Dr Brian Mushimba, the new Minister of Higher Education, on Wednesday announced during a press briefing in Lusaka that the Copperbelt University, which was closed indefinitely in April, will reopen on August 19. This was a grand announcement that excited students and many more – parents, civil society organizations and other governance activists that had put some pressure on government to have this institution reopened because education is a priority for every human being.
In the next four days, the Copperbelt University would be closed for four months and by the time of reopening, it will be four months and two weeks of a disturbed learning calendar. This was all because of the students’ riots. But upon his movement to the Ministry of Higher Education, Dr Mushimba took to Twitter and made a commitment that reopening of the Copperbelt University would be his top priority in this ministry. And true to his word, an announcement has been made and everyone now knows that the long wait is over!
On April 5, 2019, the Copperbelt University in Kitwe was indefinitely closed by Professor Nkandu Luo who was the Minister of Higher Education then. The decision to indefinitely close the institution of higher learning was prompted by multiple riots by students following the lecturers’ protests over non-payment of their salaries. The student riots left a trail of damage to property at the institution, which infuriated Prof Luo who ordered its closure and demanded that security measures are put in place before its reopening.
While in the process of meeting the requirements demanded by Prof Luo, President Lungu made changes to his Cabinet and decided to move the former to the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries and brought Dr Mushimba to Higher Education. The reaction to this change was overwhelming – students at UNZA broke into wild celebrations while university unions welcomed Dr Mushimba and urged him to embrace dialogue when dealing with student affairs as opposed to taking an antagonistic approach.
And today, we are speaking a different story. The Copperbelt University students are preparing themselves for reopening in the next two weeks while the school itself is also now busy putting everything in place ahead of that time. Apart from announcing the reopening date, Dr Mushimba also lifted the suspensions slapped on some students and commuted the student expulsions to suspensions. For the damage caused to property at the university, the Minister ordered that all students are made to pay. This is progressive! Really, really progressive! Of course we know that the decision to close the Copperbelt University was not done without the support of others in government but the fact that the current minister has acted swiftly to reopen the institution shows that its continued closure was, in many ways than one, also affecting the government. Why? Because universities are large constituencies that most politicians draw their support from. Nobody would want to mess with students!
The approach taken by Dr Mushimba, if sustained, will obviously change the entire higher education ministry and restore the confidence that had been lost in the ministry and the entire government. The next step for Dr Mushimba should be the restoration of the student union at CBU and a meeting with student leaders and lecturers to restore that rapport that should be there between them.