The Student vs The Government =?? (PART 1)

It is a Friday morning at the University of Zambia. Everything is quiet and usual. Students wake up; go for class with cheerful smiles knowing the weekend has started. There is something with Fridays on every campus. It comes with the full promise of the urban life that let the young ones explore every nook of the city.

Everyone is excited about this day. For every student with a Christian taste of morals, it is the day they get to sit and watch movies, grab some tasty food or lazy around with their loved ones. No matter what you do, the feeling is the same; Intrinsic, exciting, jovial.

Two students smiling into the weekend after a full week of class. Image by Kalichi Pictures.

The University which has a term system with three months in each term has on its side the government to pay students meal allowances at the beginning of each term. This is not however a “favor” from the government as meal allowances are raised from tax payers money. The money given to students is always budgeted for annually by the rulers of the nation.

When students open, meal allowances are to be credited. However, the yawning gap between the government and the students starts when a month has passed without formal communication from the regime. When that carrot turns out to be a rotten promise, then there is nothing but anger in students. Now, a once peaceful Friday starts turning out sour as mobs gather to have a peaceful protest.

Students gather together at Monk’s Square to prepare to protest. Image by Lusaka Times

Protests which turn out to be riots are neither irrational, spontaneous outbursts nor the secret workings of some conspiracy or other. They are rather, the working out of an inner circle of campus life. That tension is usually finessed through the fine idea that if everyone comes together, all will be well.

Riots have their own logic. Both those that celebrate and decry them tend to think of riots as irrational outbursts, which can be channeled back towards order either by offering a few concessions or by sending in more police. There is invariably some moralizing that goes along with all this, none of it terribly helpful for understanding why riots are a constant way of expressing views with the government.

To suggest that UNZA students are crude and stupid to riot merely because of late payment of meal allowances would be deeply insulting. What I would submit is that the true cause of these riots is something much deeper and more reflective of the dysfunctional relationship between the government and the students.

“It has much more to do with the fact that for some years, government had proved to be a failure at holding the other end of the bargain; to communicate effectively with the students. Government has been overshadowed with culture of leaders who promise gold and instead deliver zinc,” said a former UNZASU President.

It usually takes an incident to get a riot started. But once it has begun, riots do have a life of their own. Deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations and long standing disappointments galvanize people into action.

Speaking to a fourth year student pursuing a degree in law, Richard Sakala* said he participated in riots in trying to send a message to the government which fails to be sent through normal dialogue.

President Edgar Lungu addressing riotous behaviour of University of Zambia Students to press before boarding the plane to Uganda. Image by ZNBC

“Whenever we riot, government always pays us. We have tried in the past to formally ask government to pay us on time but to no avail,” he said.

“Government has always proved futile to pay us on time,” said David Tembo* of the School of Education ,“Most of us come from poor families and we survive only through the meal allowances,” he stated.

Meanwhile, getting views from a non-student, a civil servant Michael Mulenga* as to what he thought the causes of riots would be, he merely expressed that riots at UNZA were politically motivated.

“Opposition parties pay students to riot so as to make it seem like government is not working,” he said.

Another civil servant Catherine Mumbi* stated that students ought to be thankful to government as they were doing them a favor to pay them free meal allowances.

“Students should be grateful for the government for the money. Other students from colleges are not getting meal allowances and you want to riot all the time for things you are not entitled to,” she said.

For some years, some citizens and the government have chosen to put the blame on the “OPPOSITION PARTIES.” Could this be used as an escape excuse for government’s failure to deliver service?

It’s no surprise that established authorities, feeling attacked; see the violent behavior of students in such terms. They react by becoming dismissive and punitive. And often there is an element of truth in these riots. Truly no one wakes up to start a fire at the road side.

A student being handled by an officer of the law during a protest. Image by Tumfweko

Speaking to a psychologist at the University of Zambia, Professor Daniel Phiri*, he stated that for most students, mob provides cover, an anonymity that makes it easier to overcome ones usual reticence or moral scruples.

“It can become an exuberant experience, a joyful release for long suppressed emotions. It can also be a manic, driven, a means of relentless seeking new outlets of doing things. It offers a kind of intense belonging together in fighting for noble cause,” he said.

This is not however to justify the behavior of riots, but to recognize that we all can so easily make a difference. Riots do not rely on criminality as those in power put it. Thinking that way though can distract us from the underlying conditions that give rise to such events.

Riots can be appeals to be heard, when normal channels don’t work. They can be expressions of hope that things could change, be better. And they could all be these things- and more.

To be continued…!


NB: * We have kept the profiles and names of the individuals in this article private for confidentiality and protection rights.


Writer – Peter Mwanza

Layout – Chipema Chinyama

Editor: Chinyemba Kamweho

Photographs – Chishimba Bwalya and Chanda Chanda

Source: James Sakala