[By Tuesday Bwalya]
The idea of the President having press conferences is a good one and that is what is expected in a democracy.
I have been wondering why President Edgar Lungu has been media shy. Last week Friday, President Lungu had an interaction with journalists at State House where he allowed them to ask questions on various matters of public interest. When President Lungu announced that he would have a press conference, I was excited; hoping that he would address our challenges and concerns. Alas, the President did not inspire many Zambians. What he was saying was a repetition of what he had said or what his ministers had said in the past.
Regarding the on-going load shedding being implemented by Zesco, the President did not give hope to Zambians. I was hoping that the President would announce a definite date when his government would finish paying ESKOM of South Africa the US $44 million needed for the importation of power into Zambia. Instead, the President was just telling the nation what his Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services had already said.
We were told that US$11 million had been paid to ESKOM and that another US$ 14 million could be paid in the coming weeks. Are we so broke as a country that we can fail to pay US$ 44 million to ESKOM? We are on record as a country for having bought 42 fire engines at USD$1 million each. I am very much disappointed with the manner the Patriotic Front (PF) government has been handling the issue of load-shedding; the government has been casual and exhibited no sense of urgency.
If President Lungu does not know, we are now experiencing 15-21 hours of load-shedding in a day. Many businesses and few individuals are running on generators, which use fuel; and fuel in the country is expensive. Others are installing solar panels at high cost. Does this PF government know the cost at personal, company and national level of not having power for 15-21 hours? This is an emergency and any government worth its salt needs to find money quickly and kick-start the importation of power.
I sense this government does not want to import power; it is just waiting for the rains to come. Many people share my frustrations and are dismayed at the causal approach of handling important national issues by the government.
Related to this, the President supported the upward adjustment of electricity tariffs. In his wisdom, the move will make the sector more attractive to private investors. This also is not in order; the current Zesco tariffs are not so bad. The main reason Zesco does not have enough money to meet its debt and other obligations is that it has over-employed. Political cadres are always being employed at Zesco even when there is no vacancy. Much of Zesco’s money goes to pay salaries.
The other reason is that the kwacha has lost more than 140 per cent value since the PF took over the running of government. Zesco debts are contracted in United States Dollars, not Kwacha. Therefore, if the Kwacha loses values, Zesco needs more Kwacha to meet its obligations. Even if government adjusts tariffs upwards, Zesco will still not have enough money until the economy is fixed so that the Kwacha can appreciate against the US dollar and that Zesco is restructured.
The President was also asked to comment on whether or not his government, through the police, is deliberately denying the major opposition parties space to mobilise. His answer on this issue was disappointing and hypocritical. The President said that there was time for campaigning and work. In his view, the opposition parties always wanted to be campaigning and that the police were in order not to grant permits to them. I find this annoying and undemocratic.
The President, with his party, has been campaigning since the day he was declared winner of the 2016 poll; he has never stopped mobilising his party. But he does not want the opposition to do the same. This is unfortunate. Zambia is a democracy, but the President and his party are shrinking the political space in the country.
In this regard, I wish to advise opposition parties to begin suing individual police officers who cancel or deny them permits. It is clear now that the police officers cancel or deny the opposition party permits with the blessing of the President.
On the issue of ministers who stayed in office after dissolution of Parliament in 2016 and the need for them to pay back the money as ruled by the Constitutional Court, President Lungu indirectly indicated to the nation that he was protecting his former ministers from paying what was ordered by the court. The President went round and round trying to justify why former ministers have not started paying.
It is shocking that the PF leadership is not ready to respect the ruling of our court. The honourable thing for the President is to encourage his colleagues to pay. If he thinks that he was the one who made them remain in office, he can pay for them. From the way the President was speaking, one could infer that the Secretary to Cabinet has been instructed not to calculate the amounts due from each former minister. But former ministers should know that the day is coming when we shall demand full payments from them with interest.
On a positive note, I wish to commend the Ministers of Transport, Local government and Home Affairs for agreeing to get rid of thugs from our markets and bus stations. I wish also to thank the opposition United Party for National Development Party (UPND) youths and the owner of Flash buses for pressuring the government to implement the Bus and Station Act of 2007.
My word of caution to the UPND youths and other stakeholders is that remain vigilant because the PF government cannot be trusted; it is full of tricks. God bless our motherland!
The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, department of Library and Information Science.