Zambia: Careful What You Say — the President is Listening

Early this year, Zambian President Michael Sata warned Chief Jumbe of the Kunda people of Zambia's Eastern Province that he knew what he said in his bedroom.

Speaking at the opening of the House of Chiefs, a gathering of over 30 traditional leaders in Lusaka (who represent some of the country's 73 ethnic groups), President Sata said:

Every 24 hours I know what happens everywhere you go, in your bedroom all the 24 hours of the day […] Why did you criticize my introducing Paramount Chief Mpezeni [one of the two senior most chiefs in Eastern Province]? What did you want me to do? I was introducing the chief to the people and you saw something wrong with that.

Sata’s outburst not only surprised the nation but also reinforced citizens’ fears of widespread surveillance by the current government, which came into power in September 2011. To make matters worse, only a few weeks earlier, a listening device was found under the throne of Lubosi Imwiko II, the Litunga (or leader) of the restive Barotseland region, whose citizens are agitating for secession from the rest of Zambia.

Surveillance camera stencil art. Photo by Paul Lowry via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Surveillance camera stencil art. Photo by Paul Lowry via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Zambia Reports, an independent media website, reported that one of President Sata's “favorite pastimes” has become “listening in to telephone conversations of selected people including his cabinet and deputy ministers.” The article continued:

[s]ources indicate that it is an elaborate scheme using state of the art portable devices obtained from China and Russia enabling the president to listen to conversations in real time as opposed to being handed a recording as has been the case previously […] The gadgets vary in size with the one being used almost looking like an ordinary internet modem and is user friendly.

Reader Mpangula Mputyu commented on the story, referring to the almost reclusive life Sata leads:

[…] Will this country develop when the man in state house is busy napping and listening to things that do NOT add value to development of Zambia […] Is it reason Sata is always at State House and not moving OUT.

The reported eavesdropping by President Sata lends credence to reports from early this year that followed the dismissal of foreign affairs minister Given Lubinda who was disciplined by the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party. Lubinda has been a member of the Central Committee for policy and decision making, but was subsequently dropped from Cabinet based on evidence that was allegedly obtained through telephone surveillance mechanisms.

The PF government, in office since 2011, allegedly has blocked critical citizen media websites such as the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports in a bid to stop them from reporting on abuse political corruption and reportedly has contracted with technicians from China to monitor the internet. It has also introduced measures for mobile phone users to register their SIM cards.

In an effort to extend surveillance to street level, the Zambian government attempted to install CCTV cameras on the streets of the capital, Lusaka, but was forced to abandon the project  amid suspicions of kickbacks by the officials involved and complaints from citizens that the cameras were not worth the US$210 million that they cost the government.

Before long, Zambians may find Big Brother watching and listening in on their every move.

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