Zambia's First Lady Faces Accusations of Being a Political ‘Santa Claus’

Zambian rural women, the target of First Lady's charitable work. Photo released under Creative Commons by Florence Devoaurd.

Zambian rural women, the target of First Lady's charitable work. Photo released under Creative Commons by Florence Devoaurd.

The public role of Zambia’s current First Lady Esther Lungu has been questioned following her recent tour of some parts of the country where she gave out handouts including foodstuffs to villagers and other people in need.

First to raise the issue of her national tours was opposition Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) President Edith Nawakwi, who alleged that Mrs. Lungu was using the donations and tours to campaign for her husband ahead of the 2016 presidential and general elections. “She is not the Santa Claus of this country,” Nawakwi said.

First Lady Esther Lungu, second from left, rolling on the ground thanking people for voting for her husband, President Edgar Lungu, in the January 20 elections. Picture used with permission of Zambian Watchdog.

First Lady Esther Lungu, second from left, rolling on the ground thanking people for voting for her husband, President Edgar Lungu, in the January 20 elections. Photo used with permission of Zambian Watchdog.

In a story first reported by privately owned The Post and picked up by Zambian Watchdog, Nawakwi, a veteran politician who served among other ministerial positions the Finance portfolio in the 1990s, asked where she got the resources she has been distributing. The opposition leader also subtly criticised President Lungu’s propensity to travel outside the country:

I don’t know if between the President and the first lady, they have agreed that the President will do PR work outside the country and she will fill the vacuum because the work she is doing is what I would love to see the President do; to go to villages and find out how people are doing. But you can’t expect that you can develop this country through charity. When you arrive at a place where there is no hospital, no facilities and you give them 25 bags of mealie-meal and some blankets and say ‘These are gifts from State House’, meanwhile, you have spent so much fuel flying there just to deliver 25 bags of mealie-meal, what is the job of the department of disaster management? I want to see the Vice-President doing the work we gave her.

The office of first lady is not constitutionally recognised, but in an unprecedented move the ruling Patriotic Front in its first budget in 2012 allocated funds to the office which was at the time held by Dr. Christine Kaseba, wife of the then President Michael Sata, who died in October 2014.

Taking up Nawakwi’s challenge to Mrs. Lungu, the Non-Government Organisations Coordinating Council (NGOCC) Board Secretary Patricia Mubanga observed:

As the law stands, the office of the First Lady remains shrouded in controversies and yet we continue to see our successive First Ladies sometimes overlapping and undertaking functions, which ordinarily, are supposed to be done by relevant line Ministries and other entities.

Recently, just like in the past, we have witnessed the First Lady Madam Esther Lungu undertaking activities which are, sometimes, misconstrued by members of the public to be advancing partisan politics. Currently, the First Lady is in the Western Province on an outreach programme, which other stakeholders believe are campaigns for the party in office.

Three of the six first ladies ran charities which ceased or heavily scaled back operations once they left the State House. Vera Chiluba, who was married to Zambia’s second president, Frederick Chiluba, but later divorced as his two terms were coming to an end in 2001, ran a charity called HOPE (Help Other People Emerge) Foundation. Maureen Mwanawasa, widow of the third president, Levy Mwanawasa, ran the Maureen Mwanawasa Community Initiative, while Christine Kaseba formed the Ubutala Bwa Bumi (which loosely translated means a barn of health).

Patriotic Front Media and Publicity Vice Chairperson Sunday Chanda criticised Nawakwi for questioning what Mrs. Lungu was doing around the country, saying she never condemned other former first ladies. He advised that it would be counter-productive for Nawakwi to vent her annoyance to another woman who is doing so much to profile the place of women in Zambia and called on the women's movement in the country to reinforce what First Lady Lungu is doing for the poor communities in the country.

Commenting on the issue on Zambian Watchdog, “Chilyata” sided with Nawakwi (the site does not have permanent links for individual comments):

I am impressed with Edith Nawakwi’s issued based brand of politics – you would think she is actually in UK or US! There is nothing personal in her kind of politics and she is targetting real poltical issues!
Surely, Lungu’s politcal advisor has gone to sleep or is incompetent! How can you leave Lungu so blatantly exposed with his wife abusing public resources? Esther, is taking rounds using Govt resources that she is neither entitled to nor qualified to enjoy!! What is Keizer Zulu [special assistant to the president for political affairs] actually doing and what is he saying to Lungu about the abuse of public funds by Esther? Really shameful it is – only in Zambian can this happen!!

A reader using the name “Katuba Old Boys” wanted to know the purpose of the first lady's outreach programme:

[…] they are calling it an outreach programme from what? Because an outreach programme must have a purpose and must come from an entity , not just an individual household to have an outreach programme. Therefore we must know if that outreach programme is from state house therefore there must be some budget line with clearly defined purpose.

“Native”, a reader on another online news site, Zambia Reports, argued that the charitable work by the first ladies is a good tradition, but the source of funds should be known:

Charitable interaction with the zambian community by first ladies is most welcome and a good tradition. […] Nawakwi’s question is where is the money coming from? And if it is taxpayers’ money, which budgetary allocation is it coming from? It’s a very basic question that can be answered without much fuss if the first lady’s activities are above board.

“Adrian” pointed out that what Zambian first lady is doing is a common trend among first ladies all over the world:

[…] The Queen in UK has a husband who performs some functions on her behalf and the British people have all the respect for the Royal Family. Plz this issue is in bad taste could have bn channelled out of public media. As it stands [Nawakwi] has reduced herself to a common uneducated woman thinking that no woman including herself can lead Zambia. I will wait to hear what the Women NGO’s will say. Please look at the First Lady like any of the First Ladies world-wide, she is helping fellow women knowing that at some time she will leave State House and its a chance in a lifetime to be a FIrst Lady just as [Nawakwi] will move into the house God willing if she acepts that she has offended the First Lady Esther Lungu out of envy, jelousy and frustration. May the good Lord forgive her.

Another reader advised Nawakwi:

Please if you are heartless leave our mother alone . She is doing a commendable job and that is in her nature not pretence in order to gain political mileage. Some people are so heartless even towards their own families and can’t differentiate politics and a noble cause . My advise is lay off your hands on the first lady madam before you irritate us .

Coming to Nawakwi's defense, “Paul Phiri” clarified the issues raised by Nawakwi:

Point of correction my Dear, Nawakwi is not attacking the first lady but advising her, She even offered to support her if she came out in the open with a charitable organisation to help the vulnerable. But what can that be called? I mean what the first lady is doing, Campaigning privately for her Husband whose source of funds can not openly be mentioned. I still cant understand some of you here.

While “Angoni” told Nawakwi the best way to deal with the issue of charitable work by First Ladies:

The best nawakwi can do is not to attack the first lady but to lobby parliament to institutionalise the office of the first lady and not to be disrespective to the president and everyone around him.

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