The problem that there is in Zambia in particular, and Africa in general, is the deification of leaders—hoisting them to the level of god or something of that sort.
What tends to happen is that once an ordinary person—they are all ordinary anyway—assumes the rarefied office of national leadership especially the presidency, his background that his friend knew in the not-so-distant past knew, is suddenly sanitized—wiped clean.
This is what seems to be happening with President Edgar Chagwa Lungu, in office as a head of state just a matter of weeks, just less than two months at the time of writing. There was the unfortunate incident of him collapsing in public at the Heroes Stadium on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015. He told the citizens who had gathered to commemorate the day that he thought he had malaria.
Later that day, State House issued a statement affirming the malaria story but adding an element of fatigue to it. A day or so later, in another bulletin, the country was told that the President suffered from the effects of a condition called Achalasia, a condition that very few non-medical citizens had heard of.
The Post, one of Zambia’s leading private dailies, whose staff have known President Lungu, probably even long before he became Chawama MP, discounted the State House medical bulletins and, rightly or wrongly, drilled it down to one thing that brought about the sudden collapse of the head of state at the Heroes Stadium—alcohol.
The Chikwanda Tapes
Long before the January 20 elections even before we thought Lungu would cross the State House rubicon to become Zambia’s sixth president, the “Alexander Chikwanda tapes”—a recording of a conversation between Finance Minister Chikwanda and an unknown person—published by the Post, quoted the veteran politician saying “kalikwata amano nangu nakanwa” loosely translated as Lungu is intelligent even in a drunken state. Going by the rule of unintended consequences, this in my view, endeared people to Lungu with whom President Michael Sata had left the instruments of power on the ill-fated trip to the UK where he went for a medical check-up but died while there.
Talking about leaders’ backgrounds, the media in countries like the US and Britain continually refer to them to understand their performance in office and their personality vis-à-vis decision making and the policies they craft. In Britain for instance, the media keep on referring to the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive club of students from wealthy backgrounds at Oxford University, something British Prime Minister David Cameron does not like at all as a former member. Bullingdon Club members would trash pubs after drinking and later pay for repairs. In America, Bill Clinton famously admitted to smoking cannabis but saying he did not inhale!
|President Edgar Lungu, flanked by his wife, Esther, arrives at Milpark Hospital in South Africa.|
The most surprising reaction to the Post’s editorial comment in which it insinuated that President Lungu’s woes on the fateful day were the results of alcohol, came from Information and Broadcasting Minister Chishimba Kambwili threatening that government would stop advertising in the tabloid as well as stopping government ministries and departments from buying the paper.Said Kambwili: “Does anyone understand Mr M’membe’s thinking to put in his newspaper such a childish headline [Chagwa Agwa—Chagwa falls]? For him to write that the President collapsed because of alcohol is not only evil but also untrue […] If he continues on this self-destructive path we will have no choice government will have no choice but to stop buying and also advertising in The Post.”
Pravda And Communist Daily
Kambwili’s statement is reminiscent of the days of Pravda in the former Soviet Republic, now Russia and some of its neighbouring countries after the country’s break up in 1989/90, and China’s Communist Daily, both of which served as propaganda outlets over which were superintended by a censor literary cutting out stories that were not favourable to government and the leaders.
Zambia is currently a liberalized economy with guaranteed freedom of expression. Government, by bullying private newspapers by threatening to cut off advertising from which they derive revenue is infringing on not only freedom of expression but freedom of the press too and it is outright dictatorship.
What Kambwili wants to do is sneak in the ‘les majeste’ law which exists in kingdoms or monarchs where people are arrested if they speak ill of the king, the queen or royalty in general. Lungu is an elected head of state and not a monarch for whom people should not express an opinion. Even Zimbabwe, a country which is one police long baton short of a dictatorship, scrapped the criminal defamation law.
Without punishing the Post with stopping government from advertising in the paper, the truth surrounding President Lungu’s illness will evolve and whoever—that includes State House—will have told lies in the process will be exposed and their credibility will suffer.
In a democracy like Zambia, the only crime pertaining to the presidency really should be plotting to unconstitutionally removing an elected head of state and not the funny cases of bringing a head of state’s name into hatred, ridicule and contempt. Heads of state of even more powerful countries are ridiculed all the time and, in the case of America, all people claim is the first amendment.
The First Amendment
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.
Suppression of background information about our leaders is what has skewed our understanding of the country’s history because only the positive side of their backgrounds is brought out. We need to learn to trace our leaders as far back as the records and live accounts can permit. As such, there is no need to scare the Post into silence!