My cell phone sharply rang and thereby cutting short my morning meditation moments. I sat up and answered.
“Sam! Where are you?”
It was Dr. Joshua Kanganja. The head of the Zambian civil service and my immediate boss.
“ I…am in Woodlands, “ I responded hesitatingly.
“What are you doing there?” And before I could answer, he shouted: “Can you come to the office immediately…”
This was one of Zambia’s special days. The day when Michael Chilufya Sata was to be sworn in, replacing the defeated president Rupiah Bwezani Banda.
A few hours earlier, the Chair of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, the then Deputy Chief Justice Irene Mambilima had announced that opposition Patriotic Front leader, Sata had beaten the incumbent Movement for Multiparty Democracy’s Banda in the September 2011 polls by 1, 170, 966 votes to Banda’s 987, 866; or 42.24 per cent to 35.63 per cent, respectively.
A few minutes later, Dr. Kanganja called me back. I said I was driving along the Independence Avenue, approaching the State House main gate.
It was an aerie morning, with a cool breeze blowing through the tall trees that gave the plushy suburb its name, Woodlands. The roads were unusually empty, and so I pushed the accelerator to the top speed. Soon after, I was at the Secretariat, or the so-called Cabinet Office. I sprinted up the stairs and with a slight knock, I dashed into Dr. Kanganja’s secretary’s office.
Without saying a word to me, the Secretary waved me towards Dr. Kanganja’s office, thus ushering me with no formalities. She was now used to seeing me in- and out- of that office, always at the beacon of Dr. Kanganja.
I once joked that she should reserve me a desk in her office where I could be working from.
As I literally burst into Dr Kanganja’s office though, I noticed that as always, he was seated at his bizarrely small desk. I had been in that huge office ‘with a small desk’ countless times during my time as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information of Broadcasting Services.
Every time I was there, I wondered how such a powerful man could have such a small desk, much smaller than mine on the sixth floor at the Government Complex on the southern end of the independence Avenue in Lusaka.
This time though, Dr. Kanganja was not in his formal suit and tie. He looked tired and somewhat drained. I wondered whether he had slept the previous night. I barely slept myself.
However, unlike the many times I had been in that office, this time there were no pleasantries .
How could there be?
With a tired wave of his right hand, Dr. Kanganja showed me where to take my seat. That is nearest to his desk. In the office with him were the five defence and security chiefs, from the Zambia Army, Airforce, Police, National Service and the Intelligence.
I knew them all from previous encounters. I just nodded to them and the discussions begun.
Shortly after, we moved to the Cabinet Office conference room on the same floor where a team of leading officials of the Patriotic Front, the in-coming governing party were waiting for us. With the PF leaders in the conference room, were a few other high-ranking civil servants and senior aides to the security officials. They were all seated in subdued silence. You could hear a pin drop.
Characteristically, they stood in unison as we walked in. We took our seats on the main table, with us on the left side of Dr. Kanganja who was at the head of the conference desk.
Opposite us, were the victorious Patriotic Front (PF) team members. They were led by PF Secretary General Wynter Kabimba in the company of Ms Silvia Masebo and lawyers Kelvin Fube Bwalya and Mumba Kapumpa. All four were casually dressed, although I took special note of Bwalya, who was in checked shorts with an open necked summer T-shirt.
I had known Kapumpa for many years, from his activist days at Tikwiza Theatre and my short-term membership of that amateur theatre grouping in the 1980s. Breaking the silence, Kapumpa jovially greeted me, and I responded similarly.
Out of curiosity, Kabimba leaned towards Masebo, quietly asking who I, a civilian among the security chiefs, could be. Masebo simply passed the question over to Kapumpa. On getting the ‘telegraphed’ answer, Kabimba simply nodded. Obviously, there were more immediate things to consider than my name.
I knew Bwalya from the time I was a journalist with the Times of Zambia in the early 1990s and again came across his name when I was with the Open Society initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) in Johannesburg around 2008.
As an OSISA media development expert, I was a board member for the Southern African Media Development and Entrepreneurship Fund (SAMDEF) whose offices are based in Gaborone, Botswana. OSISA annually contributed more than two million Dollars to SAMDEF, money which was meant for propping up entrepreneurial media initiatives across the SADC region through soft loans.
I came across Bwalya’s name when he represented SAMDEF over some court case involving a Zambia-based SAMDEF client.
My one and only other encounter with Ms Masebo was at the hearing of the parliamentary committee on information and culture. I was then less than two months in the office of Information Permanent Secretary.
Ms Masebo was then an MMD Member of Parliament for Chongwe. During the committee meeting, Ms Masebo struck me as having been well briefed and thus she asked some tough, well-informed and rather belligerent questions.
I left the meeting wondering why a governing party MP could have been so antagonistic and insistent to the point of being aggressive.
Anyway, back to the meeting at Cabinet Office.
The only item on the agenda was the procedures for handing over the government to the victorious Patriotic Front.
Up to the announcement of the results, President Banda was the referral point of all state action. In theory, he still remained the main point man until incoming president Sata was sworn in.
But in practice though, immediately after the announcement of the election results, State authority had ebbed away from Banda towards Dr. Kanganja and onwards to the incoming president Sata. Banda was among the first to be officially informed that he had lost the elections.
The state security apparatus swung into action and immediately secured Sata’s residence that night. The PF security cadres were politely and firmly told that the protection of Mr. Sata was no longer their business.
As morning broke, plans were that the Mr. Sata’s swearing-in ceremonies would take place at the grounds of the National Assembly. For more than two weeks, both military and other rehearsals – including fly past by the ZAF – were conducted with that view in mind.
The Zambian Constitution states that the ‘new’ president should be sworn in within 24 hours after the declaration of the outcome of the presidential polls by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ). Consequently, invitation letters from Dr. Kanganja’s office to diplomats and other senior citizens including First President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda and other government officials, stated that the ceremonies were to be at the Parliamentary grounds.
Clearly, these preparations were not made in consultation with contesting political parties. Neither was there any solid precedence to follow for the inauguration ceremonies. For example, in 1964, the ceremony was held at Independence Stadium near Matero in Lusaka, others had thereafter been held at the High Court grounds.
At the meeting at cabinet Office, the PF team objected to having the inauguration at the National Assembly.
Evidently, they wanted things done the PF way. When confronted with the difficulties of belatedly shifting the venue to the preferred High Court grounds, the PF team sent an emissary to Mr. Sata who was at home.
The response was that the ceremony should take place at the High Court buildings. More than anything before now, this demonstrated who was in control of the country from that moment on. Dr. Kanganja and his team, both civil and military, had no option but to oblige. The centre of power had clearly shifted.
As discussions progressed on alternative arrangements, a message was received through the protocol section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a foreign head of state who had arrived earlier and was based at a Lusaka hotel, was restless. He asked to return home immediately.
Dr. Kanganja had to deal with this diplomatic issue and he assured the visiting leader that all was well and the ceremonies would take place at the appointed time.
The small swearing-in podium was immediately dismantled from the National Assembly and re-positioned at the High Court buildings. I asked ZNBC Director General Eddy Mupeso to move the Outside Broadcasting van to the High Court immediately and start transmissions from there.
By now hordes of PF supporters were already matching towards the High Court buildings for the inauguration.
I left Cabinet office, drove through Burma Road, avoiding the High Court roundabout, to the Government Complex to watch the proceedings from the office.
The nest day, I phoned Dr. Kanganja asking whether it was not appropriate for us senior government officials to officially resign so that the new president could have a cleaner hand in making his preferred appointments.
Dr. Kanganja’s advice was that the right thing to do was to ‘wait-and-see’ as doing otherwise could be misconstrued as ‘running away.’ I hesitatingly obliged although within days, I had removed all my personal belongings from the office.
Weeks before the elections, as requested by Dr. Kanganja, I prepared my handover notes for the intended consumption of whoever would be appointed the new Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services. I made these notes poignant enough that they could be used by whoever would become the new Permanent Secretary.
As far as I was concerned, my job at the Ministry was done. Nonetheless, I waited as advised by Dr. Kanganja.
In the interim, I would joke with the two secretaries in the Permanent Secretaries office that as soon as a brown envelope embossed with a golden eagle arrived, is should be given to me immediately.
Within seven days from the inauguration, the letter came. It was signed by the new president. I had been fired “with immediate effect.” The time was about 11.30hrs. As I stood up to leave the office, The Accountant came in asking that I approve some financial transaction.
“Sorry, Mum, I no longer have the authority to do so,” I said.
“Why? What happened?”
“ I have been fired,” I replied.
“Oh! No!. Can I see the letter?”
I refused to give it to her as it was a confidential document.
As she left the office, I walked behind her. Called the driver, Mr. Achilisa Lungu requesting that he drives me home.
On arrival at home, I told him what happened, wished him well and told him to surrender my official car to the Ministerial Transport Officer, although according to my conditions of service, I was entitled to keep the car.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Lungu and the Transport Officer came to see me at home to re-affirm that I keep the car, but I refused.
After the two officers left, I phoned Dr. Kanganja out of courtesy, informing him what I knew he already knew.
His response was simple: “Don’t worry Sam. You are a self-made man. These things happen.”
Two days later, I drove out of Zambia, through the Caprivi Strip (now re-named Zambezi Province) in Namibia, to be with my family at home in Johannesburg.
I never spoke and met Dr. Kanganja again.
This week, four years later, I was one of the mourners who witnessed Dr. Kanganja’s body being laid to rest in Lusaka. I was however aware that among the multitudes that bid him farewell, only a few knew what role he played in the peaceful transition of political power from the MMD to the PF in 2011.
Zambia has indeed lost a patriot, who I had the rare opportunity of working with at close range.
As I walked away from the grave site, I recalled Paul Kennedy’s words in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy writes that “Men make history, but they do make it within a historical circumstance which can restrict (as well as open up) possibilities.”
*Dr. Phiri is a journalist and communication scholar teaching Critical Media Studies at the University of Zambia