Sunday, 26 June 2011

Post article from Wednesday 22

Collaring Potemkin

Sightings of General Potemkin have continued to pour in – he really is having a second existence on earth, right here is Zambia. Concerning the eternal topic of the Mongu-Kalabo road I received the following from St. John’s School in Mongu by way of email:

“Dear Sir,
“In response to your appeal for any information leading to the whereabouts of a certain Mr Potemkin who is notorious for putting up cosmetic projects and expensive charades, I would like to inform you that an individual of that description has been sighted on the Barotse plains near Mongu.
“In October 2010 a hitherto unknown village called Tapo was invaded by a horde of praise chanting cadres, gun toting policemen and a spattering of Chinese characters. The occasion, the shocked villagers were told, was the ground breaking ceremony for the most expensive road ever built, to the staggering tune of K1.3 trillion! Anyway, after the fanfare and the speeches and the aforementioned praise chanting everybody disappeared except the Chinese who stayed behind to construct the road - all 200 metres of it! After which they too quickly left! Mind you the 200 metres is not even tarred! No doubt we won't see old Potemkin in this neck of the woods again but should you catch up with him please don't hesitate to collar him, he's quite a slippery one that fellow.”

That is nice entertaining, sarcastic writing and the author might care to try his hand as a columnist – I will be happy to lend him some of my space for a trial run.

The slippery Mr. Potemkin has, it would seem at a glance, reappeared in a big way in Lusaka just lately. After years of whingeing that there is no money Government has suddenly discovered a whole heap of it (perhaps in a pot at the end of a rainbow) and is constructing roads like the things were the height of fashion. Less than 100 days before a general election! And don’t think people are not aware of the connection.

In my constituency the key target appears to be Bauleni compound, in which roads are being ripped and graded by an army of machines belonging to a contractor who so far as I know is perfectly respectable. However, contractors do not build roads by themselves and according to whatever strikes them as a good idea. First, they work to a specification, contained in a contract, drawn up by competent design engineers who have surveyed the ground, and who have an idea of the functions that the road should fulfil – in terms of amount of traffic for example. Secondly, contractors are supervised in their carrying out of their work by more engineers (though they may be the same as the designers) so that the various benchmarks can be ticked off as achieved, or below standard (in which case the work has to be redone). Over the whole project, if it is big enough, is an oversight engineer to ensure that no sloppiness or collusion takes place. So the mere presence of a machine and an operator, or lots of them, does not necessarily mean that the work is being done according to engineering or legal principles. Nor does it mean that the job will be finished, especially since the election will be over before that is possible.

At the present time I know that there are some engineers on site, so some of the requirement is there, but the oversight function is still out to tender. Why start before everything is in place? Stupid question.

The less stupid question concerns the past whereabouts of all the money that is suddenly being splurged (K30 billion alleged in Bauleni alone). Has this suddenly been discovered or has it instead been accumulated steadily, leaving residents in dusty pot-hole ridden misery while the election clock clicks closer? Perhaps the idea was to make the Lusaka City Council look incompetent (allegedly due to its PF councillors) and cast the central government (MMD controlled) as the rescuing hero. We educated chaps might know that a council is no more than an implementing agency for the central government but there may be some people who do not – and instead can be persuaded to see the relationship as competitive.

My guess is that the money is not actually there to finish the job – but that MMD’s concern is to try and win the election and worry about that later. That is why so many versions of where the money is coming from have been floated.

Meanwhile I must report that Mr. Potemkin is also editing a newspaper in Zambia. I will not name it since that is against Post policy but I will state that my family once owned it. Last Thursday it solemnly reported that, according to the BBC, a total lunar eclipse occurred on the previous night and that “observers” in many parts of the world had viewed it. Pity the reporter didn’t stick his or her head out of the window in Lusaka on that crystal clear night, thereby obtaining the best view of the phenomenon available anywhere on the planet, and give us an eyewitness account. Could have photographed it too.....