Prosecuting the prosecutor: the collapse of Zambian Airways has not only led to job losses and a missing link in the economy, but also a protracted battle in which the airline's owners, politicians and a popular private newspaper are engaged. While the fall of the airline is a business matter, politics is also playing a role in this whole saga. Austin Mbewe reports.

Author:Mbewe, Austin
Position:ZAMBIA
 
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It is a multifaceted piece of political and business drama that has been as absorbing as it is controversial and whose end for now is as unknown as a twisting and turning detective novel. Mutembo Nchito, a youthful Lusaka lawyer, is the chief prosecutor on the Task Force against Corruption and has made quite a name for himself by successfully prosecuting several ex-government officials, some of whom have now been sentenced.

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Nchito is not only a lawyer but also a businessman. In 1998, he and his business associates bought Mine Air Services from the then Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), the former state-owned conglomerate. Renamed Zambian Airways, the business expanded from national to regional markets within Southern and Eastern Africa and became a major means of transport for business and tourism.

But the airline took a dip and, in a bid to keep it afloat, it borrowed from local banks. However, the financial problems mounted, and in January this year the airline ground to a halt, citing rising aviation costs. According to the government, the airline owes $30m to several institutions. Given its service to the country's commerce, there were calls for the airline to be bailed out or at least given time to pay its debt, but the government flatly refused.

Ideally, the collapse of the airline should have been viewed as a case of business failure. But not so, at least going by the proportions it has assumed--and there are reasons for this. What adds a political twist to this otherwise business matter is that The Post newspaper, which is critical of the government, has a 30% shareholding in the airline. Its vocal editor, Fred M'membe, has for years been a thorn in the side of the government. Although The Post, Zambia's first independent newspaper, has had a long-running sulky relationship with the government, things appear to have turned for the worse with the coming to power of the current president, Rupiah Banda, who somewhat daringly chose to take on the newspaper.

The other political angle to it is that the newspaper had backed the former finance minister, Ng'andu Magande, for the presidential candidacy of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) following the death of President Levy Mwanawasa last year. That did not go down well with Banda who was constantly criticised by the newspaper. Banda accused Magande of having promised to write off the airline's debt, thus earning himself the editorial support...

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