests!
This implies a profound respect for the painstaking work of attacking, destroying and recreating anew and on a higher plane the character structure of the various classes that make up Zambian society, in their all-round poverty – spiritual, philosophical, material, economic, political and cultural – before we can see any real changes in our society. As a matter of fact, we must desist from thinking that merely changing ‘presidents’ and ‘parties’ will lead to any meaningful changes in our lives and country. There are many, complex and interrelated social, economic, political, cultural, religious and spiritual forces, combining with our entire history as a people, that have moulded and continue to shape the current psyche and character structure of the ‘typical Zambian’.
Our collective challenge is to unravel these forces, understand them, and reshape them to build a different and genuinely alive Zambian. We, as a people, must understand all this as it relates to our place in the wider world. It is not a Lungu, a Michael Sata, a Rupiah Banda, a Levy Mwanawasa, a Frederick Chiluba or a Kenneth Kaunda problem: these leaders have definitely played a part in generating the psychological and material conditions which have created us as a pathetic, cowardly, passive, easy to manipulate, naive, superstitious and quite clearly backward people. None of these and more negative or inferior qualities are biological, however. They have their roots in our complex history with all the social forces that have shaped this history, including a dominant, degraded Christian theology and practice (largely pacifist) to which we so often appeal to resolve our perfectly manmade problems. Our political and religious leaders simply feast on this historical banquet!
I am extremely optimistic, however, that there is potential for a new ‘national consciousness’ to emerge in Zambia. In fact, our current deep-seated systemic and structural social, economic and cultural crises are a perfect foundation on which to begin to build this new ‘national consciousness’, to begin to resurrect or awaken the militant human being in the currently pacified Zambian, and to question the quality of a human being that tolerates a Lungu, a Sata, a Banda, a Chiluba, for a national leader. All that is needed is a movement that would connect the dots into a network, breath energy into it and make the network come alive and lead to new psychologies and character structures of a sub-class and, hopefully, to revolutionary action.
We owe it to our impoverished mothers and fathers who struggled to give us the gift of ‘education’ to defeat our inhuman conditions of existence, if nothing else can move us. Lamentably, however, Zambia’s present opposition parties seem incapable or even uninterested in raising such a movement, to tackle the deep underlying basis for the degrading conditions we suffer. As a result, I predict that the revelations of Lungu’s Swaziland scandal will have few, if any, consequences and in a few months will be overtaken by another political or corruption scandal. And the same response will follow: the new scandal will feature as a subject in people’s conversation, accompanied by fabricated responses from the government officials, some mild protests, ineffective statements from opposition parties, and then nothing.