In most democratic countries, the idea that the largest opposition party could be wiped out and have its parliamentary seats removed with a single stroke of the pen would come as a great shock. But in Zambia, that’s precisely what almost happened this past 14th of March.
Clement Andeleki, a member of the ruling Patriotic Front party who holds the position of Chief Registrar of Societies, held an unusual press conference in which he announced that he was formally disbanding the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the party which governed Zambia for the past 20 years, for alleged non-payment of registration fees.
“By copy of this order signed under my hand this day, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy shall cease to operate as a political party in the Republic of Zambia,” Andeleki said in a press statement. “The effect of this my decision is also to nullify 53 seats in Parliament held by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) as at today.”
Supporters of the opposition have reacted to the de-registration attempt in horror, and in many cases, confusion. Was it really possible to eliminate one third of parliament so quickly, and did the chief registrar have the power to make such a pronouncement?
“People are very angry throughout the country, because this is tantamount to an assault on democracy,” said Deputy National Secretary of the MMD Chembe Nyangu. During an interview with Mr. Nyangu at the party secretariat in Lusaka this week, Nyangu shared copies of receipts for the registration fees and other documents, including registration records from 1993 showing President Michael Sata’s signature from back when he served as MMD Secretary – which oddly was cited in Andeleki’s statement.
“The MMD has paid its registration fees, fully, consistently, and promptly since inception,” Mr. Nyangu said. “I believe the registrar was acting beyond his authority because he was under instructions from above.”
Zambia’s legal authorities reacted swiftly. An order from the Lusaka High Court stayed the motion brought by the Chief Registrar on March 16th, halting all proceedings pending a hearing in which the MMD would challenge the case before the court. James Banda, the head of the usually non-partisan Legal Association of Zambia (LAZ), took issued a statement condemning the de-registration: “Our conclusion is that the decision by the registrar of societies to de-register the MMD was rushed, irresponsible and not in the public interest. We doubt very much that there was wide consultation on this matter, especially with the Attorney General’s office.”
The attempted de-registration comes at a moment of transition for the party. Only a few days before the incident, former President Rupiah Banda had announced that he was stepping aside as party leader of the MMD to take a university position in the United States, and the next party leadership is still being decided among members. Before his departure, the former President had complained that the ruling party had been targeting the party and even his family beyond the reach of the law, with the seizure of MMD vehicles, and threats of prosecution over small things like bicycles.
The issue of contention regards statutory fees for the branches of the party located strictly in Lusaka province, branches which the MMD argues were taken over by the PF years ago. If indeed there are missing fees, MMD representatives suggest that in normal circumstances the Registrar of Societies would de-register just those branches rather than 53 seats located far away, or regard the overdue fees as debts to be reconciled.
Andeleki and other PF government officials have stood firm, insisting that the de-registration of the MMD was not politically motivated. Further Mr. Andeleki has said that if the court finds that he acted improperly he would happily step down (during the Mwanawasa government, Andeleki was found guilty of forging State House letterhead and was fired from his position in the police).
“Whether or not the MMD paid fees for the Lusaka branches doesn’t even matter,” said Dr. Neo Simutanyi, a political scientist and Excecutive Director at the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). “What matters is that the MMD has 53 seats in parliament and is by far the biggest opposition party in the country. So to de-register it and declare its seats vacant is to declare the return to a de facto one-party state.”
Simutanyi continued: “So politically it was a very silly decision to take. It was a decision that should have been consulted, and the leadership should have been advised what the implications would be of such a decision. A cabinet official cannot declare a parliamentary seat vacant. It cannot happen. The constitution states very clearly that only the High Court of Zambia has the power to nullify an elected position.”
Since coming into power last September, President Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front government has pursued an ambitious agenda to deliver on his many election promises, while his opponents cry foul over incidents of selective persecution and biased coverage in the government-loyal media. To his supporters among the urban disadvantaged, President Sata is finally championing their cause, giving them a stake in the political system that did not exist during the 20 years of MMD governments. But the prospect of returning to a one-party state model along the lines of the Kaunda regime (1964-1991) is cited as a cause for great concern across the political spectrum.
“This is, by far, the worst abuse of the constitution we have seen since 1991,” said Prof. Patrick Mvunga, a prominent constitutional lawyer, capturing the overall dramatic sentiment held among the opposition this week. “It is a great embarrassment to us all.”