JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
THE army is synonymous with war, but what happens when the guns have fallen silent and there are no more enemies to conquer?
While war and security may be the core business of the army, many armies across the globe are now using their strength and discipline for economic purposes.
Not to be left out, the Zambia Army is going through its own reformation.
“The army today is not the army of yesterday,” says Colonel David Sanene, who is Zambia Army spokesperson.
He says world over, there has been a paradigm shift in the way the army conducts business.
And so after defending the country during the liberation wars of the 1970s and 1980s that saw most of our neighbouring countries gain independence, the army is now looking at ways to contribute to Zambia’s economy.
“After all, these countries have gotten their political independence, what next? Should we still be in the borders waiting for the enemy who is not there? No,” he says.
“Of course we have to protect the country, that is our core business, but we have to do something else now to ensure that we also contribute to what Government is doing,” he adds.
To Col Sanene, security is all-encompassing and does not just mean keeping the enemy behind the border lines.
“If you have a population that is not food-secure, that will lead to riots and in the end, disruption of security. So world over the armies are now looking at infrastructure development, they are looking at how they can add to the bread basket of the country,” says Col Sanene.
The desire to have an army that is productive in fields such as agriculture has been shared by President Edgar Lungu. Of course being commander-in-chief, his desire is taken as a command by the army.
This vision is being driven by army commander Lt Gen Paul Mihova, whose plan is that by April 2019, the army should be weaned off Government rations.
The army commander himself seems to draw a lot of inspiration from Sri Lanka and Egypt, two countries he recently visited that have armies that are heavily involved in economic activities.
Sri Lanka’s army, for instance, has a large stake in the agriculture sector, while in Egypt, the army is involved in many sectors of the economy, including hospitality.
Col Sanene describes the army commander as a reformer who has brought about a number of changes.
“If you ask any soldier today, they will tell you that most of the things we are seeing we have never seen before,” he says.
A number of projects have been started under his watch, with the push for agriculture gaining momentum the past couple of years.
Most of the units are now involved in vegetable production.
“There is no way that we should be waiting for Government to buy us vegetables when we can grow vegetables in peace-time,” says Col Sanene.
“We should be able to feed ourselves as the army so that the money the government is supposed to spend on providing food for the soldiers can be diverted to other needy areas such as education and health. We shouldn’t remain in the barracks and wait to be fed when we can feed ourselves in peace-time,” he says.
Initially all the battalions of the Zambia Army had farms but they had become dormant over time, some of them became encroached by squatters.
The army has also recently acquired huge tracts of farmland in various parts of the country. It acquired bout 2,000 hactares of farmland in Mpongwe district on the Copperbelt, 4,000ha in Shibuyunji and another 4,000ha at Kala camp.
At a 120ha farm in Makeni, south of Lusaka, soldiers go through a field of healthy-looking cabbages.
In two weeks, the unit here will have its first harvest of cabbage, tomatoes and maize. The farm also has four fish ponds.
The plan, according to Lt Col Christopher Himonze, who is in charge of the farm, is to turn the Makeni farm into a model farm for the army.
Since last year, the army has also established a number of cattle ranches in various parts of the country.
The army is looking at job creation for the youths.
The Zambia Army has already recruited a number of experts in agriculture to fulfil this vision. These include agriculture economists and veterinary doctors.
An agriculture directorate was formed within the army last year, which is responsible for farms.
The army has also acquired agriculture equipment, most of which is yet to arrive in the country.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” says Col Sanene with excitement.
But he admits that shift does not happen without challenges.
“Every change comes with its own difficulties. It is not easy to change the mind set, but the goodness is that the army is built on discipline and orders. If the commander says we have to do this, we have to do it because we follow orders,” he says.
Last year, the army embarked on a project to make its own tents. There are now plans to commercialise the project once the army has satisfied its own demand.
And then there is Buffalo Park, where a large parcel of land used as a shooting range is now being transformed into a recreational facility with a large banquet hall and a summer bar, which is already open to the public.
To top it all, this park will have a herd of buffalo and other animals as an attraction.
The park will also have watch towers for game viewing.
A banquet hall is already completed in Kitwe and another one in Ndola is under construction.
Col Sanene believes such recreational facilities will also help improve civilian-military relations.
“We want the people to see the good side of the army. We want them to see how sociable we are and how we appreciate them,” he says.
The colonel himself, who is soft-spoken with a friendly demeanour, portrays an army that wants to reach out to the civilian population.
“The buffalo is created to be a very agile and courageous animal and to be very aggressive once it is wounded. The buffalo stands ready to charge at its enemy and not at its own people,” he says.
That I was able to sit with the colonel in his office within Arakan Barracks and discuss the army tells a lot about the transformation the army is undergoing and its willingness to open up to the public.
“So can the buffalo change its stance?” I ask the colonel.
“We have already changed the stance,” he says.
“But at the same time we are not going to change so much so that we allow the enemy to come and hang by our beard.”
Outside the colonel’s office stands a steel sculpture of a lifesize buffalo done by one of the soldiers. Yes, the buffalo may have changed its stance, but not its menacing look.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka