Since seizing control of Zambia’s Road Development Agency (RDA) this past September, President Michael Sata has publicly interfered in construction projects on several occasions, raising concerns over possible conflicts of interest.
The most recent occurrence took place yesterday during a visit by President Sata to the newly created Muchinga Province.
According to reports published by state news agency ZANIS and the Lusaka Times, a public confrontation unfolded between the head of state and representatives of the company China Gun Xi over the progress of a road project in Chisali District.
President Sata reportedly started shouting at his ministers, including RDA chairperson Willie Nsanda, Acting RDA Chief Executive Officer Bernard Chiwala, Shiwang’andu Patriotic Front (PF) Member of Parliament Steven Kampyongo and incoming Muchinga Province Minister Charles Banda, demanding to know why he had been brought all the way to Muchinga to view the Matumbo-Chama road that was not yet complete.
Sata then went on to publicly castigate and threaten the Chinese contractors who had been awarded the contract.
“I haven’t seen anything. What have I come to see? Where is the road? I came to see the road and not vehicles…I came to see the road we have paid for,” Sata said. “We have wasted tax-payers money coming here from Lusaka. When I went to Shiwang’andu, I found a hydro power station which I was called for, how about the road here? (…) There are many people that can do this job and if you have failed, we can replace you because people are suffering and these are the people that have been voting for governments in order to bring about development.”
Also in late October, there was another episode in which the president visited the Link Zambia-8000 road project and publicly criticised the performance of the contractors, even though they had only started the project a month earlier, making such extensive progress physically impossible.
A number of observers have come forward to raise their concerns over the president’s meddling in road projects.
The opposition politician Elias Chipimo released an extensive statement following the October incident, complaining that both the RDA director and Sata were completely over their heads: “The Chirundu road project that the Republican President went to inspect was based on a contract that was awarded only a month ago. The road project itself is a noble and commercially sensible idea. (…) It can take up to 3 months from this initial payment for a contractor to mobilise equipment, secure supplies of crushed stone and import materials like bitumen for the road surface.”
Chipimo went on to complain that the contract had been single-sourced, depriving Zambian taxpayers of a competitive bid.
President Sata’s personal involvement in road projects, including the arbitrary selection of single-sourced contractors is a matter of great concern for the country’s economic development.
Even more worrying are the reports that at least one road contracting company has been formed by the president’s son, Mulenga Sata, who is rumored to be a major shareholder in Asphalt Roads Zambia Limited. According to a report published by state newspaper Times of Zambia dated 29 October 2012, Asphalt Roads Zambia Limited was awarded a large contract to rehabilitate the Kabwe-Kapiri Mposhi District roads.
Many observers were surprised an investigation into Sata’s son Mulenga by the Drug Enforcement Commission was suddenly dropped. Following his father’s election, Mulenga came into possession of two luxury vehicles estimated to be valued at K1.8 billion. Up until that moment, the only known occupation of Mulenga Sata was dog breeding and sales.
So the questions regarding conflicts of interest are of course immediately apparent: Why is the president personally interfering with roads projects, especially when it is clear that it would be impossible for any contractor to have met these demands? Are the companies performing the work on the Link Zambia-8000 in any way related to persons or companies tied to the president’s own family?
Such rumors represent very serious allegations and should not be taken lightly. While there is currently no direct evidence that shows that the president or his family has ever engaged in corruption activities under the RDA, these repeated instances of angry, personal outbursts are a cause for concern and will continue to attract greater scrutiny to how public tenders are awarded and managed under the Patriotic Front government.