Since 1991, when Zambia replaced her long serving independence President, Kenneth Kaunda, the country has solidified its reputation as a growing African democracy. In particular, it has been known for its ability to change presidents via the ballot box. It has also been known for preventing presidents who wanted to overstay their constitutional mandate like did second President, Fredrick Chiluba, from doing so. The Zambian resistance against excesses by office holders has been remarkable for its robustness and yet unique, for the continent, for its non-violent nature.
All this has been brought into sharp relief by the country’s seeming regression into undemocratic practices in the 5 years that the current ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has been in office.
The PF was founded by Michael Sata in 2001 as a breakaway from the then ruling Movement for Multi Party Development (MMD). Sata had been the public face of the defeated attempt by President Chiluba to go for an unconstitutional third term. It is widely believed that Chiluba had promised Sata that, in return for his vociferous support for the third term bid, he would in time support him to take over the presidency. When Chiluba picked on a relative outsider, Levy Mwanawasa, to stand for the 2001 elections he was prevented from contesting, Sata left the MMD in a huff and set up the PF.
Sata proceeded to contest 3 consecutive presidential elections (including one bye election resulting from the death of President Mwanawasa.) He lost all three but grew his support base after each. In 2011, he finally took advantage of a veritable popular revolt against what was seen as the arrogance and corruption of the ruling MMD and was swept into office via a mini revolution similar to that of 1991.
It is worth noting that to grow his popularity and finally win power, Michael Sata and his PF took advantage of the democratic space that the MMD allowed in the country. In between elections, Sata was able to hold on-going political rallies and appear on radio and TV stations right across the country to sell his very populist message.
However, when the PF assumed office, the Sata administration proceeded to shrink that democratic space in ways that had not been foreseen, much less expected. It was a veritable act of climbing up a building using a ladder and then immediately removing it to ensure no one else can.
After President Sata died in September 2014, he was succeeded by the current President, Edgar Lungu, who won the closely contested bye-election in January 2015. He went on to win the scheduled election 18 months later – another closely run contest which was also unprecedentedly divisive and violent. In both elections, Edgar Lungu defeated his bitter rival Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for Democratic Progress (UPND). A petition of the 2016 election result was thrown out on a technicality by the newly constituted Constitutional Court in a very consequential move that has left the country unable to determine whether or not the last elections were freely and fairly won by the current President.
It is under President Lungu’s presidency that the country has found itself in the international spot light for a stunningly rapid regression of its democratic principles, especially the upholding of a free press and citizen freedoms.
Exemplifying this worrying trend, are a number of worrying incidents that have occurred since President Lungu came to office in 2015. First is the closure of the Post, the largest independent newspaper in Zambia which opposition and civil society had largely depended on for coverage. The Post had become a vicious critic of the current administration (after having for a period lost its independent ethos by providing unquestioning support to the candidature and presidency of Michael Sata). The Post was closed ostensibly for protracted tax issues which it has to be said ail just about every media outlet in Zambia, especially the government owned ones.
As significant as the closing of the Post was the recent arrest of Opposition Leader, Hakainde Hichilema. He was arrested and charged with treason after an incident in which his motorcade failed to make way for the presidential convoy at a traditional ceremony. He was only released after the intervention of the local church and the Commonwealth. Dialogue between between Lungu and Hichilema has been mooted and is greatly anticipated by a nation very worried about the direction its politics are taking.
A threatened state of emergency has also been declared on the back of acts of arson which it has to be mentioned are yet to be proved to be the work of the opposition as claimed by the President. They were cited as the reason for the invocation of Article 31 of the Constitution which provides for the threatened state of emergency before any investigatory evidence was provided to the public. The public still awaits the connection.
This threatened state of emergency allows for arrest without warrant and detention for extended periods. Using the power therein, citizens have been arrested for expressing their views on social media under the colonial “defamation of the president” laws. Eleven people are awaiting trial for the arson incidents. They have been held for longer than a month and were reported to be on hunger strike (a claim that has not been confirmed). The extra powers accorded to the police under the threatened state of emergency are particularly concerning because the Police service have, even without emergency powers, been acting very much outside the law.
Since PF came to power, the police have routinely prevented opposition gatherings claiming they do not have the manpower to protect them. They then have arrived at the venues to prevent any possibility of rallies proceeding with more officers and show of force than would have been required to ensure a smooth event.
The police have also displayed a brutality in crowd control previously unknown in the country. Critical to note is that the police under PF, again routinely, fail to prevent or address extreme incidents of violence by the cadres of the ruling party. This no-need-to-fear-consequences has translated into a PF membership that is understood to be a law unto itself and feared by ordinary citizens. Cadres have been known to march in the street openly brandishing weaponry that was previously unknown to be in the hands of anyone who was not a violent criminal. On the other side of the political spectrum it seems the main opposition UPND has also adopted a violent ethos for its cadres claiming the need for self-defence. The result of violent cadre meeting violent cadre need not be set out.
The long and short of the situation in Zambia is that a country that was well on its way to instituting itself as a shining example of democracy in Africa, is taking longs strides backward. There is an urgent need to ensure that the democratic spaces, especially the free press and freedom of expression Zambians are accustomed to, are protected. It is also critical that citizens push back against government acts to take their democracy south. Citizens must, like they did to President Chiluba, say no to President Lungu.
It is after all because Zambians have been able express themselves freely that administration after administration has known not to dare overstay in power. It is also because of the democratic freedoms they have enjoyed for decades, that citizens have been able to use innovative ways of expressing their unhappiness such as the loud blowing of car horns at 17 hours every Friday together with wearing green ribbons that let President Chiluba know he could not stay in office when his 2nd term was over.
Zambia’s famed peace is because Zambians have been free to draw a line in the sand for those in power. If the Lungu administration is allowed to continue encroaching on citizen freedoms, that peace is at risk.
Source: LAURA MITI FACEBOOK PAGE