I received this message through my Facebook inbox:
Gershom, you're the man to write about this: How much does it cost in money, manpower and man hours wasted when all those ministers, Permanent Secretaries, military, cadres, etc, go to see off or receive the president [at the airport]? A rich country like the US doesn't do that. Obama just gets into Marine 1 and is met at Andrews [Airforce Base] by the commander there and the crew. Same on coming back. When he lands at the White House, it’s his dogs and a few members of staff. What's your take? Blog?
I was clearly taken aback by this message and I immediately surmised that it came as a result of President Edgar Chagwa Lungu’s recent trip to Namibia whose departure and arrival must have been shown on local Television with a whole retinue of people sending him off and receiving him.
|President Edgar Lungu flanked by Vice President Inonge Wina at Kenneth Kaunda||International Airport.|
Obviously, the blame cannot be placed on the new president’s shoulders. This is something that has been embedded in the nation’s political culture right from the first president, Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s days when everybody who was anybody in both the party and in government had to be present at either the airport to send him off or receive him or at any public function where he officiated.
Growing Up In Kitwe
I remember when I was growing up in Kitwe how we were made to walk long distances as school kids to go and stand by the side of the road in which Dr Kaunda would be driven past. We were often hungry, thirsty and exposed in the sun, waiting for hours on end. When the motorcade sped by, all we could see was the man’s white hanky being waved at us.
This was mostly when he went to open the Copperbelt Agriculture Show in Wusakile, quite a distance from Kwacha, after landing at South Downs Airport in Chibuluma. But there were other times he could address meetings at Buchi Hall, a manageable walking distance.
All we were left asking ourselves was “wachimumona Kaunda [did you see Kaunda]?” For fear of being ridiculed by your friends who also probably saw zilch was to say “yes, I saw him, I saw him!” Then we dispersed in a more disorderly manner than when going to the place we would line up at as a school.
But more vivid is the memory I have of UNIP youths kicking pots off charcoal braziers shouting “bamayo nabatata tiyeni ku meeting [mothers and fathers let’s go for the meeting]. I remember this because my mother had a stand in the local market and she would announce to us that she was going for a meeting to be addressed by President Kaunda.
President Chiluba’s New Culture
Then came second President Frederick Chiluba with his “new culture” which was somewhat different from the Kaunda era. School children were no longer required to go and line up for him and neither were businesses required to close in an area where he was visiting. However, politicians of all shades and position, senior civil servants as well as defence and security officers of all rank usually gathered to welcome him.
I must say that I covered President Chiluba a lot when I worked for the Zambia Daily Mail on the Copperbelt and I came to know the type of people that welcomed him. In this scheme of things, parastatal companies usually provided trucks that ferried cadres from the compounds to go and throng the airport or a place at which a public meeting would be addressed.
I am very sure that this political culture carried on to the Mwanawasa administration and onwards to President Lungu. Political appointees of all manner and equally those seeking appointments want to be seen to be rubbing shoulders with people rubbing shoulders with the president as one never knows when an appointing finger can land on one.
Is it President Mwanawasa? He tried something of a novelty by travelling to the airport on a Marco Polo bus, carrying all the ministers with him on the bus. What I don’t know is why it was discouraged. Was it for security reasons or was it that it took the shine off the ministers who wanted to be seen to be flying individual flags on individual Mercedes Benz cars or those super expensive Prados?
But as the writer of the message above alludes to, at what cost do these jaunts to and from the airport come? Let us assume that all ministers and their deputies within Lusaka, permanent secretaries, top defence and security officials and other government functionaries, troop to the airport, covering a total of 60 kilometres, imagine the fuel burnt plus the man hours lost and missed business opportunities for cancelled or rescheduled meetings.
Maybe if it is whispered that minister so ‘n so wasn’t at the airport, it would be seen to be insubordination and could face the chop at the next reshuffle. Similarly, cadre so ‘n so doesn't like you Mr President, he doesn’t deserve to be appointed into the diplomatic service or as District Commissioner. See, he wasn't even at the airport!
Maybe it is as they say, “there is no hurry in Africa!” One can go and stand in the sun for hours just to catch a glimpse of the head of state and be satisfied regardless of the cost.
[Photo credit: Times of Zambia]