Back during the presidential campaign of 2011, many critics warned that if Michael Sata and the Patriotic Front won the election, Zambia would face the risk of slipping into a police state. Now that dark prediction is becoming a reality.
Since coming into power, Sata has dispensed the full physical force of his truncheon-wielding police to suppress opposition rallies, block political meetings, beat protesting students, and do nothing to protect citizens being terrorised by PF youth cadres.
The president’s penchant for violence has been no secret, as many Zambians remember when former President Frederick Chiluba assigned him to form the machete-wielding militias to push for an unconstitutional third term. But even to his hardened critics, what President Sata said this week regarding the police still comes as a shock.
Speaking during the swearing in of newly appointed Zambia Police Service Deputy Inspector General of Police Solomon Jere, Michael Sata said he was very “satisfied” with the operations and conduct of the police. Sata said the police were not obligated to provide any explanation to the public as to why they take certain brutal responses to government critics. Lastly, Sata openly reminded the police that while they may investigate everyone for corruption, that he, as president, is “untouchable.”
This kind of staggering arrogance – the fact that President Sata considers himself to be above the law – is the only way we can understand his willingness to deploy the colonial artifice known as the Public Order Act of 1955, granting his regime broad, discretionary powers to violently shut down nearly all political activity of his opponents. Not only has Sata turned the Public Order Act into a personal piece of legislation, but he is giddy with excitement that the police have used this law as a pretext to continue to deny opposition political parties their constitutional right to hold public meetings.
Freedom of assembly and expression are absolute rights of the people and they must not be denied under political influence. It is not justifiable for the police to continue treating the opposition and other critics as enemies of the state. The fact is that in today’s Zambia, the rights to freedom of assembly and expression have become a privilege reserved only for members of PF cadres and those who sympathise with the ruling party.
Under the constitution, the police are charged with the responsibility of law enforcement for the purpose of public safety. That is no longer the case. The police are largely viewed as an instrument for oppressing the people, rather than serving the nation. This is one of the major achievements Michael Sata has recorded since his ascendance to power.
Of course when the PF was in the opposition, President Sata was a vehement opponent of the Public Order Act. Unfortunately President Sata has already forgotten that if the Public Order Act had used arbitrarily by the former ruling MMD like the PF is now doing, Michael Sata would not have been president now.
Meanwhile, the incidents of brutality continue to accumulate. Recently a police battalion descended on innocent and defenceless members of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) who staged a peaceful demonstration against the Director of Public Prosecution Mutembo Nchito.
The UPND members sustained major injuries as a result of unprovoked beatings and unnecessary teargas at the hands of the police.
A few months ago, the police tear gassed opposition UPND president Hakainde Hichilema and his supporters inside the Lusaka central police station where he had gone for interrogations, causing a stampede as dozens of supporters, journalists, and civil servants collided and fell down a steep staircase.
University of Zambia students were also beaten and tear gassed by police officers for staging protests against non-payment of their bursary allowances by the government.
In September this year, the UPND was denied a permit to hold a public rally in Kanyama Township of Lusaka. The UPND leadership and their members were threatened with arrest and beating if they went ahead with the rally.
In the townships, residents are suffering at the hands of unprofessional police officers.
For instance, the police are abusing the law against loitering after 22:00 hours locally known as ‘shishita’ to arrest and detain people arbitrarily. The police are using this to siphon mnoney out of people.
With these new levels of brutality also comes corruption. Motorists are moving on the roads at the mercy of traffic police officers because the police often charge drivers with invented “violations” in order to solicit bribes.
On the Copperbelt, we even hear reports of police officers who have joined forces with criminals and other hooligans to perpetrate illegalities.
Recently, some Kitwe-based police officers openly defied all odds and declared that they would not stop receiving bribes from former jail boys locally known as ‘Jerabos’.
The Jerabos have become a nuisance in Kitwe because the police cannot arrest them. Most of them are Patrotic Front (PF) members.
Are these the things that impress Michael Sata? Is he satisfied that his own people, the people of the sovereign country of Zambia are being abused by the police?
What has suddenly changed about the police now that Michael Sata is in power?
Has he forgotten how the police tear gassed him and his horde of cadres at the Drug Enforcement Commission in 2011? Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that it was the same Solomon Jere who was a senior commander in charge of the constables that gassed him.
Michael often complained about the police, arguing that they were abusing people’s rights in Zambia. He embarrassed policemen by pointing at torn pairs of boots and uniforms for the police at his public rallies.
He promised to improve their welfare. The police officers voted for him, but through their own teeth, they must be cursing themselves because the man who promised to address their welfare has abandoned them.
Let us also draw attention to the conditions of service and operations of the police officers themselves. Michael Sata is aware that the police officers across Zambia lack basic facilities such as uniforms, boots, stationery and other facilities to enhance their work. They also lack basic equipment such as transport and office space. And now the government is demanding that they pay their own electricity bills to ZESCO out of their meager salaries.
We are aware that the PF government, under Michael Sata plans to install electricity pre-paid metres in police camps. They PF regime has removed mealie-meal supplies to the police because it is awarding them a K50, 000 (US$10) allowance. They also plan to force the police to pay for their water bills.
Michael Sata has been a police constable before. He understands the challenges the police experience. This is perhaps the reason why he is aware that the police are a special unit that can be used to infringe on critics using state power and this is what Michael Sata is doing.
Michael claims that he is untouchable because of the presidential immunity, but it is not clear if the president is aware that he must nevertheless obey the law like everyone else. He must be aware that he is not on that throne forever. Time will come when he will have to answer to the charges that will be leveled against him because of the offences he is committing now.
Micheal Sata must focus his remaining energies of his frail body and mind to implement good policies and programmes for the general good of the people.
The same police officers will be used to arrest him and lock him away.