When Cholera hit Lusaka, it threw government into panic forcing President Edgar Lungu to invoke desperate measures of deploying soldiers to embark on a vigorous cleaning exercise. The combined defence forces, dragged streets vendors and some unsuspecting bystanders into the cleaning ‘drill’ until sanity was restored in the Central Business District.
We have written so many articles criticising President Lungu’s leadership, but on this intervention, we had nothing but respect for him. We saluted the Head of State on this very page, because we felt that if he did not involve the army, thousands of people would have died.
Lusaka City is now such a pleasant site with no litter or garbage in sight and the corridors are free of illegal traders.
But a new evil is emerging as a result of the military patrols going on in the Central Business District. Soldiers have now moved from cleaning the city to causing terror among citizens.
On Tuesday, soldiers beat newspaper vendors, tore the newspapers they were selling and detained those who challenged them or attempted to escape. The soldiers said they had orders not to allow any form of vending, be it newspaper or talk-time, on the Highway.
Our sales representatives watched helplessly and in awe as soldiers chased after the newspaper vendors and harassed them. One bystander took out her phone to capture the incident, but when the soldiers saw that they were being filmed, they apprehended the poor woman, forced her to break her own cell phone using a stone before releasing her.
It is not only the newspaper vendors who are being terrorised. On the same day, soldiers were seen in broad daylight breaking windows of some minibuses, because bus drivers had parked where there was no bus station. They did not bother to locate the owners of the buses who had committed the offence. One combatant who was patrolling the streets with a plank in his hands smashed the bus windows and walked away.
It has turned into some form of a game now in Lusaka city. When something like this is happening, people gather around as they watch these red-eyed fighters vent their anger on ‘offenders’. No one can dare talk or reason with them. On Saturday, a restaurant owner got a fierce beating after one of her customers threw a used serviette onto the roadside along Lumumba Road.
The incidents are too many to mention, but our main concern is the decision by the government to use soldiers to chase vendors and tear newspapers. What is the meaning of this? Are the soldiers still fighting cholera or have the rules of engagement changed?
We are asking this because it defeats logic for the Ministry of Health to call a press conference and warn the public not to relax with their hygiene because cholera is still there; then when the newspapers publish this very important message, solders are tearing the news. How will the public know what the government is trying to communicate? We understand the need to remove those who sell food along the corridors and by the roadside, but what is a newspaper taking away from the fight against Cholera?
At a time like this, we would expect the government to encourage citizens (who can afford) to buy newspapers and see which schools have been reopened, where they can get cholera vaccinations, et cetera. But our ministers seem very happy that the soldiers are curtailing the flow of information. Strangely, this is happening when the Minister of Communication is telling us that government is moving closer to banning the use of Facebook and other interactive social media platforms.
We would like to urge the government to stop this trend before it is missunderstood as a violation of press freedom.
We have heard the demand from the Ministry of Local Government that newspapers in future will have to be sold from designated booths and not on the streets in Lusaka City. But surely, which motorist is going to park their car and walk to a newspaper booth just to buy a copy? How feasible is that?
We would like to thank Local Government Minister Vincent Mwale for intervening in this issue and further warn other ministers not to get too excited with giving these orders to soldiers. This is not a video game. These are real lives that are being terrorised. This military exercise might appear adventurous now, but the economic repercussions that will emanate from it will be unbearable, both to the people and the government.
We would like to plead with President Lungu to withdraw the soldiers from the streets because their job is done. Let the police and the local government takeover the supervision of maintaining sanity in the city. Take the soldiers back to the barracks before they destroy a very admirable achievement which the PF have scored on cleaning the town. It should worry government that this trend will force criminals to take advantage of the ongoing harassments in town and start committing various crimes, using the same military uniform.
We have also noted that the soldiers are frustrated, and if the reports we are getting are true that their allowances are delayed, we are not surprised that the troops are venting their anger on the citizens. Unlike the police, soldiers have no compromise and they are now breaking so many laws in the name of fighting cholera.
By the way, these soldiers are telling vendors that “if you don’t like what we are doing, remove the person who gave us orders”. That is you, Mr President, the soldiers are advising people to change the government leadership. Is that what you want?
Dear President Lungu, stop this confusion in Lusaka before the people who praised you for a swift response to Cholera withdraw their appreciation. What is going on in the Central Business District in Lusaka is worse than what we saw during the Threatened State of Emergency. Please do not allow us to be divided over a disease which has already been defeated.