Opinion

George Chellah and the Sata Government’s Media Problem

There seems to be an imaginary feeling at State House in Zambia that whoever says or does something the country’s president Michael Sata is not in agreement with is either his enemy or is a bitter person.

What is worrying is Sata’s press office and public relations department is constantly caught up in putting out these needless emotional media releases that lack any thorough thought or analysis of goings-on.

Compounding the scenario is it seems whatever is published by the privately owned newspaper, The Post, is considered as the gospel by those in power.

Depending on the mood, the newspaper goes on a spiral publishing biased follow-up stories—regardless of whether the original story was false or true.

In last week’s case, The Post carried a story which quoted anonymous sources alleging that former president Rupiah Banda had hatched a plan that would see two opposition parties UPND and the former ruling party MMD, now led by Dr. Nevers Mumba, enter an alliance to be led by Hakainde Hichilema of the UPND.

The story alleged that Banda was seeking an end to Zambia being ruled by people of the Bemba-speaking tribe (where Dr. Mumba belongs) hence the said alliance being led by Hichilema, a Tonga by tribe.

The article made no attempt to speak with either Dr. Mumba, Banda or Hichilema directly but only Banda and Hichilema’s spokespersons were contacted.

Yet surprisingly, State House, without even verifying the authenticity of the story—whether it was true or false—without even checking who these anonymous were, released a strongly worded statement based on hearsay or rumours: a story that has now been denied by Banda, Hichilema and Dr. Mumba.

“The nation will appreciate that Mr. Banda has a lot in common with those who practise tribal politics. Firstly, Mr Banda and his newfound friends sadly look at issues from an ethnic perspective and are driven by egos, greed and selfishness in their quest for power,” said president Sata’s spokesperson George Chellah in a statement that reacted to The Post’s story.

“No doubt, the corruption in Mr. Banda’s administration was too much and as a result, Zambians have been calling for the lifting of his immunity but we will only do that once we have completed our duty to demonstrate to our people just how corrupt he was.”

The questions that beg answers is what convinced State House that the story The Post carried was true especially that it has now been dismissed by both UPND and MMD leaders?

Is President Sata really the right person to be talking about tribalism when his cabinet is full of Bemba-speaking people and relatives including his nephews (e.g finance deputy minister Miles Sampa), uncles (e.g Finance minister Alexander Chikwanda), cousins (e.g Geoffrey Mwamba, local government minister Prof Nkandu Luo), personal friends (e.g vice president Guy Scott), brothers-in-marriage (e.g commerce minister Bob Sichinga who is married to Sata’s child)?

Is Sata really the right person to talk about nepotism when he has appointed even people he had children with out of wedlock to government positions such as Inutu Suba, the permanent secretary for Zambia’s central province? And what about Sata’s former secretary who is now an ambassador to Brazil, Geoffrey Mwamba’s daughter who works at the Zambian embassy in Namibia and not forgetting the over a dozen journalists he has appointed in various Zambian missions abroad?

Has Chellah forgotten that former president Banda’s cabinet had an array of tribes such vice George Kunda, finance minister Situmbeko Musokotwane, commerce minister Felix Mutati, community development minister Michael Kaingu and many, many others who came from different tribes?

Chellah would do well to realize that not all that is reported by The Post is the truth because a few months after Sata took over as president, the same paper carried a story (quoting anonymous sources) alleging that Banda had gone to State House to plead that he should not be jailed for alleged corruption cases.

It later turned out that there was never such a meeting and Chellah himself had to issue a statement on behalf of Sata disputing the story.

Just last month, The Post carried a story (again quoting anonymous sources) alleging that $36,000 had gone missing into Banda’s bedroom and that the matter had been reported to Woodlands police station in Lusaka.

The Post further alleged at that some point, Banda’s wife Thandiwe stopped police from doing investigations at Banda’s house in connection with the missing money. Again, the story was false. A lie.

At the time The Post alleged Thandiwe had stopped the police from conducting the investigation, she was infact not around but in the United States! So how could someone who was in the United States have physically stopped police who were thousands of kilometers away? Infact, the police have actually denied that story and have asked The Post to publish a retraction and apology which the paper has to this date not done!

“Firstly, the matter was never reported to Woodlands Police Station nor any other Police Station or Post,” reads the letter to The Post News Editor by Zambia Police Public Relations Officer Elizabeth Kanjela dated July 11th, 2012 under the headline: Request to Retract Statement Published in Your Paper.

“Secondly, The Inspector General of Police never called the former President Mr. Banda to know if there was a problem following the case as reported by your article on page 4 of the 13th June edition of the newspaper.

“As Zambia Police, we request that you retract the statements made in both articles and issue a revised statement to the nation.”

From the foregoing letter, Chellah, himself a former employee of The Post, would do well to be sober-headed in his approach to issuing statements that may be based on nothing but mere falsehoods.

Granted, Chellah may not like Banda or any of the people that his boss detests but as a public relations practitioner he now is, Chellah should constantly remind himself that good public relations is a “planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics” which in the Zambia’s case, State House is an organisation/institution and the publics being the citizenry which includes Banda, Hichilema and Dr. Mumba.

Chellah’s role should be to bring out the human and smiley face of his boss and not the frowning and ever-upset looking one carried by his boss who most of the times paces about with his hands in the pockets.

Chellah should further learn to accept that good diplomacy and public relations entails admitting when a wrong has been committed like was the case when Sata made a badly timed joke when he hosted former United States President George W. Bush last month, something that prompted Banda to apologise on behalf of Zambians.

Much as the controversy about Sata’s hosting of Bush was centered on the Zambian president calling his guest a “colonialist,” there was something else Sata said which did not in anyway suggest a “light-hearted” moment.

For a fact, Sata and Chellah should have been magnanimous enough to admit that as a president, it was not necessary for him to openly complain about Bush arriving at State House 15 minutes later as reported by The Post:

“I cannot be waiting here. He Bush is former president; he is not the current president of the United States so I cannot be waiting for him. I’m not an American for me to be waiting for him, and I don’t intend to be an American,” President Sata told embassy officials as Bush’s security kept communicating with their colleagues who were with Bush on their way to State House.

“The young man is lucky that he is the first American leader to have brought money to Africa through his Millennium Challenge Account; that’s why I’m standing here. Otherwise if it was somebody else, I would have handed him over to one of my ministers to meet him.”

Now, were such comments also “light-hearted” as suggested by Chellah in reaction to Banda’s apology to Bush?

Was there a need or justification for Sata to say “I’m not an American for me to be waiting for him, and I don’t intend to be an American” just because Bush was late for the appointment?

Wouldn’t it have been better for Sata to air his unhappiness in privacy with Bush?

But in his usual confrontational approach, Sata, through Chellah departed from the issues Banda had raised in his apology letter to Bush and went on a tirade attacking him and his children:

“I understand his desperation and attempts to seek relevance, though in wrong places this time around. I would encourage my dear brother to come to terms with what has happened and subsequently behave as a mature adult.

“Let Mr Banda prepare to answer for his own misdeeds. Trying to turn a light-hearted exchange between former President Bush and myself, which we normally do, will not help him to sort out his numerous problems.”

“Notwithstanding the many wrongs that Mr. Banda committed against our people and us, we have restrained ourselves and tried to accord him full respect. Obviously, Mr. Banda is mistaking this for a weakness. We warn him not to push his luck too far. In fact, he is the least person that should cross paths with this administration.”

If Sata’s government has evidence against any wrongs committed in Banda’s reign, why not forward it to the courts to prosecute and not warning him “to push his luck too far”?

Why should Banda’s children, as private citizens, be a subject of public ridicule? How would Chellah feel if Banda asked Sata to account for his private life which includes fathering children out of wedlock with Inutu Suba, a woman he has appointed as permanent secretary for central province, fathering a child with Matildah Mutale, a former Patriotic Front candidate for a parliamentary seat in Malole, northern Zambia?

Or indeed how Sata feel if he were asked to account for his children with the sister to Roman Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu, or rumours that when he was previously in government, whenever he broke up with his girlfriends, whilst he was still a married man, he would send trucks to their houses to confiscate all the household goods he bought for them while the relationships were active?

Perhaps it would be right to say no one is “bitter” with Sata as suggested by this State House cliché. What Zambians want is a fulfillment of the campaign promises such as enacting the new constitution in 90 days, restoring the Barotseland agreement in 90 days, putting more money in their pockets and re-introducing the windfall tax by the mines.

What Zambians are hating is the lack of direction by the PF leadership such as reneging on the above promises, the corruption that is visible through Sata’s nepotism and muggling of the press, his lack of diplomacy, the secrecy surrounding his ill-health and haphazard policies such as the minimum wage increment without conclusive consultations and the many constitutional breaches by Sata.

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