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We need to talk about Zambia as it falls from grace under President Lungu

Zambian President Edgar Lungu has been criticised for turning the country into a dictatorship. Reuters/Rogan Ward

Zambia has often been ignored by the international media. One reason for this neglect is that it’s been comparatively unexceptional, on a continent with more than its fair share of extremes.

Since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1991, the country has neither been a clear democratic success story like Ghana or South Africa , nor a case of extreme authoritarian abuse, as in Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.

Instead, Zambia has occupied a middle ground lacking a hook with which to sell coverage of the country, journalists have tended to steer clear. But in the last few months things began to change. First, the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested on trumped up treason charges.

Shortly after, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a strongly worded criticism of the government that concluded

Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship

As a result, the country has returned to the headlines, and whether one agrees with the bishops’ evaluation or not, one thing is clear: it’s time to start talking about Zambia.

Democratic success

Until now, Zambia’s progress under multi-party politics has been quietly impressive.

Although the level of corruption has remained high, and a number of highly controversial, elections, the country has consistently pulled back from the brink when authoritarian rule appeared a possibility.

Things appeared to be going downhill, for example, when Zambia’s second president, Frederick Chiluba, manipulated the constitution to prevent his predecessor, Kenneth Kaunda, from running against him on the grounds that he was not really Zambian. This strategy was clearly illegitimate. After all, Kaunda had run the country for over two decades.

But, Chiluba’s position was weaker than he understood and he overplayed his hand by trying to secure an unconstitutional third-term. He ultimately left office when his second term expired at the end of 2002.

While Zambians have been willing to defend their new democracy, political leaders have shown a greater willingness to share power than in many nearby states. On the one hand, presidents from a number of different ethnic groups have occupied State House, which has helped to manage tension. On the other, opposition parties have been able to use populist strategies to attract support in urban areas and build effective political machines. As a result, Zambia is one of the only countries on the continent – along with Benin, Ghana, Madagascar, and Mauritius – that has experienced two transfers of power.

Over the last year, though, things have changed.

Zambia’s fall from grace

According to the Conference of Catholic Bishops – one of the most influential bodies in the country – Zambia doesn’t deserve to be called a democracy. Instead, under the leadership of President Edgar Lungu and the Patriotic Front it has become a dictatorship - or getting there.

This statement needs to be taken seriously for two reasons. First, the bishops rarely speak out publicly. Second, many catholic leaders were seen to be sympathetic to the governing Patriotic Front, when it won power under Michael Sata in 2011. So, their actions cannot simply be put down to party political bias.

So what has changed? The bishops identify a number of recent developments as causes for concern.

First, they point to the treatment of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema. Not only was his arrest conducted in an unnecessarily brutal manner, but the government has not yet provided any evidence to substantiate the treason charge. Instead, it appears that his detention is punishment for refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the president, who Hichilema believes won the last election unfairly.

Zambia’s opposition leader and presidential hopeful Hakainde Hichilema. Reuters/Rogan Ward

For obvious reasons, his detention and the question of whether he will be released, has been the focus of recent media coverage. But for the Bishops, Hichilema’s arrest is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. The worries expressed in their statement are less about the fate of the opposition leader, and more about the systematic weakening of the state.

For example, the bishops lament the fact that the Constitutional Court failed to effectively hear the opposition’s election petition, believing the judiciary have “let the people down”.

They also note that the politicization of the police force has resulted in the violation of citizens’ rights and that, partly as a result, the media has become entrapped in a “culture of silence”. The Bishops suggest that the political manipulation of these institutions has enabled the government to launch attacks on a number of civil society groups that have dared to challenge its authority, including the Law Association of Zambia.

While the charges against Hichilema​ may have triggered the Bishops to act, their letter is underpinned by a deeper and broader concern about the declining quality of governance under President Lungu.

What next?

This is not the first time that a Zambian president has sought to consolidate their authority my manipulating state institutions. Nor is it the first time that opposition leaders have been arrested, or civil society groups intimidated. In the recent past, these moments of high political tension have often been resolved peacefully and it’s not impossible that a similar thing will happen this time.

For example, the president may decide to release Hichilema and to pull back from the prohibition of the Law Society of Zambia in the wake of considerable criticism. If the recent spate of attacks has been designed to intimidate his rivals, Lungu may feel that his goal has already been achieved and that he has little to gain by following through with his threats.

But even if this were to happen, it’s unlikely that it would signal a period of a more accountable government, or that Lungu will cede his quest to remain in office. Many things have changed since Chiluba failed to secure a third term in office almost twenty years ago.

  • First, key civil society groups such as the trade unions have been weakened by privatisation, informalisation and unemployment.

  • Second, the Constitutional Court that’s responsible for interpreting the constitution was handpicked by Lungu, and is highly unlikely to oppose him.

  • Third, Lungu’s case is more complicated than Chiluba’s. In 2001, the second president had served two fill terms in office and wanted one more. Today, Lungu is arguing that he should be allowed to have a third term because his first period in office did not count, as he was just serving out the final year of Michael Sata’s term following his untimely death in office.

This reading of the constitution is highly questionable. The clause that stipulates that a period in office only counts as a full term if it’s longer than three years is limited to a set of cases that doesn’t include the way that Lungu actually came to power. But, it is less clear-cut than Chiluba’s power grab.

All of this means that Lungu is likely to get his way. But, his third term will not come without a cost. Opposition protests are inevitable, as is some civil society criticism. If past form is anything to go by, Lungu’s government will respond with threats and intimidation, fuelling public fears that Zambian politics has become significantly more violent since the 2016 election campaign. Given this, the Bishops’ recent letter is unlikely to be their last, and we need to talk about Zambia for some time to come.

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