ZAMBIA: University a political battleground

The government has said the University of Zambia is being used as a political battleground ahead of the 2011 presidential elections, in a development that has seen students being incited into protesting against the country's rulers. Growing incidences of student unrest have forced the institution's authorities to contemplate closing the university.

Lusaka provincial Minister Lameck Mangani told parliament on 17 July that politicians visit the campus to provoke students into rioting, at times doing so through the institution's radio station. The University of Zambia is located in Lusaka, the capital city.

The minister added that in the year to January 2009, 17 motor vehicles belonging to members of the public had been damaged by rowdy students in the nearby Great East Road after being incited into rioting by political players. Students found to have damaged motor vehicles would be prosecuted for malicious damage to property, said Mangani.

In recent years, student protests at the university have been frequent - occurring up to four times a year and resulting in the institution being closed at least twice a year.

Mangani told parliament that it was "unfortunate that the Great East Road campus is a centre of controversy. The best that can be done is to avoid using the university as a political playground. We will then avoid most of these disturbances." Politicians were warned not to disrupt the university or "abuse" its radio station.

He added that the government was erecting a security fence around the university as one measure to ensure that violence did not spill over outside campus, and dismissed legislators' concerns that the security fence would turn the institution into a prison for students.

But a number of lawmakers dismissed Mangani's claims that political forces were behind student unrest, saying rioting was associated with lousy conditions for students and lecturers.

Meanwhile, academics at the University of Zambia have once again embarked on industrial action, demanding a 15% salary increase after rejecting a 5% rise offered by the government. The dons are also protesting lack of accommodation and unpaid retirement benefits, baggage and passage allowances, pension subscriptions, contractual gratuities and leave.

Zambian lecturer unions claim that more than 400 academics have left the country in the past eight years because of poor working conditions. Sixty-four percent are said to have resigned less than five years after completing further studies, while 28% do not return from studies.

Mangani said even though there was currently calm at the university, students had previously rioted against a strike action by their lecturers. Police had been deployed on campus to monitor the situation and ensure that violent protests do not erupt again.

* In another message to parliament, Health Minister Kapemba Simbao told lawmakers that two of 12 students who attended inter-university games in Belgrade, Serbia, in June contracted the A/H1N1 virus and were treated in that country.