Zambia sacks ‘underperforming’ science minister

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[LUSAKA] Zambia’s Minister of Science and Technology, Abel Chambeshi, has been replaced following claims that he has not been doing enough to accelerate the country’s scientific development.

Zambia’s president, Levy Mwanawasa, announced last week that, as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle, Chambeshi would swap jobs with Bates Namuyamba, previously minister for communications and transport.

“The importance of science and technology cannot be overemphasised,” said Mwanawasa. “We have not developed scientifically because the Ministry of Science and Technology has not done what is required of it.”

Namuyamba is seen by many to be more practical than Chambeshi, who headed the science ministry for three years, but has drawn numerous complaints for not fulfilling his duties.

Last year, for example, an inquiry by Zambia’s Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology heard claims that the ministry had failed to do enough to promote scientific programmes and institutions.

Among the complaints reported in the local media at the time were claims that the minister had failed to provide support for the once vibrant National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR), whose activities include research on human and veterinary medicines.

“What remains of the institute is just the name and buildings,” says retired NISIR virologist Augustine Kaputo. “Most scientists have either left the country, or have opted for early retirement because of the falling standards.”

According to Kaputo, Chambeshi has also been accused of failing to build links between schools and universities, as the higher education institutions do not recognise qualifications from colleges.

Milner Makuni, president of the Computer Society of Zambia, an association for information and communication technology professionals, says Chambeshi did nothing to promote science in schools.

“There has been talk of introducing information and communication technology learning in our education system, from primary schools up to university,” says Makuni. “But visits by representatives of The Computer Society of Zambia to training institutions revealed that there is no liaison or collaboration between industry and learning institutions.”

“One wonders whether we can expect high quality graduates when government learning institutions have inadequate science training facilities.”

Reforms of the Ministry of Science and Technology are expected to follow Namuyamba’s appointment as science minister.

“It always feels bad when you are moved from one ministry to another,” said Namuyamba in an interview with SciDev.Net. “But what is important in my view is to reform the ministry and make it serve its purpose, that of developing science in Zambia. This is the challenge that lies ahead of me.”

President Mwanawasa has publicly accepted the ministry’s shortcomings. Opening the fourth session of Zambia’s national assembly last week (14 January), he said that no country could prosper without science and technology.

Despite this, Mwanawasa said that the Ministry of Science and Technology had done little to promote science in schools and higher learning institutions. He stressed the need to raise standards and to target girls as well as boys in schools.

He added that members of parliament should promote science and technology in their respective constituencies if the country was to develop scientifically.

Chambeshi declined to comment on allegations about his lack of achievement as science minister, and his subsequent removal from the science ministry.