Last week, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Kampamba Mulenga revealed that the government is in the process of selling the prime land on which the Natural Resources Development College (NRDC) in Lusaka sits to AVIC International, a Chinese state-owned corporation. Mulenga stated that AVIC has offered an unsolicited proposal to construct ‘a brand new NRDC’ in Mumbwa, a rural area about 145 kilometres from Lusaka, in exchange for the prime land in the capital that the Chinese firm seeks to utilise for commercial purposes. The minister claimed that the existing college infrastructure is inadequate to cater for the learning needs of students and that the undeveloped land is too small to facilitate expansion. For these reasons, Mulenga argued, the government finds AVIC’s proposal reasonable because a bigger institution would result in increased bed spaces and adequate facilities to cater for the rising enrolment figures.
The imminent sale of the 53-year old agricultural college has displeased many Zambians, who feel that if all that is needed is extra space, the government should simply make plans for a satellite campus whilst maintaining the existing one. Opposition United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema, who insists that the college land has already been sold, has promised to reverse the deal if elected to power. Several others have called on President Edgar Lungu to cancel the transaction, if it has not been concluded. I am not persuaded that Lungu or the government will entertain such calls. If he and his administration really cared about the opinion of Zambians, they would have subjected the proposed sale of the NRDC land to wider consultation beforehand. The recent revelation by Julius Shawa, the Ministry of Agriculture Permanent Secretary, that a memorandum of understanding between the government and AVIC has already been signed shows how far the deal has gone, the suspicious secrecy with which it has been carried out and the growing influence of the Chinese, represented most notably by AVIC, on the Zambian state. Why is AVIC receiving preferential treatment from President Lungu’s administration? What really underlines the relationship between AVIC and the Zambian state? Who are the real beneficiaries of this relationship? Does AVIC represent the Guptas of Zambia?
Given the growing Chinese influence over Lungu’s government, we should not be surprised to wake up one day and discover that our President is Chinese. This prospect is far from an exaggeration. The Chinese appear to have such a tight grip on Lungu’s balls, so much so that our so-called leaders were recently prepared to totally disregard Zambia’s Constitution in order to accommodate a few Chinese nationals seeking employment as reservists in our police service. This growing Chinese influence on our ruling elites is bad both for Zambians and Chinese. Chinese residents in Zambia risk becoming targets of hostility from Zambians aggrieved about this influence. For Zambians, the danger is that growing Chinese influence over the economy and political life could result in effective political control passing to China. This explains why it is not inconceivable that we might soon have a Chinese exercising presidential functions in State House – that is if one has not done so already, even just for a few hours or days. Most worryingly, the Chinese, in order to protect their economic and strategic interests, might prop up an unpopular regime for fear that a less pliant leader might undermine their long-term interests.
We face tough times ahead, not that these and the past have been any easier. What is certain for now, arising from what the Minister of National Planning Alexander Chiteme calls the ‘inevitable relocation of NRDC’ to the Chinese, is that our government has betrayed us to foreign commercial interests. To obliterate an entire institution and important part of our national heritage for purposes of satisfying the commercial interests of the Chinese, who are seeking to grab our prime land under the guise of building ‘a brand new college’ for us elsewhere, is most ridiculous. I appeal to President Lungu to immediately halt the proposed sale of NRDC land. Like many Zambians, I am outraged by the move and I will never forgive Lungu and all his friends in Cabinet if they proceeded to sell one of our most hallowed intellectual sites. We do not need the Chinese or any other foreign powers and corporations to develop our institutions: we should do it ourselves. Zambians must never allow the situation to develop to a point where every prominent piece of the country will be owned by multinational corporations or foreigners, wherever they maybe coming from.
It is most disturbing that President Lungu and his administration appear to have given up any pretence of managing the affairs of the country to effectively just become lousy real estate brokers; that those entrusted to administer our national resources and assets are cheaply disposing of them with reckless abandon. Today, it is NRDC. Tomorrow, it might be the University of Zambia, Leopards Hill Cemetery, Lusaka Central Police Station and before we know it, whole communities will be relocated. Unfortunately, the plunder of state resources seems to have become a consistent pattern of Zambia since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. The principles and ravaging effects of neoliberalism have created a readymade set of corruptible leaders, who pawn off the country for a few trinkets, who accumulate through brazen theft of public resources and massive sale of Zambian land to so-called investors, and who strut around with self-importance when they are nothing but disposable playthings of even bigger global kleptocrats.
A genuine Zambian government would have to conduct an audit of all post-1991 ‘land grabs’ with a view to enable Zambians to learn the extent of land betrayal that has occurred, to return these lands back to Zambians through their government, and to arrest and punish all those who would have participated in the corrupt and criminal transfers of land to both local and foreign thieves. Ultimately, a public register of foreign ownership of Zambian land must be created so that every Zambian may know how much ‘Zambia’ is left. The hard reality is that taking back and reshaping our assets in our own ways would be a tough process, requiring an ideological mindshift, a strong and enlightened leadership and significant consensus. People would need to be willing to endure a temporary period of upheaval.
The impending sale of NRDC must be a wake-up call: we need an organisation to come into existence to demand a national land audit, to streamline extent of forensic land ownership, to start a national campaign to ban foreign land ownership – simple lease-holding should be enough, on a possible renewable basis according to the kind of investment – to advocate for legislation that vests all land to be in the custody of the state on behalf of present and future Zambian generations, to ban all speculation in land, to prioritise land allocation for Zambian use (housing, farming and commercial purposes) and to call for a national land summit to address the land question in Zambia. The current land grabbing by foreigners and multinational corporations will end in grief, great grief, for the country if WE do NOTHING! When future generations, including our children, in their turbulent moments, will look back to this period of our national history, and discover that we are the citizens who lived at this time, what judgement shall they pass on us in relation to the quality of the choices that we made for them? I personally fear the weight of their likely judgement: ‘You cared only for yourselves!’
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