“Your dream home coming soon,” say big bill boards and newspaper adverts in Lusaka. Pictures of brilliantly white large mansions surrounded by majestic trees illustrate how the happy few will enjoy residing in the new suburb-under-construction, Kingsland City, in beautiful Lusaka forest. 

The housing estate, in the middle of what was once a nature reserve called Forest No. 27, will be equipped with every hearts’ desire, from a shopping mall to a sports complex, a “world class” university, a golf course, even an amusement park. “For your noble life,” the developers’ website, Sunshare estates, says. Sunshare is a partnership of Chinese construction companies and the Zambian Air Force, that somehow obtained control over what is supposed to be protected state land.

Life may indeed be noble for those – among whom two ministers – who have bought into the project; as long as they can afford bottled water, that is. Many others fear that the bulldozing of Forest No. 27 to make place for Kingsland City will dry up Lusaka’s water resources, forcing extra pressure on underground water reserves and porous sewage systems.

In short, Lusaka will be relying on sewage water, is what environmental activist Robert Chimambo tells us when we meet under a tree outside his house in a city suburb close to the forest. Documents and maps of the forest reserve are splattered all over the ground. “The bulldozers have already destroyed much,” he says. “This is all that remains.” He points at a map that shows how the forest has grown smaller, and how construction and sewage drains are enclosing on the Chalimbana river in the reserve.

We will be drinking poo

“We need that river,” Chimambo continues. “For the rest Lusaka depends on ground water, but that aquifer is under threat of contamination by human waste from our sewers. Lusaka’s soil is porous dolomite. Without the protection and preservation of water recharge areas such as in this forest we are sitting on a time bomb.” Lusaka’s sewage systems and water supply have long been at risk of colliding, given that most inhabitants use pit latrines. From what Chimambo tells us, this nightmare may become a reality if that river goes. We will be drinking poo. 

A glass bridge for newly weds

The bulldozers in the forest have been let loose by the individuals in charge of the US$ 1,4 million Kingsland City project. With its hotels, residential housing, university, sports and amusement facilities and car service stations, plus -as stated by Sunshare sales manager Echo Chen in a press conference when the plan was first announced in 2017- a  police station, hospital, children’s play-ground, and a glass bridge called ‘Rose Street’ where newly-weds can pose for photos, it will be enormous. Some 1100 houses, Chimambo says, have already been built by the Zambia Air Force, the state’s partner in the project with the Chinese developers.

It was said that some people get sick of diarrhoea

On the precise spot where the building has started, human waste is already seeping into the river, says a report from Government’s own Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) dated January 2018. “Raw sewerage is being released into the Chalimbana river, from the ZAF (Zambia Air Force) Twin Palm Housing Complex sewer ponds and via the Sikasokwe Stream.” The report continues to say that the existing old sewer ponds will not be able to cope with more residents. “These (…) were built for a limited number of houses. Now (…)  the ponds cannot cope with the volume of sewer from these units. Just downstream of the discharge point are households living who drink water from a nearby well.(…) People who had little knowledge about the source of the water drunk the sewer water at the crossing point. (…) It was further said that some people get sick of diarrhoea.”

An architectural render of the Kingsland City project

Apamwamba, place for the rich

Apamwamba, is what the activists in Chimambo’s group – the Chalimbana River Headwater Conservation Trust, CRHCT – call the Kingsland City project: the place for the rich. One of the activists’ immediate concerns now is to find out who these ‘rich,’ exactly, are. Because there is a mystery surrounding those that are selling and buying houses and land in the forest. 

For example, even though the development is widely advertised, interested buyers from the general public are told, upon inquiring, that they will be “phoned back,” without having been connected to the individual who is the owner and seller of the land, or its contracted estate agent. The same response is given to us when we phone to ask about buying a house in the area: “I can see your number. You will be phoned back,” a male voice says when we try. But the phone call doesn’t come.

Robert Chimambo has seen people he re-cognises as high-level ruling Patriotic Front party members around in the area. It is further known that the developing companies, called Datong Construction, Drimtown Investments and Shangrila Investments, whose parent company is Chinese Fujian Kaiyuan, or Sunshare, are carrying out the Kingsland City project in a public-private partnership with the Zambia Air Force (ZAF).

But that military partnership is a mystery, too. The Zambia Air Force is formally only involved because, it says, it wants to construct an air force training academy and a number of mess halls in the area: the aforementioned ZAF Twin Palm Housing Complex. This is the area where thousands of people already live and where sewage is already entering the river. But the public private partnership that the ZAF is part of is, as is apparent from the adverts, billboards and bulldozers, doing a whole lot more than that. The activists suspect that a number of individuals in the ZAF are using the army for their private interests with regard to the non-military parts of Kingsland City.

The former air force commander was charged with money laundering

What has further fueled that suspicion is that one of the ZAF individuals involved in Kingsland City, former air force Commander Eric Chimese, was charged on several counts of abuse of office and money laundering last February. The police says his current properties – nine fully-furnished apartments and a building with a guest wing and a semi-detached cottage on a farm, which he tried to conceal through front companies – are ‘proceeds of crime.’ The trial is currently ongoing.

And then, there is the fact that one of the directors in the Kingsland City companies is one Edgar Lungu, which happens to be the name of Zambia’s president.

Construction work underway in Forest No. 27

Lifting the protection

The Edgar Lungu in Kingsland is not President Edgar Lungu. “But these people used his name in order to make it look like the President was involved in this Kingsland development, in the hope that that nobody would dare question its illegality, since the President was involved,” says a source close to the developing companies. 

The name of Lungu, and his seeming protection, may also have emboldened the initiators to ignore a Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) directive from September 2017, that ordered the developers to stop construction works at Kingsland City and to restore the area to its previous state. What also may have emboldened them is the act by which Edgar Lungu – the real actual President Edgar Lungu – degazetted Forest No. 27 as an environmentally protected area already one month before that, in August 2017.

The lifting of the environmental protection of the area by the President is puzzling, since it has long been known that the area is an indispensable water and nature resource for Lusaka. It was originally gazetted in 1957 as a nature reserve for this very reason and furthermore, re-gazetted again in 1996 by then President Chiluba. No plausible reason has been given for the degazetting by Lungu. 

As we visit one of Chimambo’s neighbours (who wants to remain anonymous) at his farm on raised ground overlooking the Chalimbana river, he points at the damage already done. “The river always flowed amazingly strongly all year round,” he says.

The river actually dries up

“But for the last six to seven years or so” – ever since the Air Force started building houses, CM/JM – “it actually dries up.” Indeed, the rocky valley along which the Chalimbana River had once flowed freely is now almost completely dry. With regard to the forest, Chimambo’s neighbour says that in the space of the past eighteen months alone, a nearby section of what was pristine woodland, there is not a tree left.

Looking for the new owners of the forest land we visit the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources next to the cabinet office on Independence Avenue, the road to State House where President Lungu lives. The sprawling gloomy grey-brick multi-storey building does not welcome anyone seeking information and the ministry’s land title deeds record is not easily publicly accessible. Luckily, after some effort, we manage to obtain some names and some papers.

The ministers’ land contracts

And there it is. It turns out that among those who have recently obtained land in the forest reserve are Vice President Inonge Wina, Lands Minister Jean Kapata, Mines Minister Richard Musukwa, Chief Justice Irene Mambilima and a businessman whom we know to be a close friend of the president, Edgar Lungu (the real Edgar Lungu this time). Ground rent bills from the Ministry of Lands show that Wina is beneficiary of property number LUSAK/LN-520/100. Mambilima is owner of property number LUSAK/LN-520/97 given to her for ‘agriculture purposes’ while Kapata has been allocated property number LUSAK/LN-52062/38 also for agriculture.

High walls and fences

Shortly after this find, Chimambo calls again. He says that his group has started legal action against the people cutting trees in the forest, but instead of an investigation by the authorities, what has happened is an escalation of the damage. Squatters, among whom he again identifies some ruling Patriotic Front party cadres, “have moved in into what remained of the protected forest. Beacons have already been erected”. As we arrive, we see that the now tree-less area is indeed being developed by unknown new tenants. Plots are demarcated by beacon markers and a couple of high walls and fences have been erected. Earth-moving machinery and excavators are buzzing around and gravel streets and long wide avenues are being levelled and graded. Gigantic slabs of schist rocks lie strewn in heaps along the path of the newly excavated roads and streets.

Chimambo thinks that the legal action he and his group have started is at the root of the increased activity. “It will now be out in the open what they tried to do in secret, flouting all kinds of rules, ranging from human rights and land legislation to the principle of free, prior and informed consent. The grab of Forest Reserve 27 flouts all of these. You can see that these people are now trying to work very quickly and to move in as fast as possible. It means that when the legal writs are served to halt all activities, the matter can be presented to the plaintiffs as a fait accompli.”

These people are now trying to work very quickly

This is serious. We may have to temporarily drop another story we are working on to fully focus on this one for now. The other case is important too, though. It concerns Minister of Infrastructure and Housing, Ronald Chitotela, the latest high profile official to face charges of corruption while serving in president Edgar Lungu’s government. The government’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) arrested Chitotela in February this year, accusing him of concealing property believed to be proceeds of crime: the same charge that former ZAF Commander Eric Chimese is facing.

The arrest in itself is no reason for us to leave Chitotela alone, since the charges so far only seem to skim the top of the iceberg. As minister in charge of infrastructure development, with its massive procurement contracts running into billions of US dollars, he has overseen numerous overpriced projects: among them, the US$ 1,2 billion Ndola-Lusaka dual carriage way and the Ndola-Kitwe toll plaza which cost Zambian tax payers US$ 4,3 million. Chitotela has also been linked by local media to millions of suspicious financial transactions. These were, however, left out of the charge sheet slapped on him.

Minister Ronald Chitotela, arrested and charged for ‘benefiting from proceeds of crime.’

Threads of a spider’s web

Investigating theft from the state in Zambia tends to be like getting one end of a thread of the spider’s web and then suddenly seeing another. In the end many of them are connected, which may be one reason why President Edgar Lungu has chosen to keep Chitotela in his cabinet, maintaining that he cannot dismiss him since the minister is “innocent until proven guilty by the court.” This is a very different stance from the one President Lungu took when in September last year, Britain, Sweden, Finland and Ireland suspended their development assistance to Zambia after over US$ 4 million meant for an anti-poverty programme was stolen. Lungu then immediately acted by firing Community Development Minister, Emerine Kabanshi.

Lungu’s political opponents have speculated that one explanation for his apparent protection of Chitotela could be that Chitotela knows about certain corrupt affairs involving the President himself. Chitotela could also be one of the unnamed Ministers in a Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) report, dated last year June, that found some cabinet members and presidential aides had siphoned off the equivalent of close to US$ 350 million from government coffers in ‘suspected tax evasion and corruption.’

Some cabinet members had siphoned off close to US$ 350 million

Big construction projects like Apamwamba are a common destination for illicitly acquired money. Whether there is a link between the project and the stolen US$ 350 million remains to be seen, but in the meantime, with the court challenge continuing, the country now prepares for a sensational legal battle that promises to highlight legislative weaknesses, bad governance, unlawful misappropriation of land and environmental degradation.

The legal action is taken in two separate but related cases: one where the activists have issued a legal writ against Zambia’s government, represented by Attorney General Likando Kalaluka, itself. The second action is against the three developing companies, together with the Zambia Air Force projects division and Kingsland City Investments.

Chimambo’s group’s court action is spearheaded by nine traditional leaders, with principally among these Choolwe Nkomeshya, a princess of the regional Soli people who is also a staunch civil liberties campaigner. Forest Reserve No. 27 lies within Soli traditional lands and princess Nkomeshya, a tough-talking no-nonsense leader, is its principal custodian and representative.

In their writ of summons against the government the plaintiffs argue that despite the environmental sensitivity of Forest Reserve No. 27, the defendants proceeded without legal authority to construct houses on what is now the Zambia Air Force Twin Palm Housing Complex, and that the Zambia Air Force is already responsible for discharging raw sewerage into the Chalimbana River, contrary to Zambia’s legal provisions contained in both the Environmental Management Act and the Water Resources Management Act. In the other case the activists claim that individual army officials are using the cover of the Zambia Air Force to build the houses – the ones that are already polluting the river with sewage – as a government project when it was just the individual senior ZAF officials who stood to benefit.

Institutional heads must clarify

According to princess Nkomeshya, “this matter is very serious as it threatens the health and well-being of (…) future generations and (it) must therefore be attended to urgently.” As the most senior representative of the Busoli Royal Establishment, princess Nkomeshya has also written to the clerk of Zambia’s parliament, requesting the parliamentary committee on agriculture, lands and natural resources to undertake an inspection of the forest area. She wants the inspection to include the director generals of ZEMA, the Water Resources Management Authority WARMA, Regional & Country Planning, the Forestry Department, as well as the Human Rights Commission. “This will ensure that these institutional heads clarify and explain their mandates and actions taken (or not taken) in this tragic saga,” the princes wrote in her letter to the clerk of Zambia’s parliament.

This matter threatens the health and well-being of future generations

Despite the urgency, and the fact that the Princess’ letter to parliament was dispatched in February, Parliamentary sources approached to shed light on whether or not the fact-finding inspection team had commenced its investigation said it had not yet done so. Pressed to disclose why the team was not yet in place, the source said parliament was “still trying to source the funding to expedite the team’s work.”

Challenging powers-that-be

The state’s own structures will likely still act slowly to implement action. But on the bright side, popular protest against state power abuse is growing. In September of 2017 large protests were staged outside the country’s parliament to highlight the abuse of public funds. It was then particularly the procurement of 42 fire trucks by the state for an alleged cost of US$ 42 million – a million dollars per truck – clearly done to slice off millions for officials involved, that enraged many Zambians. Activists were arrested at those protests, but the arrests gave rise to new protests in turn. Now it is the defense of Forest No. 27 that has caused activists to challenge the powers-that-be.

Just as we were winding up the drafting of this story, there was a breakthrough. A Lusaka High Court injunction is now restraining the Kingsland promoters from continuing with their development project in Forest No. 27 while the case is before the court.

Asked to comment on her acquisition of a plot in Kingsland City, Minister of Lands Jean Kapata answered the phone, but when hearing our questions said, “why me of all the people” and cut the line. Mines Minister Richard Musukwa did not respond to phone calls. Irene Mambilima responded to questions about her plot in Forest No. 27 as follows: “Sometime in 2016, I verbally requested the Commissioner of Lands for a small holding, preferably east of Lusaka on which to build my retirement home and engage in horticultural activities. In August 2017, I was informed that a portion of a forest reserve in Lusaka east had been de-gazetted and re-planned and a number of plots and small holding had been created. I was advised, if I was still desirous of acquiring a small holding, to formally apply and this I did on 30th August 2017. I was allocated the plot in issue in September 2017.

President Edgar Lungu’s office was asked why he degazetted the forest, thereby undoing its environmental protection, but the office did not respond to the query. Vice president Inonge Wina was not reached. We were told that she is out of the country for health reasons.