It’s unfortunate that President Edgar Lungu was not around on October 8 when the University of Zambia students swarmed the Great East Road to give late Vespers Shimuzhila a mammoth and memorable send off. We hope he saw the pictures on social media, because that was a very strong statement from a united group of youths.
We have always said that there is great strength in numbers. Not a single citizen can stop the police brutality that we are seeing today, but a united people have the capacity to say enough is enough. That is why we saw officers at Manda Hill deserting their police post when they saw the multitude marching towards them. On this day, there was no police officer who could dare stop the students as they took charge of the four-way traffic junction.
It is unfortunate that Vespers succumbed to the chemical gas that police have been using for years on students unselectively. But there are many University of Zambia students who have experienced near-death moments as they suffocated in that awful tear gas. When you hear the narrations of the other hospitalized students, you can see that the death toll could have been higher, had they not offered each other some first aid whilst on the run.
We have covered these riots at very close range for years, we have felt the tear gas pain on many occasions. It is not a friendly chemical gas and a person with asthma or related condition cannot survive. Even those in perfect health who are not used to tear gas suffer. They faint upon inhaling it. Sometimes, we have witnessed riot police chock and suffocate on their own tear gas when the wind blows against them, so they know how deadly it is.
Truthfully speaking, it is unfortunate that the top police command has to take blame for the consequences of this police brutality. And sometimes, this blame has to be shared by the politicians who are in charge of disbursing students’ funds to the institution. But the reality is that the junior officers on the ground simply lack discipline sometimes.
Whenever police are called in to quell a hostile situation at UNZA, they usually find the rioters have vanished. But they hate the inconvenience of being woken up in the middle of the night and sent to an operation which they find dead. So, they provoke the situation so that they can at least have some action. This provocation often starts by targeting the hostels that are nearer to Great East Road.
When these police officers are shooting into the students’ hostels, the intention is not to stop a riot, neither is it to punish those that were burning tyres on the road. It is simply meant to give themselves the pleasure of firing a weapon at an enemy. Tear gas is meant to disperse an unruly crowd, but these officers fire into the dormitories where innocent students are peacefully sleeping. If the police feel there is need to arrest the students, they have the right to pursue them right into the rooms, identify and arrest the culprits. But they fire tear gas because their intention is nothing more than to harm and kill.
We have observed that this University of Zambia incident has happened at a time when the police command recently got a new deputy Inspector General in charge of operations. After Mr Bonnie Kapeso was sworn-in last week, we recall the interview that he gave to the media at State House. He said he loves riots and he was eager, together with his junior foot soldier officers, to get into running battles with rioting students and criminals.
We would like to caution Mr Kapeso to draw a line and differentiate between students and criminals. No one complains when police exchange gunfire with armed robbers. Shooting down a criminal is permitted because they are both armed with deadly weapons and there is no dialogue atmosphere. But students don’t bear arms; therefore, arresting them should not be a life-threatening exercise.
Police must also avoid getting themselves involved in the differences between students at these institutions of higher learning and the government. Since the establishment of the University of Zambia, or indeed any other learning institution, we have never heard of a single incident when a group of students picked up stones and started rioting without any cause whatsoever. Sometimes, the reasons are surely petty and stupid, but they are reasons nonetheless. Police need to stick to their mandate of ensuring that a peaceful environment exists while the school authorities respond to the students’ concerns. If the university finds it fit, they will expel the unruly students, but police must not take sides.
To the government, and the Minister of Higher Education in particular, we would like to remind her of what we said about removing emotions when dealing with students. What has Prof Nkandu Luo solved by abolishing UNZASU? Have the riots stopped? Is she happy that a student has died and she has no union to address? We told Prof Luo that problems don’t solve themselves; they need leaders to think and find amicable solutions. Once again, she has failed and the death of Vespers in staring her in the eyes.
To the University of Zambia management, former students and friends of the late Vespers, we encourage them to put resources together and erect a statue for her at the campus. This will be a symbol of police brutality against students. It will remind unruly students of how a life was lost because of rioting and it will also speak to the conscience of the police officers who killed Vespers. Rest In Peace, Mama.