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Vital Kamerhe:  20-Year Sentence, A Dead Judge And a Waltz With the Law

Vital Kamerhe:  20-Year Sentence, A Dead Judge And a Waltz With the Law

When does corruption start? Does it start with the first call to an offshore bank, the first transfer of illicit funds or does it start some time before – during a sleepless night – and in the depths of the mind where no law reaches?

Vital Kamerhe was the Chief of Staff to Felix Tshisekedi, the President of the cobalt-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When the President came into office in January 2019, one of his goals was to provide improved infrastructure and affordable housing to the Congolese people through his ‘100- day program’. However, soon after funds were disbursed, construction stalled whilst costs rose.

The players in this murky game are not hard to spot. First, we must have a government official with power to disburse funds and the willingness to look away. This was Kamerhe. As Chief of Staff, he could sign off on contracts and release funds. Second, we must have the pseudo-credible middlemen – the ones who make the show, by working to deliberately stall projects and inflate prices. These are the Lebanese businessmen Jammal Samih, CEO of Husmal and Samibo – two companies involved in the construction of social housing – and Jeannot Muhima Ndoole, who heads the Import-Export Department for the President.

On the other hand, there were members of civil society, such as the NGO Government Spending Watch, which reported that 80% of the contracts were awarded without tenders submitted. The president was also a key player – permitting the law to take its course. This may not have been done for altruistic reasons as there had also been reports of a rift between the President and his Chief of staff.

For the first time in a long time in Congo’s history, a high-ranking political official seemed to dance to the beat of the law. This was regardless of the fact that Judge Raphaël Yany, the judge overseeing the corruption trial, was murdered in May 2020.  The police had earlier reported that he died of a heart attack, but an autopsy report revealed that he died from knife-like injuries to the head. This happened even though he had six policemen guarding him during the course of the trial.

Notwithstanding Judge Raphaël Yany’s murder, both Vital Kamerhe and Jammal Samih were sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in June 2020 and faced millions of dollars in fines. Beyond this, Kamerhe was also disqualified from running for office in Congo for the next 10 years. Jeannot Muhima was sentenced to two years of hard labour. The impact of this ruling has brought some hope to the Congolese people – a glimpse of what is possible if the law is allowed to take its course.

Reflection

Arguably, this hope was short-lived. On 14 April 2021, Kamerhe, from the relative comfort of his hospital bed, congratulated his ‘comrades’ for appointments as ministers and deputy ministers in the government. In fact, they got positions in areas, such as Budget, Land affairs as well as the Justice Department.

This case is familiar. Similar plays and players can be found across the continent. In this game, the law is a web through which birds fly unscathed, but flies are caught. The consequences of the actions of a few are left on the many. Whilst their politicians and those associated with them continue to misappropriate public funds – $304M was initially budgeted for infrastructure building and a large percentage of this remains unaccounted for –  the people of Congo remain as poor as ever – with the majority living below the poverty line, spending less than $2/day to live.

Through My Eyes: Zambia’s Democratic Elections

Through My Eyes: Zambia’s Democratic Elections

By Yande Changala

Zambia is currently experiencing what could be one of its biggest defining moments since the re-introduction of political pluralism in 1990. This is because to many Zambians this change of government feels like freedom, hope and an opportunity for them to raise their standards of living after what felt like decades of suffering under the administration of the Patriotic Front led by former president Edgar Chagwa Lungu.

Mr. Hakainde Hichilema is the president of the new ruling party, United Party for National Development (UPND). UPND was formed in 1998 by Anderson Mazoka who died in 2006 and was succeeded by Mr. Hichilema who led the party to winning after 21 years of losing.

On the 12th of August, the Zambian citizens showed up in numbers to exercise their right to vote. This has been the biggest voter turnout since the ballot in 1991. This was due to the large number of young people that registered to vote. Despite having to stand in long queues for long periods of time just to cast their vote, one thing was unanimously clear: the Zambian people wanted change from a government that had failed them as a country.

The 2021 general elections were one of the most peaceful elections the country has ever experienced, however, not the most fair ones. During the election period, opposition parties were not allowed to campaign freely, there were unequal campaign conditions, and one-sided media coverage – whereby the media only covered the campaigns of the incumbent government. There was no freedom of speech. Those that took to the road to protest against political injustices were arrested and new cyber laws that restricted people on social media were enforced. All of these things created an uneven playing field for the opposition parties to compete against the incumbent.

Campaign poster for Hakainde Hichilema. Source: facebook.com/hakainde.hichilema

Despite all of these injustices, this election was the embodiment of what democracy is: power to the people, the people spoke and they were heard. The youth made their voices heard, demanding for employment, education, good economic policies, reduced costs of living, the fall of political cadres, free press and the incarceration of politicians that plundered state resources, among other things. This election saw the rise of the youth determination to ensure a time for change, the Zambian youth understood the power they had, and made it clear to the president-elect that they were not loyal to a person but to their country. As a Zambian, I echo these sentiments, as we are loyal to the development of our country, to education for all, to youth inclusion and participation, to equal market share, gender equality and good governance with transparency and accountability; we are not loyal to a person. Mr. Hichilema was widely endorsed by many youths, he had the backing of a not-so-silent, silent majority, who campaigned for him using social media platforms. The youth took up the role of educating voters, making sure that they brought awareness on how to vote, reminded people of the oppression, the high costs of living and the violence that had been experienced during the rule of Mr. Edgar Chagwa Lungu. They reminded people to vote wisely encouraging them not to be swayed by the incentives given to them by “corrupt” politicians.

As a result of the huge social media reach carried out by many Zambian youth, Mr. Hakainde Hichilema gained momentum and sailed through the election, winning with over 2 million votes. Amidst the counting of votes former president Edgar Chagwa Lungu declared the elections not free and fair, but this was invalidated by the EU election observers that pointed to the effectiveness of the Electoral Commission of Zambia in carrying out the elections, and the biased campaigning conditions. Soon after the pronouncement of the winner on the 16th August 2021, Mr. Edgar Chagwa Lungu conceded defeat and agreed to a smooth transition of power. From these elections, one can learn from the resilience of the youth, they united and voted out what they termed a dictatorship. They practiced the power they had, the Zambian youth and the entire population at large are a reflection of what it looks like to practice democracy, to stand up to violation of human rights, corruption and the lack  political freedom.

Yande Changala, a Zambian citizen, is a member of the 2021 cohort of the Future Africa Fellows.