The letter from Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Malanji to the Chinese Embassy in which he is asking Ambassador Li Jie to expedite the disbursement of the US$225 million loan for the construction of the FTJ Chiluba University is shocking. What is shocking is that the minister says this particular project is one which cannot wait. He goes on to say the university, once constructed, will have a reliable school of medicine that will help in the fight against the Coronavirus.
“As you may be aware, the Zambian government has cancelled or re-scoped all externally financed infrastructure loan projects as a measure to restore the country’s debt to sustainable levels. However, the government has decided to proceed to implement the FTJ Chiluba University project in Mansa and Kasama as per original scope of the project. This decision was made because the construction of the FTJ University is an important project as it has several benefits to the nation because of its strategic location and catchment. The project, particularly the state-of-the-art school of medicine at the University, is critical in the context of the rapid spread of the Coronavirus that is ravaging the entire world. In this regard, I wish to appeal to your Excellency to assist in facilitating the speedy disbursement of the loans in order for the Zambian government to begin the substantial works of the project,” stated Malanji.
Huh! We cannot believe that instead of applying breaks, this government is accelerating towards more debt obligations. We have nothing against Honourable Ambassador Malanji, as he was merely executing what Cabinet under the leadership of President Edgar Lungu tasked him to do. But the contents of the letter to the Chinese Ambassador were frightening. We had to call the Minister to make sure that the copy of the letter in question was not forged, and when he confirmed, our jaws dropped.
If constructing a university in Mansa and Kasama is such an urgent project that can’t wait until the country returns on a debt sustainability path, then we are left to wonder which projects have been considered to be put on hold. Now, there is nothing wrong with investing in education. More universities means more citizens having access to quality tertiary education. But when we talk about quality of education, we must first check what is happening to the already existing public universities.
Look at the University of Zambia, Copperbelt University and Mulungushi University, for example! Government has failed to meet its grant obligations to sustain their operations. It’s just the other week when we revealed the billions of kwacha that UNZA owes. The existing universities are surviving on shoestring budgets. They are failing to remit taxes to ZRA, they are failing to remit pension contributions to NAPSA and to the Workers Compensation Fund, yet money is deducted from the workers’ salaries. How can a financially crippled government with all these huge pending obligations start talking about obtaining loans to build two more universities?
And it was shocking to hear Honourable Malanji cite Coronavirus as one of the reasons for the urgent need to construct the FTJ university. Really? How long does it take to build a university? Even a contractor on steroids cannot finish constructing a university in the next two years. It will be four years before the first student is enrolled at the so-called FTJ University, and that medical student will take another four to seven years in that “state of the art school of medicine” before they can practice. Which COVID will be waiting for them 2030?
Again we ask: if government is concerned about the Coronavirus pandemic and they have money to invest in research projects, why can’t they pour that money in already existing institutions? UNZA, for example, has the capacity to do all the research that government desires; what they need is funding.
But they don’t want to fund UNZA because it doesn’t leave them room to extract kick-backs. They would rather give the money to some Chinese companies so that part of the money can go into their pockets. This is what we mean when we say the PF is not lost. They simply don’t know where they are taking the country.