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Up close with Zambia’s Public Protector

DO YOU have any complaint about the services offered by a public institution or any public official?

Don’t worry. Caroline Chuma Zulu may be able to help you.
Who is this Mrs Zulu? Perhaps you might be wondering.
She is the country’s Public Protector, or, in other words, the ombudsman entrusted with the mandate to promote and safeguard the interests and the rights of an individual in their quest to receive a ‘public service’ that is not only just, but also fair.
That is who Mrs Zulu, 51, is – Zambia’s Ombudsman.
The concept of the institution of the ombudsman dates back to 1809 in Sweden, when the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman was established in order to safeguard the rights of its citizens.
The ombudsman’s office was set up to be a supervisory agency which was independent of the executive branch of government.
In the 1960s, the institution spread to Europe and other parts of the world. Zambia was the second in Africa to establish this office in 1973.
The institution has been recognised as an office provided for by the constitution and is headed by the Public Protector, formerly designated as the Investigator General.
The name change came about when President Edgar Lungu signed the Constitution Bill number 17 of 2015 which, among other clauses, changed the office of the Investigator General to the Office of the Public Protector.
This constitutional innovation provides the institution of the public protector with the necessary protection required for it to properly carry out the functions of the ombudsman with integrity and independence.
This reporter caught up with the Public Protector recently.
She said her office, which has been in existence for many years, is open to anyone, regardless of their status.
“Everyone can be vulnerable due to a bureaucratic system. It could be as a result of their social, economic or even biological status,” she says.
The institution itself may have been there for a long time, but it is still not popular among the general populace – whose interest it was set out to protect.
According to Mrs Zulu, the office of the Public Protector is not popular due to many reasons, one being lack of coordination between political will and implementation.
“For people to know and have confidence, they must see you perform. The law has given us the mandate to protect people. We have been given the legislative mandate, but we haven’t really been given the institutional mandate just yet,” she says
The transformation from the old system was to give the institution autonomy over the executive.
“As it is, all the operatives are from the old system. We haven’t really been given the autonomy and powers that we require, especially by the implementers,” she says.
Mrs Zulu says her office has had challenges attending to cases and increasing her office’s visibility because it was still operating under the old system.
She adds, “We want to be weaned off from the executive completely. Let them give us the institutional autonomy by cutting off all the links they still have with us.”
Mrs Zulu is however hopeful that once the new system is fully implemented, people will come to know and appreciate the office of the Public Protector.
“I still don’t have deputies, registrars, directors, and I only have very few investigation officers. All the operatives are from the Public Service Commission, which shouldn’t be the case,” she says.
However, as the saying goes, ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’, the office has been doing everything within its means to attend to cases.
One major milestone has been advocating for the change of the Ombudsman’s Office from an Executive Ombudsman which made the operations of the office restrictive as it operated in camera to a Parliamentary Ombudsman Office.
“We are getting there,” she says before adding that her office’s mandate is bigger than that of the Anti-Corruption Commission.
“With us, we can investigate any case. We have unlimited jurisdiction within the confines of maladministration,” she says.
Under the former constitution, the office of the Investigator General merely made recommendations to the institutions complained against.
The office of the Public Protector goes further. It may, among other functions, investigate an action or decision taken or to be taken by a state institution in the performance of an administrative function.
It may bring an action before a court, hear an appeal by a person relating to an action or decision taken or to be taken in respect of that person.
The office may also make a decision on an action to be taken against a public officer or constitutional office holder, which decision shall be implemented by an appropriate authority.
About Mrs Zulu – the Ombudsman.
She began her professional career after admission to the Bar in 1989 as a State Advocate under the then Ministry of Legal Affairs (now known as Ministry of Justice).
In 1997, she pursued a Masters of Law in Criminology from Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London in the United Kingdom.
She served under the Ministry of Justice for 15 years.
It was during her time at the ministry that her professional career began to rise. From State Advocate (1989-1993) to Assistant Senior Advocate (1993-1995) to Senior State Advocate (1995-1998), Assistant Principal Advocate (1998-2001), and Deputy Chief Advocate (2001-2004), till her appointment as Acting Director of Public Prosecutions for the Ministry of Justice in February 2004.
In November 2004, she was appointed as the Investigator General for Zambia’s National Ombudsman Office.
At the time of her appointment, the office was known as the Commission for Investigations.
Currently serving as Public Protector of Zambia, Mrs Zulu has served under the position of the country’s Ombudsman for 13 years.
As Zambia’s Ombudsman and through her passion and dedication towards her professional career, she continues to fulfil the core mandate of the office, which is to combat vices of maladministration in the Public Service by promoting principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law.
She has used her position as Ombudsman of Zambia to advocate for the rights of Zambian citizens that face abuse and discrimination through the public service system.
Besides her success as Zambia’s Ombudsman, Mrs Zulu has contributed to the growth of the institution of the ombudsman on the International platform. She served as the Africa Ombudsman Mediators Association (AOMA) SADC Coordinator from 2009 to 2014 and currently holds the position of treasurer general. Between 2009 and 2013, she served as Regional Director for Anglophone Africa on the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) board.
She has been elected twice, in 2013 and 2016 respectively, to hold the position of IOI Africa regional president which she currently holds.
She attributes her success as a woman in a male-dominated industry to her stance on accomplishing her duties with excellence and integrity as her personal values and mantra.
So, if you are a victim of an unfair or delayed public service delivery system, do not suffer in silence. The Public Protector is there for you. You have the right to a fair, efficient and expeditious public service.