Michael Sata and the Threat of Political Violence in Zambia

A version of this article was originally published by Think Africa Press.

Zambia traditionally enjoys a positive reputation for stability in the Southern Africa region.  While neighboring nations have stumbled through civil wars and tribal genocides of varying degrees, the former British colony has held multiple elections, peaceful transitions between competing parties, and historically low crime rates.  Although quite impoverished, foreign visitors often comment on how welcoming the Zambian people are, and the general feeling of safety on the streets.

That is, until an election comes about.

The advent of political violence as a form of mobilisation is certainly not unique, but in Zambia, the phenomenon has become particularly acute in recent years, resulting in deaths and scores of injuries during each election as hordes of young, unemployed men are paid to carouse and intimidate voters by major political parties.  With a president and ruling party which appears at times to openly condone violence, many observers are worried that Zambia might not stay so peaceful for very long.

The lethal potential of Zambia’s so-called “youth cadres” was illustrated in early November during local bye-elections in Rufunsa, about 45 minutes east of Lusaka, when a member of the ruling Patriotic Front party was gruesomely murdered in unclear circumstances, prompting an exchange of accusations.

Mr. Crispin Menyani Zulu, a 25-year-old resident of Lusaka who had been ferried to Rufunsa along with approximately 65 other PF cadres, died on Nov. 8 as a result of heavy blows to the body and head, and possibly a stab wound.  He leaves behind a wife, two children, and another on the way.

There are currently three different accounts of the incident.

The government declares that youth cadres from the opposition, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and the United Party for National Development (UPND), were responsible for the murder.  In a statement released on the same day, President Michael Sata condemned his opponents:  “It’s tragic that the political violence by the opposition UPND and MMD, which we have been preaching against, has resulted in a loss of an innocent life. (…) What has happened today could have been avoided if the two opposition political parties mentioned in this heinous crime had listened and at least cared for the lives of innocent citizens.”

The opposition denies the accusation, and pins the blame on the PF itself.  Speaking in an interview, MMD President Nevers Mumba told me that his understanding of the incident is that infighting broke out amongst PF cadres at the end of the day when they were being paid money to share, resulting in the death of Mr. Zulu over a financial disagreement.  The Post Newspaper, which is usually very pro-government, also indicated that the PF was responsible for the death on Nov. 10.

The last account of the incident suggests that the villagers of Rufunsa themselves may have been responsible.  According to one source I consulted claiming a first-hand account by the police, Mr. Zulu and the other cadres had engaged in an alcohol-fueled series of aggressive provocations and beatings against the local population (PF is not particularly popular in Rufunsa).  Towards the end of the day, the locals grew angrier and chased the cadres out of town, at which moment Mr. Zulu allegedly fell out of the back of a moving vehicle, and may have died at the hands of an enraged mob.

So far the police have made numerous arrests of MMD and UPND members, and even charged one person with murder, before dropping charges and releasing him within 24 hours after rights groups complained over the lack of evidence.

But what is clear is that this death and the many other injuries in other parts of the country (such as the Mufumbwe parliamentary bye election) would not have occurred were it not for the widespread institutional practice of using violent youth cadres.

According to sources I spoke with, the average “youth” cadre is actually not so young, ranging between 20-35 years of age.  They are commonly rounded up by the provincial chairmen of the parties from Zambia’s inexhaustible supply of unemployed urban men, and are paid around K25,000 for the day (about US$5).  Cadres are usually provided with free beer and are sometimes armed with pangas (machetes), which contributes to the volatile confrontations.  Some cadres are even to known to switch parties from day-to-day, depending on who is hiring.

Political violence has deep roots in Zambian history.  Some of the earliest forms of youth cadres appeared shortly after independence in 1964, and began moving throughout the Copperbelt and the separatist-leaving Barotseland area of Western Province, attacking groups and individuals perceived to form part of the opposition.

Acting as the Youth League for the United National Independence Party (UNIP), these cadres were known to burn down the houses of people it suspected as members of the opposition African National Congress (ANC), causing citizens, especially those of the Lozi tribe, to hide out and sleep in the bush.  One night in 1968, apparently the cadres decided to pursue the fleeing dissidents into the bush, resulting in a gruesome fight that led to the killing of UNIP member Francis Mukuka.  According to one source, it was Mukuka’s death that partially served as a pretext for President Kenneth Kaunda to declare a ban on all other political parties, creating the one-party state that was officially institutionalised in 1972.

Many of Zambia’s prominent public figures have emerged from the cadre structures, including President Sata, who started out as a colonial policeman and later became a leader of the UNIP Youth League.

Sata’s opponents paint him as an architect of a new level of political violence in Zambia.  In an interview last August, UPND President Hakainde Hichilema said that for President Michael Sata “violence is his vocabulary of power,” pointing to the now infamous violent repression during the 2001 Chawama bye elections.  At the time, Sata served as President Frederick Chiluba’s Minister without Portfolio in the MMD, and was allegedly responsible for orchestrating a bloody fracas that sent dozens of people to the hospital with machete wounds, preventing the election of Geoffrey Samukonga of the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD).

Nevers Mumba appears to agree, commenting, “President Sata’s history is that of violence – this thing of using machetes, he is the one who introduced it in this country when he was National Secretary of MMD.”

But PF officials I have spoken with say that it’s unfair to single out President Sata, arguing that almost no party can claim innocence from youth cadre violence.  They point to the UPND’s recruitment of the former MMD Lusaka Chairman William Banda, who has been named in a number of violent incidents dating all the way back to UNIP’s repressions of the MMD back in 1991.

According to the political scientist Neo Simutanyi, Executive Director at Center for Policy Dialogue, there are three different ways to look at youth cadre violence in Zambia:  1) As a form of political thinking; 2) as a calculated plan of violence; and 3) as propaganda.

Dr. Simutanyi explains that youth cadre violence is a central piece of a campaign, framing the political struggle as a kind of physical fight in which their supporters must show fearlessness, courage, and an unwillingness to bend before intimidation.  In this form, it is not actually violent acts which matter, but rather the rhetoric of violence, which may explain why there are fewer fatalities than might be expected.

The second form is less common, but entails the use of violence as specifically targeted to impact the outcome of a vote.  These sorts of attacks, beatings, and harassment are a heightened risk during bye-elections in faraway provinces, out of the reach of the Lusaka media and invisible to the international community.

The last form refers to the clashes between cadres, where the goal is not to inflict injury but rather to provoke a response that goes beyond the tolerance of police, allowing one party the opportunity for propaganda to paint the other party as “violent thugs,” denouncing their violence.

“The police are placed in a very tough position,” says Dr. Simutanyi.  “On the one hand, they must uphold their instructions from above, but on the other hand, they are tasked with maintaining security, creating uncertain boundaries of how much violence is allowed and what is considered excessive.”

For example, recently the police arrested 16 PF cadre members who attacked a UPND rally at parliament, throwing stones at protesters who had come out to protest the K1.4 billion being spent to build President Sata’s retirement home.  However, according to senior UPND member Douglas Siakalima, the arrested PF members were released the very next day, whereas the people arrested after the Rufunsa murder have been held in jail for more than 15 days.

“We must protect the peace that we have,” Siakalima says with regard to increasing clashes between UPND and PF cadres.  “All genocides start small, and we are beginning to see the same trends of hate speech and appearances of small arms here in Zambia.  This must be stopped before it is too late.”

Concerns over escalation from the traditional “rhetorical violence” of cadre activity during campaigns are echoed by civil society groups.  Obby Chibuluma, Information Officer of the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), said in an interview, “What we have in Zambia is a crisis of leadership among the main political parties to control their supporters.  The cadres don’t respect local populations, and often end up attacking locals, resulting in the situation we saw in Rufunsa.”

Some leaders say that it all comes down to what kinds of signals are given to party supporters – what is encouraged, tolerated, rewarded, and condemned.

“When this kind of terrible violence takes place, the act itself should be universally condemned as much as those responsible for it,” said former President Rupiah Banda referring to Rufunsa in an interview.  “It doesn’t matter who is responsible; violence must be denounced by all our leaders no matter where it comes from.”

Given the velocity with which violence has spread in many other neighboring countries, observers will be keeping a close eye on Zambia to see how these trends develop as new risks and challenges emerge.

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