Opinion

Zambia’s ‘Ukwa’ No Longer a Laughing Matter

Wherever top Nigerian actor Nkem Owoh maybe at the moment, he should not be shocked when he hears that he has a replica that is giving him serious competition in Zambia.

Owoh’s stage name of Ukwa is perhaps the most trending in Zambian bars and Internet blogs. Why, you may ask? In most Nigerian films that he has starred in, Ukwa is this no-nonsense and highly unpredictable character who rants and moans at everything and anything. He possesses a character that combines humour, a clear lack of understanding of what’s going on around him, and regularly displays of volatility, sarcasm and illiteracy to get his way around things.

Watching him when he is at his best—which he usually is—is simply hilarious.  But Ukwa can also be excruciating to watch, as he fails to draw a line between serious issues and all the joking around to make the audience laugh. Zambians have their own version of Ukwa—President Michael Sata, a nickname which was originally bestowed upon him by now his best friends in the media at The Post, Zambia’s highest selling newspaper.

At one point when Sata was in the opposition, his greatest nemesis was The Post. The paper stopped at nothing; they called him all the names you may think of, accused him of being unfit to be trusted with national affairs, defamed him and labeled him a serpent, a crook, corrupt and declared that Zambia did not deserve to have an “Ukwa in State House”, meaning Sata was not fit to be entrusted with the presidency.

Well, times change. The man once painted black, a serpent, by The Post has had sainthood bestowed on him (just this weekend, Post owner Fred M’membe, wrote.  Throughout the election campaign, the newspaper made no secret of its support for the candidacy of the Patriotic Front – and regularly ran attack articles of questionable journalistic quality against the incumbent.  In exchange for reporting only positive stories about Sata while also attacking his opponents, the newspaper and its reporters were handsomely awarded with dozens of jobs in government, positions at state-owned companies, and especially the diplomatic corps.  The constant poaching of Post employees is even said to annoy the editor-in-chief, Fred M’membe.

The Zambian Government’s hiring of journalists has created a troubling and incestuous relationship between the state and the only non-state media – if a critical story were ever to be published, of course it would be those journalists-turned-ministers who would be blamed, creating pressure on them to make sure their colleagues posted to State House only write about approved subjects.  Additionally, the fact that so many reporters were offered these better paying positions with the PF administration, they going to be economically motivated not to sacrifice their own future career prospects by publishing a report critical of the government.

In this manner, President Sata has compromised many of his fiercest critics such as civil society organisations, journalists and political commentators that caused the former ruling party the—MMD—sleepless nights.  Nevertheless, to some Zambians, Sata is still  highly volatile and unpredictable character of Ukwa, even if the newspapers no longer attack him as such.

And these concerns again came to light last week when Sata resumed his official duties, almost a full month since his “personal trip” to India where he had gone for a surgery to treat a urinary problem as widely reported by the Indian press. Though the controversial India trip itself had different titles ranging from “private”, “holiday” to “investment promotion crusade,” there has still been silence from Sata himself on what exactly he went to do as he shunned journalists on arrival at the airport and kept away from public eye for two weeks before finally appearing in public glare last week to resume his duties.

One of his first functions after the India trip was to receive a report from a Commission of Inquiry he appointed to investigate contracts awarded to companies to install radars at Zambia’s three international airports.

The background to this Commission of Inquiry is that there is suspicion in government circles that radar contracts were corruptly awarded to foreign companies who were supposed to install them. The chief suspect in the eyes of many government officials, including president Sata, is former Minister of Transport and MMD spokesperson Dora Siliya.

But when the report was handed to Sata, he labeled it as “complicated,” “useless” and wondered whether the Head of the Commission Sebastian Zulu was “trying to protect Dora Siliya.”  In the process, the president admitted that this Commission of Inquiry had been a huge waste of money – presumably because its conclusions did not meet his expectations to go after a primary opposition figure.

The Head of State was not done with Zulu. A day after he presented the radar report, Zulu was again supposed to hand over a report into another Commission of Inquiry, this time tasked to investigate the acquisition of land under the leadership of former republican president Rupiah Banda by a government owned institution, the National Pension Scheme Authority (Napsa). But instead, Zulu (reported to have traveled to South Africa on official duty) delegated his deputy to present the report to Sata.

Sata refused to receive the report. This time, he was incensed that Zulu had snubbed him and surprised many people by declaring that “there is a lot of dust which has been swept under the carpet” by the report. He abruptly called off the report handover ceremony by calling for the singing of the national anthem and declared he would only receive the findings when Zulu was around.

Could Zulu have possibly travelled to South Africa without the knowledge of his boss? Such sentiments by Sata’s critics were also expressed when another Commission of Inquiry appointed by the president to investigate the deadly 2011 riots in Mongu, a town in the western province of Zambia.  This Commission of Inquiry report concluded that some people actually wanted to secede from the rest of Zambia, and that the 1964 Barotseland Agreement should be restored.

During the 2011 presidential campaign, Sata traveled to Western province and during one of the rallies made a promise to the Lozi that he would give them what they want (much like the promise of “more money in your pocket”).  Perhaps, he was joking but the Lozi took him seriously on a matter they are so passionate about. The rallied him and for the first time in the 10-years of his party, he won parliamentary elections in Western Province – Mongu Central and Nalolo constituencies.  But that’s the problem with Ukwa – he can be very entertaining, but he confuses serious issues when in fact he’s just joking.

When he got into State House; his first attempt to the promise of restoration of Barotseland was to constitute a Commission of Inquiry into the January 14 deadly violence and pardoning over 80 activities arrested during the protests. Surprisingly, there was no mention of secession in the terms of reference for the Commission of Inquiry.

But when the Commission of Inquiry recommended restoration of the agreement, Sata outrightly rejected such calls, effectively going against what he had promised the people of Western Province during campaigns that led to his election.

“I am reluctant to ask my government to allow for the secession of Western Province. This is because all the tribes in Zambia will want the same thing,” said Sata, who during the 2011 campaigns promised to restore the agreement within 90 days of being elected president.

The ruling party’s secretary general Wynter Kabimba did not want to be left out in supporting Sata.

He did not only accuse Dr Richard Chongwe, a well respected lawyer, of being an “interested party,” but charged that the Commission exceeded its terms of reference when it proposed the restoration of the controversial agreement.

“President Sata should not have given the chairmanship to Dr Chongwe. This was probably an oversight on the part of the President,” he said. “The issue of the Barotseland Agreement is nowhere in the terms of reference as given to the commission by President Sata.”

He added: “It’s the position of the PF that the commission went above its mandate and therefore misdirected itself and the nation at the end of the day. The findings are not supported by the terms of reference.”

Kabimba said Dr Chongwe was emotionally involved in the matter as he was one of the lawyers who represented some of the victims of the Mongu riots of January 14 last year.

“In future, President Sata needs to be extremely careful whom he assigns national duties to,” Kabimba warned.

It is pronouncements such as the above that leave Zambians wondering whether these Commissions of Inquiry, whose cost to the taxpayer is not known, are serving any purpose, apart from appeasing the appointing authorities and providing a pretext for the ruling party to eliminate its opponents.  The PF Government has deployed at least 8 Commissions of Inquiry, presumably costing millions of dollars, to investigate what mostly turn out to be false rumors heard around the bar room.  There have been more Commissions appointed in the last six months than the last six years.

Has Zambia now reverted to its people being declared “guilty until proven innocent” instead of the opposite as required by the constitution?  Why should Sata make any declaration about a judicial process, much less label the findings of a Commission he appointed as “useless”? Does that instill public confidence in the people he’s appointing to serve under him?  Clearly, as seen in many Commissions of Inquiry headed by the ruling party’s sympathisers or members, there can be very little justice expected in these reports as many of them have political scores to settle with their opponents. And many of those that have merely been conduits of Commissions of Inquiry submissions, albeit not in good taste to the powers that be, may forever be refereed to as “useless” “incompetent” or indeed accused of “sweeping dust under the carpet.”

But when it comes to Ukwa, we should remember that he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

Nse Udoh is a Contributing Journalist to Zambia Reports.  He can be contacted at nudoh51@yahoo.com

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