While most people’s attention has been on the vote in Kenya, another pair of parliamentary elections in Zambia have raised international concerns over the escalation of volatile ethnic violence in Africa.
On March 2, Freedom House issued a stern warning regarding “rising inter-party tensions and pre-election violence” following the killing of a man working for the ruling party in Livingstone, prompting swift arrests of dozens of opposition members and chaotic riots forcing the postponement of the vote.
According to the U.S. rights watchdog, the recent event “risks reopening Zambia’s electoral system to regularized incidences of violence and undue influence upon the voting population.”
It would be one thing if the tragic killing were just an accident. But instead violence has become a key feature of the political strategy of President Michael Sata and the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party, demonstrated by the regular practice of sending hordes of paid young (and older) men into distant communities to carouse and provoke the opposition and voters. This terrible death in Livingstone, which is the second killing of a PF cadre in just a handful of months, has ratcheted up tribal tensions and created a political opportunity for President Sata to impose the Public Order Act and gain advantage in the vote.
The media has played an invaluable role in support of President Sata’s strategy. The day after the death of Mr. Harrison Chanda, the pro-government media began publishing a deluge of sensational headlines accusing opposition leaders of murder before any actual investigation, let alone charges or trials. Bearing in mind that the president’s main role as Minister without Portfolio under President Frederick Chiluba was the organization of calculated violence, combined with his rapidly declining popularity, many civil society groups feel that there is a significant risk that the tribal tensions could slip out of control in the near future.
Political violence as a strategy is hardly unique to Africa. There is something known as the “Strategy of Tension” which was present in the late 1960s and early 1970s in parts of Europe, and arguably seen in Thailand in 2010.
The basics of the Strategy of Tension were this:
“To manipulate popular feeling … by creating such social disruption and uncertainty that the populace would favour the installation of a strong-arm government pledged to restore order.” (From Stuart Christie’s Portrait of a Black Terrorist, 1984).
In Europe at the time, the right wing elements involved in creating this Strategy of Tension were an amalgamation of disparate anti-communists and fascist elements supported by the alleged sponsorship of foreign intelligence services who were united against the predicted outcome of a genuine democratic process, and were instead invested in maintain the status quo.
In the late 1960s in Italy, the Strategy of Tension involved bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings, which were then blamed on the progressive opposition. One example was the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in 1969 which killed 16 people. One Italian fascist member, Vincenzo Vinciguerra, would later admit in a 1998 interview with Italian press that this “explosion was supposed to be the detonator which would have convinced the political and military authorities to declare a state of emergency.” Other bombings occurred aboard a train (12 dead), in the Italian town of Brescia (8 dead) and a horrific attack in Bologna in 1980 when 85 Italian citizens were murdered in one of Europe’s biggest post-war terrorist attacks.
The point of these killings was to create a moral panic, and attempt to create outrage and anger among the general population against the democratic opposition.
Judging by the behavior of the Zambian media following the killing in Livingstone, some observers are even making comparisons to the rabid hate speech dominating the radio waves in Rwanda in 1993, stoking ethnic tensions and inciting people of various tribes to take up arms in defense and revenge. The directors of one of these radio stations were given life sentences by the International Criminal Court for inciting ethnic violence.
In Zambia, the PF government has a role of responsibility for this violence. The violent groups of men who were sent by the ruling to provoke and attack the camps of opposition parties with incendiary projectiles, machetes, and prevocational taunting, were paid money to be there. They did not live in these communities, but were transported there based on a budget made available by the ruling party to serve a specific purpose. After the violence, the president did not so much as condemn violence and urge unity, but rather jumped to the conclusion of blaming his opponents and putting more than 50 people in jail in a defiant show of abuse of power. As President Sata declined to attend either funeral of these PF cadre members or exhibit any regret over the killings, one wonders how many dead bodies he would be willing to sacrifice to strengthen his grip on power.
Concerning the killing in Livingstone and the earlier death in Rufunsa, it is possible that numerous people participated in the violence, both among the ruling party cadres, the opposition campaigners, and even the citizens in the local communities who are terrorized in the lead up to any election. In the case of Harrison Chanda, the events are far from clear, and there is even another PF cadre member,Henry Lungu, who is being held as the main suspect in the killing of his mate.
When a life is lost to violence, it is not possible for all to claim innocence. All parties and politicians must make it clear to their members that not to engage. However, the response by the government of directly assigning politically convenient blame without justice, ordering the arrests of dozens of people, many of whom were not even close to the scene, and charging them with capital offences carrying the death penalty, it is clear that a Strategy of Tension is at play.
In Italy, the murderous Strategy of Tension ultimately failed in the 1970s because the forces of democratic accountability held sway. The cohort of economic elites and military and intelligence officers were blocked from achieving their agenda. But, in the final analysis, the most significant factor in the Strategy of Tension’s failure was that the Italian population failed to be “manipulated” by the media.
Recently, along with numerous opposition and independent civil society leaders, I attended a press conference in Johannesburg in which we presented a comprehensive report appealing to the Commonwealth Secretary-General requesting an investigation into the rampant violations of rights by the PF government. In one portion of the report, which includes evidence of incitement of violence by the President and numerous PF officials, the tragic events of Livingstone could be predicted.
It is our hope that calmer voices prevail among the PF leadership, and that the international community applies the appropriate pressure to ensure that the Zambian government halts its incitement of violence and upholds basic human rights and the rule of law. Considering the lethal potential of this kind of violence, there could be no greater responsibility.
Robert Amsterdam represents the family of former President Rupiah Banda and advises the Coalition for the Defence of Democratic Rights. Zambia Reports is not responsible for the views and opinions expressed by op/ed contributors.