In keeping with his reputation for speaking his mind, in his first weeks in office President Michael Sata has issued a trenchant demand for an apology from Malawi for his deportation from there in 2007 and, now, has fulsomely apologised to Angola for Zambian support in the past for the UNITA rebel movement.
Sata is so angry over the deportation and Malawi’s failure to go beyond revocation of the order to a proper apology that he refused to attend last week’s Comesa (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) summit in Malawi. But so keen is he to mend fences with Angola that he has apologised to the Dos Santos government and sent former President and frontline states doyen Kenneth Kaunda to Luanda as a sign of his desire for better relations.
Sata v Mutharika
Soon after winning the presidential election, Michael Sata called on Malawi to revoke the deporation order against him AND to apologise for deporting him in the first place. He was kicked out of Malawi unceremoniously in 2007, when as Patriotic front opposition leader in Zambia he went to Malawi for talk with opposition parties there.
The new Zambian leader has described how he was stopped by immigration officers when he arrived by air, “bundled into a Land Cruiser” and driven 300 miles back to the Zambian border.
Following his complaint, he was expecting a swift Malawian response and an apology or explanation. What he got was a revocation with no other comment. This has angered him even more, thus his refusal to visit his neighbour to attend the Comesa summit.
Prior to the summit, the Malawian High Commissioner in Lusaka, David Bandawe, had audience with Sata to hand him and official invitation to the summit from president Bingu wa Mutharika. The diplomat said the deporation order had been revoked but stopped short of giving an apology.
Angered by this, Sata has told Bandawe, “Your government has not apologised to me or my lawyer in Malawi and therefore I find it extremely difficult to go to Malawi,” Sata told the Malawian high commissioner to Zambia David Bandawe.
He went on to make abundantly clear his exasperation, saying,”You are fully aware of the dilemma in which I am in with your government. Your government for no apparent reason declared me a prohibited immigrant when I went to visit an opposition leader”. he said to the Malawian high commissioner that he thought he would be bringing not just the invitation but an apology.
The Nyasa Times in Malawi has reported a stonewalling response by Mutharika – his spokesman, the saturnine former Foreign Minister under Kamuzu Banda, Hetherwick Ntaba said that President Mutharika had not apologised – making clear the Malawian intention not to give in even at the expense of prolonging the dispute.
In recent months, Mutharika has become increasingly argumentative with friends and neighbours – cntinuing the row with Zambia, refusing to apologise for his expulsion of the British High Commissioner and ignoring domestic and international criticism of his promotion within the cabinet of close relatives.
Former diplomats and opposition figures have criticised the president for his intransigence. Malawi’s former ambassador to Japan, Dr John Chikago, criticised Mutharika on the way he handled the row with Sata, saying he should have sent an envoy to explain the country’s position.
Sata, for his part, is adamant that he won’t visit Malawi unless he gets an apology.
Apology to Angola to oil wheels of relations
Sata has accused his Malawian counterpart of lacking the courage to apologise. The Zambian leader couldn’t be accused of that when it comes to relations with Angola.
Aware of the importance of his economically more powerful neighbour to the Zambian economy, Sata has issued a very fulsome apology to the government of President Jose Euardo dos Santos for Zambia’s backing for the UNITA rebel movement during Angola’s three decade civil war. He has sent former President Kenneth Kaunda to Luanda to deliver the apology as a sign of his country’s contrition.
This is an important shift in Zam,bian regioal policy and one that Sata hopes will bring economic as well as diplomatic benefits.
Under President Fred Chiluba, Zambia had been closer to the UNITA movement and Jonass Savimbi than to the government in Luanda – as late as 1999 (three years before Savimbi’s death and UNITA’s defeat) Angola accused Zambia of support for UNITA and allowing arms to get to the rebels via Zambia. Chiluba denied this, but was clearly closer to Savimbi than Dos Santos. Levy Mwanawasa, Chiluba’s successr, did little to change relations despite the death of Savimbi in 2002.
Even Kenneth Kaunda had far from easy relations with the Angolan government. During the liberation war against the Portuguese in the 1960s and early 1970s, Kaunda had supprted UNITA, only dropping that support when the movement attacked the Benguela Railway and cut one route for Zambia copper exports. Kaunda then swapped to supporting Dos Santos’s MPLA and was a co-leader of the Frontline States with him. But relations were never close or warm.
Sata, as part of his reorientation of Zambian domestic and foreign policies wants to change that. He is aware that oil revenues, Western and Chinese investment, the construction of refineries, rebuilding of Angola’s shattered transport infrastructure (including the Lobit Corridor and the Benguela Railway) could all transform Angola into a powerful and infuential regional economy, good relations with which would be great benefit to landlocked and energy-poor Zambia.
Sata said on 19th October to Angola’s new ambassador, Balbina Malheiros Dias da Silva, at a meeting in Lusaka that, “As I am talking, our first president, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, is in Angola. I have sent him as my envoy to go and personally apologise to the president”.
Zambia is heavily reliant on importing oil from the Middle East and would like to cut this dependency and reduce import costs by benefiting from the building of an $8bn refinery in Angola. Sata would like a deal to import oil more cheaply from Angola. The new government would also like to benefit from the improvement in Angola’s road and rail infrastructure t provide an alternative route to the far from dependable TanZam railway for copper and other mineral exports.
It is easier for Sata to apologise to Angola and Mutharika to Zambia, as Zambia’s support for UNITA was under Sata’s political opponent Chiluba and the MMD rather than under his own Patriotic Front. This has enabled him to go as far as to say that the MMD “was very treacherous during your struggle”.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the Lobito rail line project which could connect Zambia to the port at Lobito in Angola was to receive an US$18 million in funding from the African Development Bank (ADB) to facilitate regional and international trade for bulk cargo such as copper. Access to this route would open up new and cheaper transport options for Zambia.
The project would rehabilitate the Benguela Rwailway, which runs from Lobito, though Angola and Zambia’s Copperbelt to Dr Congo’s copper and mineral-rich Shaba province.