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Zambia: Whistle-Blowing Or Personal Vendetta?

In Zambia, it is very rare for politicians holding ministerial positions to resign on their own without a hint of scandal. George Mpombo, the defence minister appointed under the presidency of the late Levy Mwanawasa shocked the nation in July 2009 by standing down under the new administration of former Vice President Rupiah Banda, who took over from Mwanawasa on his death from a stroke.

His sudden resignation was not explained at the time; however, within a few days Mpombo started criticising the new administration, accusing President Banda of abandoning Mwanawasa’s vision, notably the fight against corruption.

Zambian President Rupia Banda at World Economic Forum on Africa 2010. Image by Flickr user World Economic Forum (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Zambian President Rupia Banda at World Economic Forum on Africa 2010. Image by Flickr user World Economic Forum (CC BY-SA 2.0).

President Banda abolished the Task Force Against Corruption shortly after taking over office, which had been investigating corruption involving former president Frederick Chiluba and his close aides. Chiluba was quickly acquitted and the prosecution was ordered not to appeal the acquittal.

It is for this reason that Mpombo, a veteran politician, became critical of the Banda administration. His outspokenness, however, rubbed President Banda the wrong way. Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) party cadres started condemning Mpombo for his critical stance and calling for his expulsion from the party.

Set up

A trap was being set up for Mpombo to shut him up. Within a short time, a transaction with a senior provincial MMD official in the Copperbelt Province where Mpombo was a member of parliament was leaked to the press. A Zambian kwacha 10 million (about US$ 2,500) cheque Mpombo paid had bounced. A law had been passed meanwhile, not to long before, criminalising the bouncing of cheques. As far as the nation knows, Mpombo was the first person, or at least the first prominent person, to be arrested for bouncing a cheque. He was subsequently convicted in August 2010 and fined for the offence.

Mpombo then became even more critical of the government believing, as many Zambians did, that he was merely targeted for his stand against President Banda because at the time he was appearing in court for the offence, another minister was exposed as having bounced a cheque. The other minister was quickly cleared and blame was shifted to the payee.

In yet another twist, Mpombo was arrested following the publication of the Auditor-General’s report which cited the minister as having failed to retire imprest. Strangely enough, no one has ever been arrested for financial impropriety arising from the Auditor-General’s findings. The annual Auditor-General’s reports gather dust year after year even in cases where clear abuse of state resources involving billions of kwacha have been reported.

Mpombo eventually reached the end of his tether. He disclosed the reasons for his resignation. He was allegedly being pushed by President Rupiah Banda to enter into a US$10 million arms importation deal in which one of the president’s children was involved.

This matter attracted the attention of both the government, whose officials deny it calling Mpombo a liar, and the opposition who called for further investigations. Blogger MissBwalya however, questions Mpombo’s motive for the exposure of the arms deal in a post entitled “whistleblowing or personal vendetta.”

These days when I read news stories about self-proclaimed whistleblowers who were once part of the ruling elite spilling their proverbial guts, I just shake my head with incredulity and have to control a slow rage from consuming my being.

If these political pariahs were witness to wrongdoing during their time in office why the deafening silence at the time? Is our system really bereft of checks and balances that these “selfless” Zambians had no confidence in speaking up? And if that’s truly the case, what benefit is there to speaking up now?

Perhaps I would take some of the allegations seriously if real evidence was forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions office or even one of the newspapers for a detailed exposé when other avenues are closed, instead of the daily verbal volleys we’re being subjected to in the media. It’s classless and self-defeating.

A short exchange between me and MissBwalya in reaction to the blog went like this:

Gershom:

Our system does not protect whistleblowers. Even the DPP himself would not only not protect the whistleblower, but, most disappointingly, hevwould not pursue the matter if it involves the president and his cronies. What we need is serious institutional change. Nomenclature change is just cosmetic.

MissBwalya:

You are correct, whistleblowers do not have protections and that is an indictment of our systems that continue to be weakened by political maneuvering. I also think we are hampered by high profile cases where it's all about character assassination and not really about telling the truth. Just look at Mpombo & Mulongoti (a nominated MP who was fired as minister and nomination withdrawn for differing with President Banda).

These two were insiders for quite a while and are well positioned to uncover shady dealings but without decorum or even thought, they come across as nothing more than scorned housewives whose benefactor has found a younger mistress.

We do need institutional change that allows for people within public & private organizations to speak up when needed and add that extra layer of oversight.

The debate about the former’s minister’s disclosures has continued on various fora and intensified after he was challenged on a TV show if he had proof, according to Zambian Watchdog (an underground online news site), for the allegations against President Banda and his son to which he said he didn’t. The following are some of the comments to the story on the Zambian Watchdog (the site does not provide permanent links for individual comments):

Olympia Extension Chick! argued that Mpombo should have produced evidence:

Ba Mpombo, you have definitely shot yourself in the foot on this one. When you made those allegations, my thoughts were that there was evidence to support your claims. But it looks like you were shooting blanks, unfortunately for you, your word is not enough to exonerate you. Best of luck in your fight with the court system.

Mr Hamiyanze wrote:

Cage Mpombo, this guy is not normal, how does he open his dirt mouth and fail to prove his allegation especially when he is accusing the innocent Head of State. What are people from state intelligence doing when characters like George are breaching the orth? Something must be done.

catch22 said that Mpombo is in a Catch-22 situation:

Catch22 situation. If he discloses, he will be charged with bigger criminal offence of state secrets, and if he does not, MMD cadres bark as are Mr. Hamiyanze and Extensions are doing. Wait for elections and things will unfold through the paper that digs deeper.

shi mushicita panono agreed:

@ Catch 22. U are correct. Mpombo cannot be foolish to produce a classified document because of the obvious sanctions that go with such offences. The onus really is on RB to explain Mpombo’s assignment in RSA

CS asked:

How do you expect Mpombo to produce the documents? They are of course at the ministry of De fence Offices where Mpombo doesn’t have access now. The government delayed to respond because they needed time to eliminate all manner of evidence. Thats why they can boldly challenge Mpombo because they know by now that the evidence no longer exist because they have done a good job, no will find it

BMC wrote:

Simple question. Did RB send Mpombo to South Africa? All those people who are saying Mpombo has fabricated the whole story should answer this simple question. Don’t just condemn Mpombo. Was Mpombo sent to South Africa with the named personnel he has referred to who are still serving? Why are people dodging this very simple grade 7 question? Was he sent & for what.? A minister cannot go out of the country with the President’s approval please!!!

The MMD government has reported Mpombo to the police and if he is arrested, he is likely to face a charge of breaking the ministerial oath of office, but if the MMD loses the presidential and parliamentary elections, President Banda is likely to face a criminal investigations when he vacates office.

  • Peter Mpande

    Interesting how facts are “amended” to fit in with the thrust of the narrative. The law criminalising the bouncing of cheques was amended with the Banking & Financial Services Act in 2003, not “quickly amended” for Mpombo’s prosecution. For his allegations about “the arms deal”, Mpombo knows that the Defence budget and procurement are classified; he should be prosecuted. As for Chiluba’s acquittal, even the Law Association has failed to state the grounds of appeal. Mpombo is a scorned housewife.

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