Lest we forget: Pay back your poor people’s K14bn

By Chileshe Mupeteka

Fred M’membe is always championing the rights and freedoms of the poor in Zambia. Commendable job he has done such that, over time, his personally-controlled newspaper has earned him a coveted place in the corridors of power with successive governments.

Some of you might pause and ask: Why then should I write about M’membe and why should I exalt him on his good deeds at this time?

Apart from the fact that M’membe is a public person by virtue of him owning one of the biggest daily independent newspapers, the cardinal overriding factor is that his dealings are of public interest.

If M’membe is a journalist as I expect him to be, he knows that the only thing that warrants publishing a story is if public interest is the dominant factor.

Lest we forget, however, that M’membe has fought with every leader that turned out to be his darling in the end.

Here are a few examples: In 1990, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, presently his best mentor and “father” was the worst kind of dictator in M’membe’s newspaper.

Then Dr Fredrick Chiluba came on the scene and was briefly referred to as a saviour until the two fell out.  The country had not seen the best of M’membe yet during the Chiluba era, of course other than occasional sparks of giving space to opponents of the third term debate and the vigour with which his paper covered his brief imprisonment by the late Speaker of the National Assembly Robinson Nabulyato.

By the time Chiluba engineered Levy Mwanawasa’s tenure of presidency, the gloves were off.  Chiluba, the “most corrupt” leader in M’membe’s newspaper, had handpicked what Mr Michael Sata referred to as a “cabbage” Mwanawasa to lead Zambia.

Let me just say that M’membe quickly fell in love with Sata’s “Cabbage” to the extent that when he shouted “thief”, Mwanawasa used the experience gained during his years at the bar to constitute the Task Force on Corruption and personally present a compelling case to Parliament to have the immunity of M’membe’s “thief” lifted.

I am not going to get side-tracked into the merits or demerits of the Task Force’s fight against corruption but, surely, kudos must be given to Mwanawasa for the organised way in which all these complex investigations were conducted.

It could be argued that “learned” indeed could be the operative word in the late Mwanawasa’s reign.

With the demise of the darling Mwanawasa came Rupiah Banda who would, not long after, be labeled a spineless conniving man.

Reading from M’membe’s newspaper editorials at the time, the only apparent crime Banda committed was to find himself vice president at the time Mwanawasa passed on.

He was never helped by the fact that he was an outsider, seen as a chancer in MMD who, all of a sudden, was juxtaposed to the learned Mwanawasa as the anointed successor.

All this was compounded by the tribal ‘umodzi kum’mawa’ slogan chanted by some Members of Parliament from a certain region in campaigning for his party presidency.

When this was happening, M’membe’s newspaper was clearly fighting from the corner of former Finance Minister Ng’andu Magande, the man widely credited with turning Zambia’s economic fortunes with prudent management of resources that earned huge debt relief from the G7 and other countries.

In all that political frenzy, M’membe still found space to seriously champion the cause of the poor of our society. Issues affecting women, children and the under privileged of our society are seemingly close to his heart.

I am in constant awe of how his editorials cut to the chase and bring to the fore the plight of the poor who are in the majority. So, am a bit confused at what point Mutembo Nchito and his brother Nchima co-opted M’membe– the crusader of us the poor– into investing in an unviable Roan Air turned Zambian Airways?

The facts have been laid bare as follows:

The airline was bankrupt. Its books were bad. The books were so bad that an expert termed them ‘crimson red’.

The airline had no assets of worth, and it had been running consistently at a loss for many years and was insolvent. Despite its insolvency, the airline obtained loans and acquired debts totaling over US$30 million.

On the issue of the $5.5 million DBZ loan syndicated and guaranteed with Investrust and Intermarket Banking Corporation, we have been told that the loan was reportedly obtained by Zambian Airways by offering two planes worth $200, 000.00 each but valued at $1.2 million by the airline itself.

Despite showing marked features of bankruptcy and, therefore ineligible for such a facility, DBZ (a public company) and the two banks disbursed the loan of $5.5 million to Zambian Airways.

By September 2008, the loan was not performing. The DBZ board consisting of Director General (an economist) decided to place Zambian Airways under receivership.

In October 2008, while the country was steeped in the presidential by-election fever, Nchito was busy working on the conversion of the $4 million DBZ debt into equity. The equity transfer deal pushing through would have meant DBZ and, in essence, GRZ taking over all obligations or debts that the trio, the Nchitos’ and M’membe, had obtained.

The DBZ board continued to refuse to buy shares in Zambian Airways. The board insisted on recovering the $4 million due by retaining the debt structure.

The then Minister of Transport and Communication Dora Siliya, in her ministerial statement to Parliament, stated that DBZ did not buy shares in Zambian Airways and had insisted that the loan was still outstanding and had to be paid back.

Over these years, that is where the issue was left: the US $4m would be paid back to DBZ.

The matter was recently brought into the public when the trio attracted public attention by walking out of court presided over by Lusaka High Court judge Nigel Mutuna in protest at what they termed procedural issues.

I read that our Director of Public Prosecutions, the very “learned” Mutembo Nchito, and our crusader for poor people M’membe raised preliminary issues which were dismissed in full view of the DBZ legal team led by Vincent Malambo.

At this juncture, the trios’ bone of contention was not that DBZ had withdrawn the case so why should they appear in court but the fact that they preferred a known friend of Mr. Fred M’membe to continue hearing their case as Judge. I shudder to think that neither the crusader for the poor nor the Judge who was the friend had not morally thought it right to declare their friendship? Or was that supposed to be none of the poor people’s business?

Anyway, what matters is that by the time the judgment was pronounced, DBZ had not notified the court through their legal team of their notice to withdraw.

Honestly, if they did file a notice of intention to withdraw the civil case from court, I want to think Zambian journalists, including M’membe, would have reported this issue which had so much public interest riding on it?

I am not in a position to speculate how Judge Albert Wood would have ruled but I am quite confident of the fact that the law established to serve the citizens would have been served on the borrowers of this money.

To put this in more perspective, the crusader of the poor M’membe knows how K14bn can change people’s lives for the better today. Let’s not pretend; part of the region where M’membe hails from– Western province– has been touted by many as the poorest in Zambia.

In terms of infrastructure, one would agree and probably blame that on the terrain that is sandy and costs more to build roads and buildings than any other part of Zambia.

Notwithstanding, the crusader of the poor M’membe would, no doubt, welcome that money being spent on the Patriotic Front government-abandoned Mongu-Kalabo road or an alternative route that would connect Kalabo district to the rest of Zambia through Mongu.

I am also confident that M’membe would support using the same K14bn cash on dredging and widening the Mulambwa harbor, and the Zambezi and Luanginga rivers as a way of opening up trade routes for bigger vessels to ferry goods between Zambia, Angola and Namibia.

If the money is not spent in Western Province, there are equally other regions that can benefit and uplift the standards of M’membe’s poor. Muchinga province has many challenges of infrastructure such as roads, schools, water and sanitation. The story is the same countrywide.

Lest we forget, universities to be built at Lubwa and Mulakupikwa in Muchinga would be grateful to receive this K14bn cash injection on the projects. What of using the same K14bn on connecting Mwinilunga district in North-Western province to the national grid for electricity supply?

It’s unimaginable that 48 years after Independence, the district is still being rationed by Zesco and uses diesel generators.

While His Excellency the fifth President of the Republic of Zambia, Mr. Michael Chilufya Sata, embarks on cleaning up whatever he perceives corrupt, can the crusader for the poor, M’membe, ensure that he and his business partners pay back our hard earned tax payer’s money obtained from a public bank?

Your Excellency the President, as one of the poor of this country, I wish to reject any attempts from DBZ to withdraw this case or seek to deregister the judgment in the Zambian Airways v DBZ case.

I reject such attempts with the same vigour I rejected Rupiah Banda’s comment that the State would not appeal Chiluba’s case in a Lusaka magistrate’s court. It is because of this statement that made many believe the State had exerted pressure on the former DPP Chalwe Mchenga not to appeal in the People v Dr FJT Chiluba case.

As a poor person, I want the money paid and demand to be told how soon the K14bn will be paid, including remedies that DBZ can take should the same K14bn not be paid back in time.

I know that this cause of recovering public money will be supported wholeheartedly by the crusader of the poor, our beloved Mr Fred M’membe of the Post Newspapers.

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