Zambia Railways Saga: What are Zambian Professors for Kanshi??!!

By Maurice Makalu

When swearing in Defence Chiefs, President Michael Sata lamented to the Army Commander, “You have an engineering department: How can we have collapsed bridges and damaged roads? What do you engineer?!”

I am feeling the anguish in the President’s lamentation as I watch the Zambia Railways (ZR) saga unfold. I am asking myself: What are Zambian professors (educated people) for kanshi? If it is not to solve our problems as a nation.

This is the ZR scenario: A politician took a bold, patriotic and necessary decision, cancelled the concession of a bankrupt Zambia Railways and returned it to the Zambian people. He then appointed a renowned Zambian (at least by birth) Professor as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) correctly believing: “We Zambians cannot fail to revamp and run this thing!”

He also appointed a board of very educated and experienced people, with another Professor in the mix, and said, correctly again, “I already appointed a CEO for ZR, it is not supposed to be like that. You are the board, go in, regularize things and make this thing work!”

After 28 board meetings, numerous press conferences and public lectures showing nice train pictures and dreams, it is heartbreaking to learn that in the actual fact, all that has been going on behind the scenes is a fight over money, who is educated/qualified and who is not.

Sure mwe bantu, is this the best our best brains can do?!

We may be a poor country but our resources are not spoils of war (not even to the father of politics of benefits, Daniel Munkombwe), neither are our people exam markers to mark which professor knows how things are supposed to be done and who does not; which professor is from Matero University and what not. The people of Zambia are not interested in lectures in corporate governance and tender procedures.

All the Zambian people want is ZR up and running again. So get the job done, especially since you are educated people.

From where I am sitting, if Willie Nsanda pulls off the Link Zambia 8000 and Pave Zambia 2000 Road Projects without major glitches and scandles, the case for educated people to occupy high positions of decision making in government will become even harder.

The uneducated politicians will just be looking after each other, from one regime to the next and the next. Already, Chishimba Kambwili is not doing too badly at his stadium in Mongu, yet technocrats in Luapula are still struggling just to meet to pave a way forward to implement the President’s directives of setting up Universities there.

Another technocrat in charge of Mwanawasa Stadium is reported to be complaining at the lack of government grants to maintain the stadium yet he has been put there to free tax payer’s money from that very burden.

Mistakes ZR Board made

It is disappointing to hear the spokesperson for the board, Prof Oliver Saasa, say, “This is a good case for academic study. I invite our colleagues from University of Zambia to make a case study out of this.”

For heaven’s sake, you were told when you were appointed as the board, “regularize this.” That means you were put in a broken situation and your task was to “fix it.” If you fail to fix it, do not go back to the appointing authority and say, “We failed to fix it because it was broken.”

That is insane! And if you want a case study out of your failure to fix, then do it yourselves because you are the only ones who know why you failed to deliver.

Zambians know Prof Chirwa to be a consultant running his own business(es), or at least that is the impression he has given us. How do you ask him for his pay slips as a way to determine his income? Why not his and company’s bank statements or income statements? A lecturer from UNZA will give you his pay slip but that will not show his real income because it does not capture income from private jobs.

Prof Saasa, you are the same person who says Chirwa wanted to use his company (wife’s) to train senior management staff at ZR, why should you then make a big deal out of Chirwa’s pay slip showing 13,000 pounds per month (or is it per week) to embarrass him on his demands of KR250,000 monthly salary?! As a board, you are clearly playing politics when you should be fixing the situation.

Did Chirwa create that company just for the ZR job? That cannot be because you (Saasa) said you saw the company’s filed financial statements in UK signed by Prof Chirwa. How much was there in annual revenues? Kindly tell us so that we can form an opinion of the opportunity cost Chirwa is incurring to be here running ZR, which cost is definitely a factor in his salary demands. Himself says 2 million pounds.

Chirwa failed to produce the three or four references you asked him for, so what? His CV lists a lot of companies he has done work for, why not contact them? Unless if the board is suggesting that Chirwa’s CV is a case of elaborate falsification, his failing to produce a list of references could be due to the fact that he thinks he is a known figure internationally, you should have known or heard of him already. So the need for references becomes “academic” or administrative rather than the usual serious case of real background check before engaging somebody. Again the board is playing politics by making this a big deal instead of fixing things.

There is no reason we should doubt our ability to have an underground rail station. If we can mine copper from deep underground, we can move people in trains underground. So the board errored to use the failure of Lusaka City Council to move sewage underground as a reason to disagree with Chirwa’s vision. How do you compare sewage and people sure?!!! Even if Lusaka sits on a rock, we can drill through. I hate those flyover bridges; the train station itself is an eyesore in the city.

Good decisions by the Board

I commend the board for asking the Minister to dissolve them. Clearly their approach of rushing to assert their authority and issue directives to the CEO only ignited ego battles and helped little to create an enabling environment to revamp ZR. Instead of regularizing, they were exacerbating. Also I commend them for putting their foot down to demand a strategic plan before commencing any major projects Chirwa envisions.

Preparing a strategic plan is a performance measure for every CEO. Failure to do so is a clear case of incompetence and consequently, dismissal. Prof Chirwa is hereby forewarned!
The board seems to paint the picture that Chirwa has never run any big business before (apart from his consultancy). This could be true but it may not necessarily mean he will fail.

Preparing strategic plans, building competent teams, articulating a vision and inspiring others to get there, using his connections to mobilize resources, etc are factors Chirwa must demonstrate (by the documents, presentations and teams he builds) before we give him a blank cheque on ZR.

So the former board was right in its caution and reservations. Until Chirwa can convince that he can deliver, Zambians will feel their tax money is going to waste. State House must not skip this over.

Even the feasibility studies and Environmental impact assessments are essential before starting to roll out the ZR dream. So the board got it right on this one too. But if these studies have been done before under the previous management (s), and the new projects envisioned do not vary significantly from those already studied, in the interest of time and progress, we may just need to do a financial feasibility study and use consultants to make adjustments to already existing feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments.

These consultants would of course have to satisfy themselves that the studies they would be adjusting were actually done and not just typed inside offices. This they can do by sampling and verifying the data (measurements, figures, soils, forests, terrain, wild life, habitation, etc) behind the studies, conclusions and recommendations.

If however the variance of the projects is significant, we have to start every study from scratch. The board and the CEO need to work together to make this uncommon decision. If they try to out shine each other on who knows how feasibility studies are done, and who is more exposed and what not, ZR will be stuck. The nation will have repossessed it just to bury it into the ground. Politicians will have delivered, technocrats will have failed. We want people to get the job done, not to show us how much they know.

Prof. Chirwa’s mistakes and good deeds

You never run to the media with corporate squabbles, it is the fool’s guide to corporate image destruction. So it was gross unprofessionalism on your part to expose the board’s ridiculous demands of sitting allowances. Cheap politicking.

Four months on the job is too long a time for you to continue meeting your management team one on one. That is stuff you do in a week or two. It is time you start meeting as a team, flesh out the vision and build the commitment as a team. If the board managed 28 meetings even as committees over the same period, how could you fail to manage even 10, let alone 1, as a top management team?!

Are you telling us that you despise the urgency that prompted the President to do what he did?

What is taking you so long to fix your house in Kabwe? If you can sign a cheque for KR38,000 to pay your rentals in Lusaka, you should be able to sign the same or similar amount to rehabilitate your house in Kabwe.

Get down to work and prepare us a strategic plan. We need it before you spend our Euro bond, Sir. Your public lecture is not a strategic plan. If you want to turn it into one, expose it to the honest scrutiny of your management team (specialists and government as funders), allowing them to criticize it and amend it without consequences to their jobs should they tear it to shreds and show you that you are hallucinating.

Why not declare interest in the company you wanted to train senior management staff? While you were away, we enacted an abuse of office clause in our anti-corruption law. Watch your step.

You are a reputable engineer sir (so we believe), give us references we move on. This may be petty to you, but it is somebody’s job, so just cooperate sir.

You want to be part of the procuring committee, why not restrict that to international procurement where you may have connections to leverage in our favour? Otherwise, it’s best you stay out of procurement. I don’t fault you for demanding KR250,000 per month, 25% shares, 6 air tickets, etc you were a professional negotiating and you had to start from somewhere.

It is unfortunate that the board, in their politicking, have trumped up your demands and remained quiet on what their counter proposals to your demands were.

You did good to refuse to pay the board those scandalous allowances. Most of all, we love your vision for ZR. Especially that it looks unrealistic. If you can really pull it off, it will be our own version of putting a man on the moon in a decade. You will be a JF Kennedy and a Neil Armstrong in one. You will have taught the nation to dream again. Good luck!

Is CEO the best way Chirwa can serve our rail transport sector? How about as Permanent Secretary? Or better still, as a Mwansa Kapeya type of Deputy Minister – specific to rail transport only?

The ZR saga is a case of educated people struggling or failing to fix what is broken and they wash their dirty linen in public, saying, “This cannot be fixed, because it is broken.” This should never happen. Education is not only for preventing things from breaking, real education should fix broken things too. Don’t just be educated, have wisdom!

Chirwa has been at ZR for 4 months now, how much has he been getting per month? Himself, he says KR140,000 per month, because that is what he signed for after his demands were turned down. If this is true, why the fussy from the board about demands that have been rejected? Or is Chirwa paying himself KR250,000? If so, sanctioned by who? Because these are just demands yet to be regularized.

If he is getting KR250,000 when no board has regularized, can we infer from this that he will get the 25% shareholding too? I think no. But just in case we may have a Daniel Munkombwe at ZR, all focus then must be on State House. Could there be an invisible shareholder in the 25% shareholding?!

Madam Auditor General and our investigative wings, get to the bottom of this for us. In national interest, all findings are here by declassified! No information is confidential.

Zambia Railways is ours, we are watching!

Maurice Makalu is an Author & a Political Commentator