When Zambia's President Michael Sata's team released photos of a supposed cabinet meeting to local media and published them on Facebook, it was meant to put to bed allegations that the leader isn't well nor working.
Instead, the images have further fanned the criticism, and some are doubting the authenticity of the meeting because there is no audio or video footage to back it up.
It began when Sata left the country unannounced on June 20, 2014. The website Zambian Watchdog exposed the trip, reporting that the president had arrived in Israel and was admitted to a hospital. The chief government spokesman then confirmed the trip, but said Sata was on a working holiday in Israel.
The secrecy surrounding the trip led to a protocol faux pas which was quickly picked by citizens. A couple of days after Sata’s journey, the ceremonial guard and the presidential standard, an orange flag embossed with the coat of arms, both of which are supposed to be removed in his absence, were still in place at the presidential palace in the central district of the capital.
Nearly a month later, Zambians were in the dark if their president, who had in previous months appeared unwell, was back in the country or not. Zambia Reports and a lawyer-politician Sakwiba Sikota reported that the last Facebook post on the president's page was on June 6 — a noteworthy development because the page used to be updated regularly.
The Zambia Reports wrote about the break in Facebook posts:
It seems everyone has abandoned their posts and is ducking responsibility. Is it not ironic that after hyping up facebook updates coming almost by the hour daily basis on the President’s facebook page there has been no update from June, 6?
On Sata’s Facebook hiatus, Sikota observed with a touch of sarcasm:
There are certain things in life which are so sweet that you can never ever get enough of them. I guess we all remember our first taste of honey and other delights. One such sweet thing or delight is the regular diet we were fed on and became accustomed to is that of the lovely and affable Mr. president Michael Sata. And who can forget those regular warm and very person+able updates on His Excellency's Facebook page? Most sounded like the one, which kept us updated on his movements, posted on the 4th April this year which read, “Good Morning Dear Friends, I have now started off my journey back home after a successful European Union – Africa Summit in Brussels, Belgium. I have left Brussels for Lusaka via Amsterdam. Keep well and enjoy your Weekend. MCS [Michael Chilufya Sata] – 04/04/14″
Two days later, photos of a supposed cabinet meeting held on July 14 were sent to media houses and also posted on Facebook in a publication about ongoing country-wide projects. A local TV station, Muvi, and the BBC doubted the meeting.
Blogger Chola Mukanga, on his Zambian Economist, refused to use the photos, saying:
Unfortunately, the Zambian Economist is not able to verify the authenticity of these three photos, which we understand are available at other websites. We simply do not have visual or audio footage to go with the photos. Therefore it would be irresponsible of us to share such photos and label them “official” as it may inadvertently mislead the public.
On Twitter, citizens weighed in on Sata’s absence:
— Laura Miti (@LauraMiti) July 15, 2014
Another user wondered why no information was forthcoming:
— Tchiyiwe T Chihana (@AfriWoman) July 12, 2014
The anger is culpable:
@AfriWoman This government is taking voters for granted. Sata and his cabal are accountable to the people of Zambia not other way round.
— David Mwanambuyu (@mbuyujr) July 12, 2014
In Sata’s absence, activist Brebner Changala petitioned the High Court to compel the cabinet to put together a medical board to examine Sata and determine his suitability to continue as head of state. The matter was thrown out but Changala resubmitted his petition.
A few days before the supposed cabinet meeting, South Africa’s Business Day chronicled some of Sata’s unannounced international travels, which are euphemistically called working holidays by the president's office and other government officials. Taking a quick glance at the criticism on social media, it doesn't seem that the euphemism is working.