By Gershom Ndhlovu
Admittedly, I am one of those people who opposed former First Lady, Maureen Mwanawasa, from taking over from her husband, the late Levy Mwanawasa, at what was to be the end of his tenure of office in 2011 following a clamour from some MMD cadres.
I argued then that Maureen would have been at an advantage over other contenders having already been in State House as a spouse of a sitting president. I said then that Maureen should wait for 2016 to launch her bid for the presidency giving her a break of five years after her husband would have left State House.
Sadly, President Mwanawasa died midway through his second term of office and, unfortunately, Maureen is legally, at least according to Attorney General Mumba Malila, barred from holding public office otherwise she risks losing her entitlement to her late husband’s benefits.
At the moment, Maureen as a widow is entitled to 50 per cent of the incumbent president’s salary, a house to be built in an area of her choice among other benefits.
“According to the Former Presidents Benefits Act, the widow is allowed to enjoy such benefits jointly with children below the age of 21 until she dies as long as she does not go into politics or joins the Government,” Malila was quoted as saying just before President Mwanawasa was interred last September.
President Mwanawasa died in
It is this legal position as given by Malila that I--and I am sure, many others--find problematic. Why should the law bar Maureen, or indeed any other presidential widow (excuse the term), from holding public office because the first lady is never a head of state but a spouse of the president and it is therefore unfair to bar her from enjoying her constitutional rights and freedoms of aspiring for any public office in the land on account of her late husband’s position.
This is akin to saying that a widow of a policeman cannot herself become a policewoman because her late husband was once a policeman and if she does so, she loses her husband’s death benefits. It is such laws that Zambians have fought against over time such as women not being able to get loans on their own account, women not being entitled to land title and not being able to apply for passports for their children without the consent of the children’s fathers.
I am very sure that a widower who happened to be married to a female president would not go through all these legal hurdles if she died while in office.
Some may argue that as it is Maureen is guaranteed a cushy life from the benefits accrued to her from her late husband’s estate, but the corollary is that Maureen is not only a strong individual, but she also has the intellectual capacity to meet the challenges of any public office including the presidency.
Maureen’s unfortunate circumstances should never be wished on anybody but it would be most unfortunate if the nation locked her away in the widows’ house and never considered her for public office. This is of course not to deny the fact that most widows have struggled for years to get their meagre benefits from government and have led lives of penury as a result.
Maureen now runs the Maureen Mwanawasa Community Initiative which other people would argue will keep her occupied, but considering that her husband is no more, the goodwill that the NGO receives from donors will eventually dry up and she will increasingly get isolated.
Non-governmental Organisations Coordinating Committee (NGOCC) and other groups should take up this issue so that all widows, regardless at what level their husbands served, are legally treated equally regarding the right to any job in the land including the presidency.
The National Constitution Conference should also work towards eliminating such glaring imbalances in the constitution it is currently drafting. It is important that the NCC delegates seal all loopholes that would deprive anybody of their rights, freedoms and even duties now that an appropriate opportunity has arisen to do so.
And still on the issue of presidential retirement benefits, a few days ago a friend of mine raised a very important question of a person who has served as president for three years, five years, seven year or 10 years entitled to the same retirement benefits.
The retirement benefits, he argued, should be calculated on a pro-rata basis to reflect the number of years served. You could not have put it any better, Brother Evans.
For Christmas, I received a very unusual gift, a book entitled “The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence” by Martin Meredith, a man who in the mid-1960s worked as a journalist on the Times of Zambia.
In the book, Meredith traces what went wrong at independence and through the years clearly blaming the leadership that usurped political and economic power for the benefit of cronies while looting national treasuries.
He spares no country from Algeria in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east, laying bare the vagaries of leaders like Jean-Bedel Bokassa and the fancies of Felix Houphouet-Boigny who went on to build a basilica larger than the one at the Vatican, the seat of the Catholic Church, when his people suffered.
He exposes the corrupt regime of Mobutu Sese Seko of
To quote musician Bob Geldof’s view of the book as it appears on the cover: “You cannot even begin to understand contemporary African politics if you have not read this fascinating book.”