ActionAid Zambia executive director Nalucha Ziba has asked government to take responsibility for the delayed meal allowances that led to protests and the subsequent death of a student at the University of Zambia (UNZA).

UNZA student Vespers Shimuzhila, who was studying Adult Education, died due to suffocation after police officers threw tear gas canisters in her room.

Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya, however, took to Twitter to claim that a few unruly students were to blame for Shimuzhila’s death last Friday.

But in an interview, Ziba condemned police brutality, adding that government should own up and take responsibility for the delayed meal allowances which led to protests and to Vespers’ demise.

“Citizens have rights, which include the right to assembly or association, assemble or association. Further, the human rights framework provides for the right to food as one for the fundamental human rights. And when you look at UNZA students, they are within the confinements of the laws of Zambia, which provides for the rights to associate and express. Additionally, they were acting within the UN human rights framework, which provides for the access to freedom as one of the fundamental human rights. However, it’s disappointing that police conduct does not take into account that students have the right to protest in a peaceful manner. We failed to understand why police have been hash on harmless young people expressing themselves as provided for within the law. This is not the first time police have conducted themselves in this careless manner at the University of Zambia and any other institution of higher learning. It is also very unacceptable that police have been infringing on human rights and know that people have the right to express themselves than deliberately conduct themselves in a reckless manner, which has led to the loss of life,” Ziba said.

“And we are of the view that government should take blame for the manner they have managed the education sector over the years. Funding for educational sector has been reducing, and yet on one hand, the people’s contribution towards revenue in terms of taxes has been high and the service delivery on the other hand is unmatched. As a result, the loan scheme is poorly funded, which is resulting in delayed disbursement for meal allowances. Therefore, as long as we continue mismatching our priorities as evidenced in the 2019 budget, which was pronounced recently, where the education sector has been given very little resources, we will continue witnessing such. It starts from there in terms of the priorities as a country. If we want to see development in this country, we need to prioritise the social sector, more especially the education sector. There is no country that has developed without first developing its human capital. So, we need to make investment to ensure that we have a lot of the young people getting educated because Zambian population is small.”

She said government should set their priorities straight to ensure that service delivery was in line with citizens’ expectations.

“We want to be part of the solution in the country rather than being part of the blame. Currently a lot of things in this country are not sitting well with a number of citizens, more especially when it comes to service delivery. And the issue of the rule of law itself, by and large, we have seen the weakening of the rule of law. Because when you look at the issue of the Public Order Act, for instance, it’s very clear, it’s just a matter of notifying the police and the police don’t have to give you authorisation. But it’s the application of the Public Order Act and the practice, which itself brings to the violating of people’s rights, which is a contradiction to the Constitution. And one of the things we need to ask ourselves is ‘what has gone wrong?’ What do we need to help [us get] back on the right track and what needs to be addressed. We need to start tolerating divergent views. Listening to the critics to understand what is making them come from that point is what will make this country develop and drive inclusive development, which does not leave anyone behind,” observed Ziba.

While government’s allocation to student loans and scholarships have remained static at K557 million in next year’s budget, the PF-led administration has increased public spending on defence at over K5 billion, which gobbles up nearly six per cent of the 2019 national budget, compared to K3.5 billion in the 2018 budget.

Additionally, government’s spending on serving external debt has drastically leaped to nearly K15 billion allotted in next year’s budget, more than double the amount of K7.26 billion allocated in the 2018 budget.