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Zambia: From Democracy to Dictatorship?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
April 25, 2017 (170425)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship and if it is not yet, then we are not far from it. Our political leaders in the ruling party often issue intimidating statements that frighten people and make us fear for the immediate and future. This must be stopped and reversed henceforth." - Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 23, 2017

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains three short commentaries on the current political crisis in Zambia, by Simon Allison, Nic Cheeseman, and Tendai Biti. Another AfricaFocus, also to be sent out today, focuses on the wider African and global context of "media repression 2.0" in the internet era, including a report on attacks on press freedom in Zambia.

The statement cited above from the Catholic Bishops of Zambia is available at

The Council of Churches in Zambia has also issued a strong statement condemning the arrest of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema (

For keeping up with recent news on Zambia, two key sources are and The Mast ( or, successor to The Post, which was shut down by the government in 2016.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Zambia, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Analysis: Dark, dangerous days for Zambia's democracy

After the attack on the home of Zambia's opposition leader, and then his arrest on spurious charges, Zambia's reputation as a beacon of democracy in Africa is under serious threat.

by Simon Allison

Daily Maverick, 20 April 2017 - direct URL:

Hakainde Hichilema is famously suspicious. The Zambian opposition leader travels with a phalanx of bodyguards, and often brings his own food wherever he goes, just in case anyone wants to poison him. He claims to have received repeated death threats. He has a safe room installed in his house.

          Zambian President Edgar Lungu meeting with President Jacob Zuma
          on state visit to South Africa in December 2016
Until Tuesday last week, it was easy to dismiss Hichilema's paranoia as exactly that – paranoia. This is Zambia, after all, one of Africa's most established and most successful democracies. No one bumps off opposition leaders in Zambia. It's not Russia, or Venezuela, or Tunisia.

And then, in the early hours of that Tuesday morning, everything changed. For Hichilema, and for Zambia.

Dozens of armed police descended onto Hichilema's property. They broke down the door. They threw tear gas into the house. Dazed and confused, and above all scared, the politician and his family retreated into the safe room.

I spoke to him there, on the phone. He didn't raise his voice above a whisper, and it trembled as he talked. He said that his wife and children were injured from the tear gas, which was periodically pumped through the vents of the safe room in a bid to force them out, and that his servants had been tortured. He said he could hear their screams. "This guy is trying to kill me," he said. "This guy is a dictator, a full-blown dictator."

He was talking, of course, about President Edgar Lungu.

The siege lasted until mid-morning. By then, Hichilema's legal team had arrived, as had journalists. His lawyers eventually coaxed Hichilema out of the safe room. He was immediately arrested, and charged shortly afterwards with treason.

No one is dismissing Hichilema's paranoia now – and no one is quite sure what would have happened in the absence of that safe room into which he could retreat.

What we do know is that Hichilema's arch-rival, Lungu, has now abandoned all democratic niceties in a bid to consolidate his grip on power.

It was the nature of Hichilema's arrest that was most concerning: the midnight raid, the tear gas, the casual brutality meted out to the servants. It was all entirely unnecessary. Hichilema is a public figure, and could have been quietly arrested at any time. But the raid was designed to intimidate, to send an unmistakeable message to the president's opponents that Lungu's authority shall no longer be challenged.

It wasn't just Hichilema, either. Chilufya Tayali, head of the Economic and Equity Party and a vocal critic of President Lungu, was arrested just two days later. His crime? A Facebook post in which he criticised the "inefficiency" of Zambia's police chief. He has subsequently been released on bail.

If that sounds ridiculous – well, it is. But not as ridiculous as the charges levelled against Hichilema, which are so far entirely unsubstantiated by evidence or detail. The only concrete allegation is that Hichilema endangered the president's life when his vehicles did not give way to the president's motorcade at a cultural festival.

In Lungu's Zambia, a traffic incident has somehow become treason.

It's not Lungu's Zambia quite yet, however, as embarrassed government prosecutors learned in court. In their submissions against Hichilema, prosecutors made a Freudian slip, referring to the opposition leader's alleged offences against the "Government of President Edgar Lungu". They were forced to amend the charge sheet when the defence observed that such an institution does not exist: there is still only a Government of the Republic of Zambia, as much as President Lungu might like it to be otherwise.

But make no mistake: these are dark, dangerous times for Zambia. And if Lungu's end goal really is to dismantle the country's hard-won democracy, then it's hard to see who or what will stop him.

Domestically, the arrests of Hichilema and Tayali, along with a sustained assault on independent media, will have a chilling effect on civil society. It will take extraordinary courage and commitment to take on President Lungu's administration now.

Internationally too, Lungu faces remarkably little pressure. He has already brushed off statements of concern from the United States and the European Union, warning diplomats that they are "wasting their time"; just as he brushed off concerns that his 2016 election win was marred by serious electoral fraud.

South Africa, the regional superpower which does exert real influence in Lusaka, has been deafeningly silent; as analyst Greg Mills observed on these pages, it can't be a coincidence that Lungu may well have been encouraged down this path by the example of the "patronage regime" emerging in South Africa. The less leadership South Africa displays at home, the less it can project abroad.

Zambia's in trouble. For so long a beacon of democracy in Africa, its enviable reputation has already been tarnished by President Lungu's actions. The risk now is that Lungu undoes that democratic progress entirely.

If this all sounds a little paranoid, just remember that Hakainde Hichilema was paranoid too. And on this, he is being proved right.

Zambia: President Lungu sacrifices credibility to repress opposition

by Nic Cheeseman

Democracy in Action, 21 April 2017 - direct URL:

NicDiA's Nic Cheeseman looks at the political crisis in Zambia, where the opposition leader has been charged with treason, and analyses the prospects for democratic backsliding. Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

Zambian President Edgar Lungu finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place in both economic and political terms. As a result, he has begun to lash out, manipulating the law to intimidate the opposition, and in the process sacrificing what credibility he had left after deeply problematic general elections in 2016.

Let us start with the economy, where the president is stuck in something of a lose-lose position. On the one hand, his populace is growing increasingly frustrated at the absence of economic job and opportunities, while a number of experts have pointed out that the country is on the verge of a fresh debt crisis. Economic growth was just 2.9% in 2016, while the public debt is expected to hit 54% of GDP this year, and the government cannot afford to pay many of its domestic suppliers.

On the other, a proposed $1.2 billion rescue deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has the potential to increase opposition to the government for two reasons. First, it would mean significantly reducing government spending, including on some of Lungu's more popular policies. Second, many Zambians are understandably suspicious of IMF and the World Bank, having suffered under previous adjustment programmes that delivered neither jobs nor sustainable growth.

The president faces similar challenges on the political front. Having won a presidential election in 2016 that the opposition believes was rigged, and which involved a number of major procedural flaws, Lungu desperately needs to relegitimate himself. However, this need clashes with another, more important, imperative – namely, the president's desire to secure a third term in office when his current tenure ends in 2020.

The problem for Lungu is that while it looks like he will be able to use his influence over the Constitutional Court to ensure that it interprets the country's new constitutional arrangements to imply that he should be allowed to stand for a third term – on the basis that his first period in office was filling in for the late Michael Sata after his untimely death in office, and so should not count – such a strategy is likely to generate considerable criticism from the opposition, civil society and international community.

Lacking viable opportunities to boost his support base and relegitimate his government, President Lungu has responded by pursuing another strategy altogether: the intimidation of the opposition and the repression of dissent. While in some ways represents a continuation of some of the tactics used ahead of the 2016 election, when the supporters and leaders of rival parties were harassed and in some cases detained, the recent actions of the Patriotic Front (PF) government represent a worrying gear-shift.

Most obviously, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who came so close to leading his United Party of National Development (UPND) to victory in the latest polls, has been arrested and his home raided. His crimes? There appear to be two sets of charges. One set is relatively mundane, and relates to an incident in which Hichilema is accused of refusing to give way to the president's convoy. For this, the opposition leader has been charged with breaking the highway code and using insulting language.

The second charge – that of treason – is much more serious, but also much less clear. Court documents state that Hichilema "on unknown dates but between 10 October 2016 and 8 April 2017 and whilst acting together with other persons unknown did endeavour to overthrow by unlawful means the government of Edgar Lungu." Although this charge has also been linked to the recent traffic incident, it seems more likely to be motivated by the president's ongoing frustration that the UPND continues to contest his election and refuses to recognise him as a legitimately elected leader.

If this is the true motivation for the charges, it will only be the latest of a number of moves to cow the opposition. For example, in response to the refusal of UNPD legislators to listen to Lungu's address to the National Assembly, Richard Mumba – a PF proxy close to State House – petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare vacant the seats of all MPs who were absent.

The opposition are not alone. Key elements of civil society have also come under fire. As a result of the waning influence of trade unions, professional associations now find themselves as one of the last lines of defence for the country's fragile democracy, most notably the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ). It should therefore come as no surprise that a government MP, Kelvin Sampa, recent introduced legislation into the National Assembly that would effectively dissolve the LAZ and replace it with a number of smaller bodies, each of which would be far less influential.

The bills introduced by Mumba and Sampa may not succeed, but in some ways they don't need to. Their cumulative effect has been to signal that those who seek to resist the governments are likely to find themselves the subject of the sharp end of the security forces and the PF's manipulation of the rule of law. The nature of Hichilema's arrest is a case in point. Despite numerous opportunities to detain him in broad daylight, armed police and paramilitaries planned a night attack in which they switched off the power to the house, blocked access to the main roads, and broke down the entrance gate. Inside the property, the security forces are accused of firing tear gas, torture, urinating on the opposition leader's bed and looting the property.

It is therefore clear that the main aim of the operation was not an efficient and speedy arrest, but rather the humiliation and intimidation of an opponent.

Such abuses may help Lungu to secure the short-term goal of prolonging his stay in power, but they will threaten to undermine Zambia's future. It will – or at least it should – be politically embarrassing for the IMF to conclude a deal with Zambia while the opposition leader is on trial on jumped up charges and civil society is decrying the slide towards authoritarian rule. Rumours now circulating in Lusaka suggest that President Lungu may be preparing to enhance his authority by declaring a State of Emergency in the near future, which would further complicate the country's international standing.

Lungu's blatant disregard for the rules of the democratic game also has important implications for the county's political future. Many Zambian commentators reported that the 2016 election was the most violent in the country's history, and forecast rising political instability if this trend was not reserved. Rather than heed this warning, President Lungu appears determined to put this prophecy to the test.

Zambia and Zimbabwe: Why fair elections are essential for Africa's development

by Tendai Biti

Daily Maverick, 20 Apr 2017 - direct URL:

[Tendai Biti was finance minister of Zimbabwe under the unity government from 2009-2013.]

Zimbabwe is used as a case study of a broken society; a country in which those in power concern themselves only with maintaining power and amassing wealth. Zimbabwe is also often cited as an exceptional case. However, while it's situation undoubtedly has its own peculiarities, Zimbabwe has not followed a path that is impassable for others. It is dangerous to think otherwise.

Despite the popularity of the "Africa rising" narrative that has sounded over the past decade regarding the pace of Africa's economic growth and the prospects for development, the continent continues to face significant challenges in unlocking the benefits for the majority of its citizens.

While there is no singular reason for this, the one with the greatest explanatory power is the mindset of self-enrichment at the cost of social development among the elite. There is little doubt in my mind that the solution to turning this around also lies in the hands of leadership and the choices they make. And getting the right leadership in place, to make the right choices, is a question of democracy.

As a former minister of finance in Zimbabwe, the proposals that came on to my desk for government financing of projects that would make a significant impact on our country were countless. Yet there was – and continues to be – absolutely no money made available by the government for any of these projects. It was often a difficult pill to swallow when all around the country malnourished families were starving while the lavish lives of those in the president's innercircle were there for all to see.

Zimbabwe is used as a case study of a broken society; a country in which those in power concern themselves only with maintaining power and amassing wealth. Zimbabwe is also often cited as an exceptional case. However, while it's situation undoubtedly has its own peculiarities, Zimbabwe has not followed a path that is impassable for others. It is dangerous to think otherwise.

People often ask me how it is possible that we have been able to get ourselves into this position as a country where everything is so fundamentally broken. You cannot break things overnight, I answer, but you can slowly chip away at the fundamentals and if no one does anything to stop you then quite quickly all expectations of a democratic society are abolished.

The increase in the number of elections taking place in Africa since 1990 has frequently been read as a positive indicator for the continent's future development prospects. Elections are only a necessary but not a sufficient component of democracy. Yet this is undermined if the international community adopts the convenient fallacy that at least by going through the motion of holding elections a country will get it right eventually, and so the extent to which they can become a smokescreen has largely been overlooked.

The frequency of elections is much easier to observe and tick off a checklist than adherence to the rule of law. However, it is the rule of law that determines a country's ability to function properly. When the law is undermined and eroded, countries can follow a downward spiral that leads to total collapse and from which it is almost impossible to recover without outside support.

The rule of law in Zimbabwe has long been considered broken. The same can now be said of our neighbour north of the Zambezi, Zambia.

Zambia's leadership seems intent on destroying the 50 years of work post-independence to build democracy by replicating actions we have routinely seen in Zimbabwe, notably the systematic harassment and intimidation of press, civil society and the opposition. While in the past Zambians have looked to the rule of law to protect their rights when under threat, today they find there is little prospect for protection or redress.

Zambia's major independent newspaper has been closed, with its editor on the run; reports of intimidation and bribery of legal and electoral officials have become widespread; and, now, as of a week ago, popular opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has been incarcerated and charged with treason.

Shocking as this bold attempt to charge the opposition leader with an offence that in theory could carry the death penalty appears, as well as the violent and shocking manner in which the arrest was conducted, if you look at the pattern of activity by the authorities in recent months and years it is less surprising.

Over time Zambia's leadership has become more and more confident that they can sit above the law. While cases in which people have spoken ill of the president or alleged corruption in public institutions result in arrests and court charges, justice is slow and often elusive for those outside the ruling elite.

The manner in which last year's contested election was handled by the Zambian authorities is a landmark case in this history. It's a story of the cost of electoral authoritarianism. Today, with Hichilema behind bars, it is also testament of how the region and the international community missed a critical opportunity to stem a tide of poor governance by speaking out against an electoral sham.

When Hichilema's party, the United Party for National Development, challenged the 2016 election result on several grounds he was advised to call on his supporters to remain peaceful and petition the outcome in the courts, as is his constitutional right. The petition was never heard, however, on the basis of a technicality that his party continues to challenge through various appeals and court submissions to this date.

This stands in stark contrast to how events played out in Ghana following the 2012 elections. Then the opposition challenge of the outcome led to a lengthy court case. While the outcome was ultimately upheld by the court, the case revealed several failings in the process for addressing ahead of future elections, and it enabled the opposition a chance to present their evidence. The process upheld the rule of law, and sent a clear signal to elites and citizens alike that they can expect to be held accountable to the law. This helped to pave the way for the peaceful transfer of power to the opposition subsequently in January 2017.

The consequences of the soft approach of observers and the international community following last year's contested elections in Zambia appears to be coming back to haunt them, however. Their cautious approach and hesitancy to challenge leadership has been taken as a near enough blank check for the elite to step by step deconstruct the rule of law.

While national sovereignty must be respected we must not forget that if the government in question is itself undermining the rule of law and the rights and safety of its own citizens then it has already undermined the grounds for sovereignty in a democratic nation. Moreover, the more states that are allowed to continue down this path unchallenged, the fewer voices there are left to speak out against such infractions and the more leaders elsewhere that will be motivated to preserve their stay in power through illicit means. DM

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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