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AFRICA: Government on Collision Course with Civil Society

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Oct 14 2009 (IPS) - The acquittal of former President Frederick Chiluba on charges of theft after a seven-year long landmark case, and the refusal by the Zambian government to appeal, has put government and civil society on a collision course.

Chiluba was charged with theft of 500 000 dollars in 2002 when late President Levy Mwanawasa launched the country’s largest corruption fight. But his August acquittal and the subsequent refusal by government to appeal the case, despite evidence to support an appeal, has had civil society up in arms over the administration of President Rupiah Banda’s government.

After Chiluba’s acquittal at the Lusaka court, Chalwe Mchenga, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) said he would only be able to decide whether the State should appeal after studying the judgment.

While on the same day, Maxwell Nkole, executive chairman of the Task Force on Corruption, an institution that was created by Mwanawasa to prosecute cases of corruption involving the former President, filed a notice of appeal in the Lusaka High Court.

“Although we have not yet obtained a copy of the judgment to study the reasons given for the acquittal, we however, believe that there are good grounds of appeal,” Nkole had said in a letter to the DPP, President Banda and the attorney general.

But the following day, Government withdrew the notice of appeal and Nkole was removed as executive chairman with Secretary to the Cabinet, Joshua Kanganja, saying his contract of employment had expired.

A week later, the DPP issued a statement saying the State will not challenge the acquittal of Chiluba because the appeal is unlikely to be successful.

It was a decision, civil society organisations say, that failed the country.

Last month a consortium of 17 civil society organisations demanded the resignation of the country’s Vice President George Kunda, who is also the Minister of Justice and also that of the DPP for “failing the people of Zambia.”

The civil society organisations urged citizens to honk and wear black clothes every Friday as a way of expressing their displeasure over the Government’s position not to appeal against the acquittal of Chiluba.

“We call upon all Zambians who love this country and are worried about corruption to wear black and honk or whistle every Friday,” Sam Mulafulafu, executive director for Caritas Zambia and spokesperson for the 17 civil society organisations, said.

But government have stood by their decision and say appealing for the sake of it is not justice. “An appeal should only be made when there is a likelihood of it succeeding. Appealing because of concerns of members of the public without regards to the likelihood of success is actually an abuse of the judicial process,” Mchenga said.

He said while public concern could be a basis for instituting criminal investigations, it cannot be a basis for instituting a criminal prosecution or appealing against an acquittal.

Mchenga said according to the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), a public prosecutor is subject to the directions of the DPP and the decision of then Task force executive chairperson to file the appeal without his consent, as Nkole had done, was illegal.

But Mulafulafu insists that people need to hold government accountable to see justice takes it course. “Our nationwide campaigns will equally sensitise the Zambian people to guard our justice system jealously and ensure that it is not compromised for political gain.”

The first two demonstrations were largely restricted to Lusaka, particularly the central business area where for close to 30 minutes, motorists, especially mini-buses drivers honked their horns.

Two female opposition Patriotic Front (PF) members of Parliament and nine other motorists were arrested while their vehicles were impounded.

The two MPs were released after they developed high blood pressure and had to be admitted to hospital. The other motorists were released on police bond and are expected to appear in court on a charge of conduct likely to breach public peace.

“The idea of hooting was disturbing, threatening and inconveniencing to other motorists who were likely to be distracted and cause accidents,” Bonny Kapeso, the police service spokesperson, he said. The 17 civil society organisations have since temporary suspended the honking after meeting the police but have vowed to launch massive countrywide demonstrations next Friday.”The police did invite us for a meeting to discuss what they consider to be public security concerns. They emphasised their viewpoint that honking is illegal according to the Road Traffic Act,” he said.

The organisations involved in the campaign include Transparency International Zambia, Non-Governmental Organization Co-ordinating Council (NGOCC), Zambia Civic Education Association (ZCEA), Anti-Poverty Apathy, Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) and Women for Change (WfC).

Lameck Mangani, the Home Affairs minister, has accused the 17 civil society organisations of conniving with some donors, particularly the British government, in order to bring President Banda’s government down.

“We have noted that all this is happening with the blessing of some donors. Some Zambians who served in the foreign service have had some dark corner meetings with some donors agitating that the Government of President Banda is corrupt,” Mangani says.

British High Commissioner to Zambia Tim Carter, whose country has rendered financial support to the anti-corruption fight, had expressed disappointment at the acquittal of Chiluba and the refusal by the government to appeal.

“I was personally surprised at the decision to acquit Chiluba. There are two things in Chiluba’s case. Firstly, I do acknowledge that it was a matter for the Zambian judiciary to decide on Chiluba’s cases, but we have also seen that there is evidence to suggest that an appeal must have been lodged,” he said.

Government had filed a separate civil case in Britain hoping to recover assets owned by Chiluba and his associates there and other European countries. In 2007, a British judge ordered Chiluba to pay $58 million to the Zambian Treasury to compensate for money he was suspected of stealing. However, government is yet to recover the money because it is yet to register the case in the Lusaka High Court for the ruling to take effect.

The Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) also said last week that it believes that there are enough grounds for the State to appeal against the acquittal of Chiluba.

Stephen Lungu, the LAZ President, says although the 14-day period in which the appeal was to be made by the State has elapsed, they still believe that a way can still be found.

But Emmanuel Mwamba, spokesperson for Chiluba, says the objective of the 17 NGOs was to use the name of the former president to bring down a legitimate government.

“We’re aware that this plot by the NGOs is a disguise of a plot against President Banda’s government and are just using Chiluba to achieve their hidden agenda,” he says.

However, with government aware that Chiluba commands some support in certain parts of the country, they are unlikely to change course especially with general elections coming in less than two years.

The tricky part may come in if donors decide to freeze aid. Already, donors like European Union have frozen aid to the Ministry of Health after revelations of corruption.

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