Zambian government ministers are learning the hard way who to trust—and who not to—after two had private conversations secretly recorded and leaked to local media.
In late September, Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda, a close relative of President Michael Sata who serves as his second-in-command, woke up to find a transcript of a conversation he had with an unknown person in one of the country’s leading private daily newspapers, The Post.
The transcript revealed his feelings about President Sata, his cabinet colleagues, Chinese investors and also his love for imported red wines “brought for him from London.” The 77-year-old president is in poor health, leaving many wondering who shall assume his role, should he need to step down.
Chikwanda is quoted in the transcript in which he uses a mix of English and local language, saying:
As my relationship with the President, my relationship with him would be better if I was outside government because then, I can involve the system in many ways. When you are in that position, you are like in a hole. There are certain matters which I have to handle which are complicated like family matters. I have to handle that. It’s not an easy thing. But there is a bond of a relationship with myself which is very deep. It would be nice for me if I could give him space, but you know that at the moment, ba President tabali bwino [the President is not very well] and so some of us are now having to double our input in order to make up for the deficiencies, sickness…
The Post published the conversation between Chikwanda and the unknown person following events going back to late August, when Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba, who was also Secretary General of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party, was dismissed from his position by President Sata. Kabimba had allegedly campaigned for the republican presidency, with the support of The Post.
Following the departure of Kabimba, who was widely seen as an ally of The Post, the newspaper ran a series of scathing editorials accusing policymakers including Chikwanda of abusing their office. The Post linked these individuals with millions of dollars the government is said to owe mining companies in value-added tax refunds.
During the same period, the Zambia Revenue Authority, which falls under the Ministry of Finance, raided The Post in an effort to recover millions of Kwacha (local currency) in unpaid taxes.
Barely a month after the publishing of Chikwanda’s private conversation, the Zambian Watchdog published an audio recording of Robert Sichinga, the Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry whose son is married to one of the President Sata’s daughters, speaking with a woman whose identity has not been made public.
In the audio clip, Sichinga, talking to the woman who has come to be known as Bana Nono [Mother of Nono] reveals how ill President Sata is and how some ministers are happy each time he goes away thinking they may soon assume his position:
I don’t really understand … understand some of my colleagues even the same [Acting President Edgard] Lungu. He seems to be in the campaign mode as well … (interruption) … yes to take over … (child cries) … yes … same with GBM [former Defence Minister Godfrey Bwalya Mwamba] … (another interruption) … (loud bang from a plate) … each time they hear the man is gone … bena mubwalwa bayachesha ati twalakasenda (them they go into beer drinking spree whole night celebrating saying we are getting it) … I think that’s evil)….
The recording of the two ministers’ conversations was not especially surprising. Roughly a year ago, it was widely reported that President Sata warned a traditional leader who was critical of the PF government that he knew “everything” that he said in his bedroom. During the same period, the ruler of the restive Western Province, whose residents want to secede from the rest of Zambia, had to flee his palace when he discovered a recording device under his throne.
Private conversations involving ministers brings into focus issues of privacy not only for government leaders, but for the general public. In February of 2014, all Zambians were required to register their SIM cards with state authorities, a policy shift that left some concerned about what mass communications surveillance measures might lie ahead for Zambia.