TRANSPARENCY International (TI) Zambia Chapter president Rueben Lifuka says State House is not a clearing agent for any business transaction, hence the need for government to explain the relationship between President Edgar Lungu and Belarusian oligarch Alexander Zingman.

Meanwhile, Lusaka businessman Valden Findlay says he will not comment on the News Diggers’ published pictures where he was seen dining with President Lungu and Zingman.

In an interview, Lifuka said it is a disservice to the people of Zambia for government to remain mute without explaining the kind of business Zingman was doing with State House.

“Transparency International Zambia finds it unfortunate and a great disservice to the Zambian people that the Government has elected to remain mute without providing any information on the nature of the business that Mr. Alexander Zingman and colleagues are pursuing with this country. It is our considered view that a clear statement on the nature of business and relationship maintained between the government and these international business persons is appropriate and put to bed any speculations,” Lifuka said.

He wondered how business transactions which were a preserve of government ministries and agencies were now being done by State House.

“We want to believe there are specific protocols followed whenever there is such engagement with international business persons and this is not necessarily the preserve of State House but the respective Ministries or government agencies. It is our expectation that State House is not the clearinghouse of any business transactions but this is the domain of line ministries and/or government entities, including Zambia Development Agency. It will be a matter of grave concern if international business persons circumvent the formal route of establishing a presence in this country and instead solicit the assistance of State House to do so as this will be tantamount to trading in influence, patronage and potentially a conflict of interest,” Lifuka said.

“While we understand that President Lungu has a role in providing the necessary political impetus and policy direction to attract international investments, the interface of such investors should be with the respective government entities who have the technocratic capacity to assess the viability of any proposed business and advise on how Zambia can benefit from such investments.”

He condemned business entities that dealt directly with State House, saying they disadvantaged other players who did not have similar proximity.

“International and local investors who go through State House make the playing field uncompetitive and disadvantage other players who do not have the same proximity to power. Business entities that have the blessings of State House make it difficult or impact negatively on the mandate of technocrats in Ministries to mere rubber stamp [decisions made at State House]. In such a scenario, the question which arises is: why should any investor or business person then go through ZDA or a line ministry to discuss their investment proposals when they can get express permission from State House?’ Why should a company that has already been to State House be bothered with undertaking an expensive Environmental Impact Assessment which is required under the Environmental Management Act?” Lifuka asked.

“These are the challenges that such engagements with business persons have – it renders the government machinery redundant and reduced to confirm decisions made elsewhere even if these are not in the best interest of the country. This breeds impunity and disregard for government functionaries and if this practice is not stopped forthwith, soon, all businesses will be lining up to try and catch the President’s eye and support. That then will be the entrenchment of state capture and before long, these business persons will start to determine the public policy direction of this country.”

He said President Lungu and his government owed the Zambians an explanation on the matter because it is in public interest.

“We reiterate our call; President Lungu and his government owe the Zambian people further information on the nature of these engagements with Mr. Zingman and his colleagues, as long as this has to do with public interests. Unless, of course, we are told this is private business and/or a reunion of comrades. We want to remind President Lungu of the commitment he made during his inauguration in September 2016 and we quote –‘I can only totally submit myself to the good lord almighty, to continually guide me to dutifully, diligently and faithfully, with humility, fulfill my duties and obligations to our country. I have sworn to be a servant to every Zambian and no individual or group of individuals or class of individuals shall hold me, hostage, to serve their personalized interests. I will not disappoint you’,” Lifuka quoted.

“We call on President Lungu to seriously reflect on his words and do the honorable thing to ensure that the speculation and suspicions generated by his contacts with these international business persons are cleared. We want to believe that if there is nothing untoward in this engagement, President Lungu will not have a problem providing the Zambian people the necessary information.”

And Findlay, when contacted, refused to comment on the matter.

“No comment. I am not going to answer anything from you. You write your stories then you ask for a comment? No thank you,” said Findlay before he hang-up.