Challenge to closure of Zambia University

January 11, 2002

Students were turfed off Zambia's main university campus as a new Zambian president was sworn in last week. Academics said it was not a promising sign that Levy Mwanawasa, the first president to be a university graduate, intended to patch up historically tetchy relations between the government and higher education.

The University of Zambia's lecturers' union is to challenge the decision to extend the Christmas holidays "until further notice" on the grounds that the move by the interim university council is illegal. Legislation allows only the senate to close the university, the union said.

The university's closure follows controversial polls that led to Mr Mwanawasa, of the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, being elected on less than 30 per cent of the vote amid allegations of widespread rigging.

The closure is seen as a government attempt to head off possible student and academic unrest. In Lusaka and towns in Zambia's industrial hub, the Copperbelt, people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the MMD's return to power.

The university has traditionally been a hotspot of dissent, foiling attempts last year by former president Frederick Chiluba to run for an unconstitutional third term.

Many academics hoped that the new government would restore the autonomy wrested away from the university in the past five years and improve its funding. But they now feel relations between the university and Mr Chiluba's successor may prove just as fractious.

"The new president has got off on the wrong footing with the university at a time when he needs all the support he can get," said Mbinji-Tange Muffalo, a lecturer in geography at the University of Zambia. "The closure is a bad sign. We should be moving away from politicising the university."

A circular issued on January 2 stated that the decision to extend the recess indefinitely was "to protect the interests of students - the environment as of now is not conducive to academic learning".

Students are outraged by the closure. They said government fears that they will take to the streets were unjustified.

"We are sick and tired of closures," said Chris Chiti Katongo, a 30-year-old final-year economics student. "All we want to do is to learn, not to demonstrate."

Many of the 4,500-strong student body stayed on campus to vote in December's elections or had returned early for the semester, which was due to start on Monday.

Most students are now leaving. Some said they felt the closure was a provocation. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said students may respond by "regrouping and taking to the streets".

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