There is no escape, really, from the realization that the incremental encroachments on Zambia’s democratic freedoms have now moved the country into a frightening moment. Word that President Edgar Lungu is to declare a national state of emergency appears to mark a new phase of political power for a president who won’t shy away from being called a dictator and for his ruling Patriotic Front party. Yet is it new, or is it Zambia’s past repeating itself?
Lungu’s address to the nation Wednesday night, in which he laid out his intention to seek parliamentary approval under Zambia’s Article 31 provisions, followed a massive blaze at the Lusaka City Market early Tuesday morning. The fire serves as proximal cause, as Lungu and top-level government officials have suggested it was a deliberate act of sabotage in what they claim is a string of attacks – stretching back to August 2016 and the disputed presidential election – that have consumed public markets, utilities, and public buildings.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the intentions of the perpetrators of these irresponsible actions is to make the country ungovernable,” Lungu said. “It is my responsibility to respond accordingly to forestall this planned chaos and I will therefore not tolerate this lawlessness.”
Lungu’s decision followed a special cabinet meeting to address national security and plan for what he called “stringent measures” to protect life and property. That’s despite the fact that the investigation into the fire is not complete and no official cause has been determined, which has led the Law Association of Zambia to appeal for restraint and caution against the abrogation of citizens’ rights.
That appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears. Lungu’s words become more ominous in the context of a Zambia with ever-shrinking democratic space and increasingly repressive leadership decisions, directed at silencing all dissent whether that means the political opposition, the media or civil society actors.
Silencing the PF’s opposition
It’s not even entirely clear how the Zambian parliament could legitimately approve a state of emergency declaration. The constitution’s Article 31 provides for a presidential decree of no more than seven days unless “approved by a resolution of the National Assembly supported by a majority of all the members thereof not counting the Speaker.”
With a resolution, the state of emergency extends to three months. Yet in another example of Zambia’s deepening political crisis, there are 48 members of the assembly who are currently under a 30-day suspension that began on June 13. While a majority might presumably be achieved without them, it’s hard to see how that meets the definition of “all” at this critical moment.
The 48 suspended MPs are all members of the United Party for National Development (UPND) who boycotted Lungu’s address to parliament back in March and were suspended for disrespecting him.
At the time, the UPND had issued a letter that said the party did not recognize Lungu as the president of Zambia. It included allegations of stolen votes and said they were still awaiting a determination on the successful election of UPND presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema.
Hichilema, of course, was arrested in April and faces trumped-up treason charges ostensibly arising from a minor traffic incident involving Lungu’s motorcade. His midnight arrest was a terrifying ordeal that served as a high-water mark for just how rapidly conditions in Zambia have deteriorated. He remains in detention at Chimbokaila; from prison, Hichilema has called for a thorough investigation into the fire that prompted Lungu’s decision.
Zambia’s downward spiral
The 2016 electoral violence that marred the good reputation of a stable Zambia, one of Africa’s most well-regarded democracies, continues. It’s been less than two weeks since UPND and PF contingents clashed during funeral services in Leopard’s Hill Memorial Park, as insults escalated into violence that police said included stone throwing, beatings and a torched vehicle. This, at a time when both rival groups were there to bury members of their respective parties.
Where Zambia’s media is concerned, the repressive environment of last year’s election cycle meant physical assaults against journalists, harassment and intimidation, license suspensions and shutdowns, and frequent arrests. Concerns about press freedoms drew some mild cautions from the international community, but the pattern continues. In April, when Economic and Equity Party (EEP) leader Chilufya Tayali was arrested for a Facebook post, the government warned all Zambians about social media use. Nor are Hichilema and Tayali the only opposition politicians to be arrested – or fear that they will be.
Saviour Chishimba of the United Progressive People party is among those who said he feels threatened and intimidated, and Nevers Mumba, president of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy party, has publicly wondered if the real reason Lungu is contemplating withdrawal from the International Criminal Court is because he wants a country in which he is free to act with impunity.
Before and beyond Lungu
On June 16, key faith leaders – the Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) and the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB) – issued a statement expressing their alarm. “Zambia eminently qualifies to be branded a dictatorship,” the church leaders said. Now, the enhanced powers that come with a state of emergency veiled as a peace and security measure have the potential to make a bad situation far worse.
Even Guy Scott, the former vice-president who briefly served as interim president in 2014 upon the death of Michael Sata, warns that Zambia is losing its credibility. It is – but it’s also prompting a hard question about whether the glowing image of the nation and its stable democracy was ever a reality. Sata, the man who founded the PF, caused damage to Zambia too by seeking to consolidate power for his party while arresting the political opposition for insults, attacking journalists, and shutting down news outlets and civil society groups.
If it’s time for cold hard realism in assessing Zambia’s alarming state of affairs before it’s too late – and it surely is – it might also be time to consider that the international community’s positive regard toward Lusaka as a beacon of hope may have been more generous than warranted. Lungu’s Zambia hasn’t unraveled in just a few weeks or months, and any hope of fixing it will require coming to terms honestly with much more that needs reform than just one man.
Image: President Edgar Lungu