By Dickson Jere
Before I was appointed as a senior staff at State House, I had been there several times as a reporter to cover various presidential functions. But reporters were restricted to specific rooms. Not until when I worked there, I thought the place was lofty.
For starters, what we call State House today was in fact a residence of the British Governor. And so the design and all the accompaniment was that of a house and not offices. The offices were supposed to be where Cabinet Office is but our first President Kenneth David Kaunda, in his wisdom, decided that the Presidential residence and offices should be in one place – the decision I actually support.
Managing presidential assignments in that building is a nightmare. The place is just too small. By way of example, where the President conducts swearing-in ceremonies and receives credentials from newly accredited diplomats is a staff dining room not designed or planned for such solemn events. Each time there is such an event (at least in my time) staff will need to eat from their offices since the place would be turned around for the event of the day. We started using the dining room for such events during our time. Previously, cabinet room, which was in fact a banquet hall for the Governor, was the Multi-purpose hall for State House until they fixed a non-movable conference-table attached with desktop computers for cabinet meetings. So that hall can no longer be used for other meetings except for cabinet and other conference-like events.
In my time, I had difficulties in dealing with VVIP guests. The only toilets available for use were the ones at the entrance of the house, which were meant for all and sundry. In case we have a visiting President, one would take them inside the Presidential office if they were to use the bathroom – a very embarrassing situation! I and chief of protocol then, Bob Samakai, had to push for the construction of the VVIP toilets attached to the main building. We managed but as a temporal measure as the guests had to pass through offices-before getting to them.
Further, no one wants to go to State House to see the President and is totally exposed. But ours, we do not have waiting rooms. Everyone is put on the foyer as they wait to be called in to see the President. Sometimes VVIP mixes with ordinary people on the foyer. There is need to at least have three separate meeting rooms where guests can be put while they wait for their turn to see the Principal. President Michael Sata, as he then was, had to turn one of the offices downstairs into a waiting room for that very reason.
When the President wants to address the press, he either has to do it outside or on the foyer or indeed in the dining room. We do not have a press room for such. Outside events attracts events management companies that need to set up and we pay. Every good State House has a press room where press conferences take place. The room is specifically designed for the press with multi power points and sound system for the quality of voice… need say more on that?
Each successful President, with an exception of President Sata, used the small library downstairs as an official office. This means that State House has no official library for staff and policy analysts. The top office has been avoided for many reasons, including that the staircase is stiff. Current State House has no lift and so not convenient for the disabled who equally needs access to the President.
Ever visited State House during rainy season? I was shocked when I saw buckets in the corridors! The entire house is terribly leaking and the upper floor shakes when one is walking on it. Disaster in waiting!
Lastly, the place is just too tiny. Not all presidential staff can fit with comfort to work. In my time, some very senior officers shared office space while others kept shuttling offices depending on the assignment they had. Even where the President meets his counterpart, that room is designated as the First Lady’s Room. It was a second living-room for the Governors wife and her guests – so I was told. There is no quiet room for the President to meet his visiting counterpart on a one-on-one set up except that room.
And that State House cannot host a full state banquet that goes with a state-visit and hence most such events are held at hotels! A guest list for the state visit is usually 500 and above and that State House cannot accommodate such numbers except when a marquee is mounted outside at another expense.
So, think again when you debate the question – to build or not to build a new State House!