By Chris Zumani Zimba
When state security officers become rationale perpetrators of gross human rights violations including schemed arbitrary arrests, tear gassing, beatings, torture, murder or blood assassinations of unarmed citizens, we all need to stand up at once and speak against the practice as ‘naming and shaming’ become one of the remaining effective weapons to defend human rights, lives and stop the scourge. On 3rd October, 2018, the University of Zambia (UNZA) Seventh Day Executive Committee officially announced that “It is with a sad heart that we announce to you the death of our member, Vespers Shimuzhila, 4th year, school of education, Adult education. She died around 03 today due to suffocation in her room during the protest by students at UNZA great east road main campus.” Factually, the life of Vespers was terminated by the brutal and violent actions of Zambia Police officers who were deployed to the university of Zambia (UNZA) ’s main campus on 2nd October, 2018 evenings to maintain law and order as well as contain a student protest.
Zambia Police spokesperson Esther Katongo agreed that police officers were deployed on 2nd October, 2018 following reports that UNZA students at about 22:00 hours had staged a riot where they blocked Great East Road and destroyed booths within the area. In the same vein, UNZA students who witnessed the fracas confirmed that riot geared Zambia police officers came through and chased them from the road side into main campus, spraying heavy and indiscriminate tear gas canisters on them and into hostels. Hence, some teargas canister fell into Vespers room where she was studying and hiding. “Unfortunately, the room and hostel was set ablaze by the sparkling tear gas fire and the innocent Vespers was not only ‘smoked out’ but indeed chocked and suffocated to death”, a third year male law student narrated. “It was terrible for us here because many female students were injured in the brawl while others fainted and were rushed to the nearby hospital”, he added.
With her death and many hospitalized students making media headlines, many Zambians are at pain to recall that police brutality and disrespect for citizens’ rights is a continued reality in this democracy. And although the cause of the student riot was due to government’s failure to pay starving students their meal allowances, it has been confirmed that late Vespers was a self-sponsored student as her poor parents used to sale part of their livestock in Namwala district to pay for her studies, meals, accommodation and remaining costs at UNZA. Therefore, being killed due to protests born out of meal allowances which she was never a beneficiary makes her untimely death more horrific and traumatizing for both her parents and family.
Speaking to the Mast Newspaper reporters at University Teaching Hospital by the bedside of his daughter who jumped from the third floor of her hostel during riot night, Geoffrey Choongo condemned the act by the police officers as barbaric and criminal. “Trust me, this is a very sad situation. I can’t imagine how policemen can go and throw teargas or fire flares, whatever it is, in rooms of children that were so peaceful, they were not part of the troublemakers. They were in their rooms sleeping; these are not policemen, they are criminals”, Mrr. Choongo concluded. In an official statement, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) spokesperson, Mweelwa Muleya said. “The HRC deeply regrets and condemns the death of a fourth year University of Zambia (UNZA) student in a police operation to quell the protest by students on the night of 4th October 2018 and calls for punishment of perpetrators and compensation of the family of the deceased.” In the same vein, Zambia’s President, Edgar Lungu said he will wait for the police to provide answers on the deceased UNZA student. “Let the police do their job of thorough investigation. We want to know what happened…we do not want you to speculate,” the republican president told the media.
Sad enough, it is regrettable to note that, the majority of Zambia police officers are not just brutal and violent in the way they conduct themselves during confrontations with citizens, but that they are certainly not gender sensitivity and fail to apply rights based approach in their work dealings. Well trained police officers know that, while male students can speedily run away and hide outside campus during such violent confrontations, most female students are not so athletic to do so as they mainly find their hostels the nearest haven and last resort to seek refuge in times of need. During my stay at campus i.e. 2004 to 2007, I was very active in student politics at scheming level and even became the ‘cult chairman’ of ‘UNZA Forum’ or ‘Elite Monks’ for two years. In all our 01 AM 0r 03 AM secret planning meetings, I never saw or met any female student. This validates the fact that, in most instances, female students are not the actual trouble makers, notorious schemers and executors of student demonstrations and street riots which makes the murder and death of Vespers so painful and horrific especially that she was a devoted Adventist Christian as well as asmartic.
As we mourn and remember the life of Vespers in relation to police brutality and their continued disrespect for citizens’ rights and lives in Zambia, I vehemently agree with many comrades that our law makers hastily pass a bill named after her that will prohibit police officers from entering college and university residential campuses during riots so that the rights and lives of our students are both respected and protected from any police brutality, torture, violence and harassment anymore. Why should a student who retreats for safety or remain in their room studying, praying or indeed hiding for protection be suffocated to death by chili and toxic police tear gas in their very alter of refuge called a room? We further call upon the Republican President, Edgar Lungu and Vice President, Innonge Wina to ensure that the ruling part MPs and Cabinet Ministers push the Vespers Bill and is finalized this year. Lastly, the Minister of Home Affairs, Hon. Kapyongo must show political leadership and citizen civility to ensure that the officers who carried this brutal and violent operation at UNZA are identified, suspended and brought to full justice within 30 or less days. We say “NO TO POLICE BRUTALITY IN ZAMBIA” and stand with the family members, friends, church mates and neighbors of our late sister to say may the soul of dear Vespers rest in eternal peace as we continue to mourn, grieve and bleed in our hearts.
Chris Zumani Zimba is a Political Scientist, Author, PhD Scholar, Lecturer, Researcher and Consultant