CIVICUS speaks to Zambian human rights defender McDonald Chipenzi. The Threatened State of Emergency invoked by the President on 5 July 2017 is due to expire on 13 October 2017 with no clear indication if the President will invoke a fresh Threatened State of Emergency. The country’s parliament is also considering a new Political Parties Bill. We ask Chipenzi what the Bill is about and what is the state of Zambia’s democracy.
1. In your opinion, is there a governance crisis in Zambia?
A writer called James Bovard (1999) once observed that: “Voting has changed from the process by which the citizens control the government to a process that consecrates the government’s control of the people.” Zambia has slipped into a governance crisis. It is on the verge of falling into an undemocratic cliff. All signs are pointing to the fact that freedom of expression, association and demonstrations or protests in Zambia have been curtailed even when citizens follow the procedure as prescribed by the law governing public assemblies. The civic, political and the general democratic spaces in the country have shrunk. There is much evidence to show that these spaces have been curtailed and citizens are now either living in fear or indeed have taken a docile and passive position in participating in national affairs.
The declaration of the Threatened State of Public Emergency on 5 July 2017 by President Edgar Chagwa Lungu after invoking Article 31 of the Constitution over suspiciously stage-managed spates of fires believed by some to have been sponsored by the party in power has left devastating effects on people’s rights and freedoms. This meant the enforcement of the Preservation of Public Security Act Cap 112 of the laws of Zambia which gives sweeping powers to the police to search, arrest and detain suspects for longer than the constitutional requirement of 48hrs for a detained suspect to be brought before court. The Act also automatically derogates citizens’ freedoms of assembly, expression, movement and of the media.
To buttress this suspicion, to date, the same government that emotionally attributed the acts of arson to opposition political parties’ sympathisers has failed to produce any report or evidence incriminating anybody for the arson. Religious freedoms too have not been spared and are steadily declining. For instance, the police in August 2017 sealed off the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where worshippers where supposed to conduct their Thanksgiving Prayers on account that they did not notify the police. The largest opposition party has also suffered denial to carry out their public political activities on account that the invocation of Article 31 was still in force.
On 29 September, 2017, six civil society and opposition leaders, musicians and other activists like Laura Miti and Lewis Mwape (civil activists), Sean Enock Tembo (politician), Chama Fumba, aka Pilato (musician) and others were arrested at the entrance of the Parliament building where they had picketed the National Assembly during the presentation of the 2018 National Budget demanding accountability in the procurement processes following the controversial purchase of 42 firefighters engines at a cost of US$1-million each. They were only released at midnight after spending half a day in police detention and on paying K2 000 (US$220) each as police bond. On 2 October, 2017, the police formally charged the six with two counts of “An unlawful assembly” and “Disobeying lawful orders” They will appear in court on 27 October 2017.
This Threatened State of Public Emergency will only come to end on 13 October, 2017.
The country’s leadership is engulfed in alleged acts of serious national plunder, looting and misuse of public resources, corruption, bribery and other misgovernance and yet there seems to be no one to provide leadership as the President has developed the propensity of globetrotting, locally known as Kamweendo munjila. Some people estimates that since taking office in January 2015, the President has allegedly made 49 trips across the globe. This has created a leadership vacuum and consequently a governance crisis the country is now faced with. The rule of law and constitutionalism is no longer a hallmark of country’s democracy. Law enforcers have sacrificed declining professionalism, ethical conduct and integrity levels. They have become vulnerable to political patronages. The judiciary especially the Constitutional Court faces public contempt, so is the office of the Director of Public Prosecution due to an “outbreak” of Nolle Prosequi (abandoned court cases by prosecutors) which is unprecedented in the history of the country. Most of these favour the interests of the executive. Zambia has, indeed, slid into the rule of men and has assumed characteristics of a banana republic.
The state of the country’s democracy is deplorable. The ruling elites hold a myopic view that democracy is the ballot or elections and that since they are not going to be held until 2021, the country is on the right path as far as democracy is concerned. They feel elections are the means and an end in themselves. Freedom of the media is under constant threat and self-censorship by government-owned media has become a norm. Opposition and divergent views are never entertained in government-owned media despite all citizens contributing a monthly levy to its management. Civic and political spaces continue to shrink on a daily basis. Poverty is growing in the neighborhoods of ordinary people while the opposite is different at State House and for ruling political party elites and their relatives and associates.
There is a dictatorship and an emerging authoritarian leadership in Zambia. The religious, political, civic and media spaces are shrinking daily. Opposition, musicians and civil society members are arrested and detained on trumped-up charges. This has become the order of the day. Court orders are disregarded with impunity by law enforcement agencies at the perceived instruction by the executive. In other words, the executive has taken over all arms of government. Public confidence in public institutions such as the judiciary, police, National Assembly, electoral body among others is at its lowest. Corruption, abuse of public resources are taking their tow while the Anti-Corruption Commission remains tight-lipped if not defending corruption itself. The Zambian society has been divided on tribal lines and elections are perceived from the same angle.
In essence, the democratic outlook in Zambia is very gloomy. What surprises us, however, is that the Southern Africa Development Community still believes in the Zambian leadership to an extent of allowing it to assume the position of deputy chair of the Organ on Security and Peace when it is a country at war with itself. This is so because, for the first time in 26 years, the country is living under a Threatened State of Public Emergency and citizens’ rights such as assembly, expression and protests are constantly denied or threatened. People have been arrested for expressing themselves on Facebook, others on TV or radio and detained for days or for months only to be released without any changes. This has prompted the church, the Commonwealth and other concerned regional and international dignitaries to intervene in the Zambian situation while SADC pursues it suspicious quiet diplomacy.
2. Please tell us more about the Political Parties Bill
The current debate on the need to develop a political parties’ law in Zambia has been triggered by the existing law. Article 60 of the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2016 demands that there be a prescription of how the article on political parties would be operationalised which essentially means coming up with an Act of parliament. To this end, the government produced a draft Political Parties Bill which it later consulted stakeholders. Political parties under the umbrella of Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue participated in the validation processes of the Bill which is yet to be tabled before the National Assembly for enactment. The Minister of Justice has already indicated a desire to table the Bill for enactment before the end of 2017. However, there are mixed reactions to the Bill: some commentators have described the Bill as unconstitutional while others have welcomed it. My view is that in its current form, the Bill is a recipe for stifling political parties’ existence and effectiveness.
The proposed Political parties’ Act is about the provision of the registration and regulation of political parties services in the country. It is about the establishment of the Board of Political Parties to oversee the registration and operations of political parties and to provide mechanisms for the establishment and management of a Political Parties Fund. It will also inquire on and regulate the sources of funds for political parties and any matters connected with, or incidental, to the foregoing. This is as per objects of the draft Political Parties Bill (2017) signed off by the Attorney General, Likando Kalaluka. In other words, the pending Bill is trying to regulate, monitor and supervise political parties which consequently is likely to shrink and stifle political space in the country. In its current draft form, the suggested Political Parties Bill is draconian, unconstitutional and undemocratic.
3. Does Zambia have other legal frameworks that govern political parties?
Zambia has had no specific legal framework to regulate, monitor and supervise the conduct and administration of political parties in the country since independence. The draft Political Parties’ Bill, if passed into law, would be the first law specifically on political parties. However, all political parties, just like civil society and churches, are considered for registration under the Societies Act Cap 119 of the Laws of Zambia enacted in the 1960s. This is the Act which gave birth to all political parties and operationalised Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution which entitles citizens the right to expression and association respectively. The Act is administered by the Department of Registrar of Societies hosted by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Under the current set up, political parties are required, at least to have 10 members to be registered who also undergo thorough security checks. After registration, the concerned party is issued with a certificate and holds it in perpetuity until deregistered by the Registrar or winds down on its own. In 2012, the former ruling party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was deregistered for not paying annual returns for the party’s branches in the provinces and districts as per law requirement and only saved by the courts. A number of churches during the same period suffered threats of deregistration from the registrar.
4. What do you think has triggered the current proposed Political Parties Bill?
There have been concerns from various stakeholders including within the political parties’ circles that political parties must be funded because they are the soul and lifeblood of the multiparty democracy in Zambia. The other school of thought has been that funding political parties would make them more accountable and transparent in the manner they raise and use funds either from government and/or other well-wishers. Others feared that having no mechanisms on how to monitor political parties’ source of income would be putting the country on an “auction sale advert” because political parties would be promising or baiting with money lenders and other unknown people and this could endanger the country especially during electoral campaign periods without citizens knowing. To this end, submissions were made during the previous constitutional reviews to include a political party clause in the Constitution. Therefore, the 2016 amended Constitution upheld this view and included a clause that defines a political party, prescribes dos and don’ts for a political party and introduces funding of political parties with representation in the National Assembly.
5. What are the advantages and disadvantage of the Bill for Zambia’s democracy?
Although the proposed political parties law has some positive aspects in it which are basically meant to bait for stakeholders’ buy-ins, its disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Some of the mischiefs it intends to treat include political parties limited accountability and transparency levels, lack of intra-and interparty democracies and proposes to emphasise on political parties’ need to hold regular internal elections and also the spirit of co-existence through the formation of political parties’ alliances, mergers and coalitions respectively. These aspects are not part of the legal framework today. The proposed law also awards rights to all registered political parties such as the right to hold and address political meetings anywhere in the country without interference, the right to police protection and assistance, and equitable access to the State-owned media. It proposes funding to parties with representation though small parties have described the provision as promoting bigger parties at the expense of smaller ones.
However, there are fatal disadvantages in the proposed Bill for instance sections 23(1) of the draft Bill states: “The Minister shall prescribe the matters to be included in the constitution or rules of a political party.” How does a minister who is also a political functionary of another political party dictate what another party should include in its constitution? Is this not stifling competitive political ideas and space? The proposed Act also does not include political parties’ representation on the political party Registration Board, instead, it only incorporates the church and government ministries. The Board also is appointed by and reports to the President, who is also party president of a political party. This will be problematic and would raise suspicions in the operations and decisions of the board. The disclosure aspect of the Act has also been received with caution especially that it may cause local businessmen and women to away shy from helping the opposition for fear of being victimised by losing business or denied business contracts with the government.
The proposed Act further gives immunity to board members and officers working at the Political Party Board Secretariat from their omissions and commissions during their duties. For instance, section 16 of the proposed Act states: “An action or other proceeding shall not lie or be instituted against a member of the Board or a member of staff for or in respect of an act or thing done or omitted to be done in good faith in the exercise or performance, or purported exercise or performance, of any of the powers, functions or duties conferred under this Act.” The Acts, once enacted into law, would demand a full disclosure of political parties’ source of funds and penalises whichever political party conceals such information.
6. What advocacy has been carried out concerning the Bill?
There has been no serious advocacy around the formulation of the proposed Act. The government through the Ministry of Justice just announced of its drafting and invited stakeholders’ submissions on the same. Political parties and few civil society organisations did their submissions. However, the government quickly organised a national conference on the draft Bill to consolidate stakeholder’s submissions. The results of this convention are yet to be officially shared with the rest of the nation. Some political parties like the Party for Economic Progress walked out of the convention citing unproductive debates.
7. What role can civil society play in building a more participatory society in Zambia?
To curtail the exercise of power by the government, citizens must not adopt the role of victims but victors and become effective participants in the governance processes. This is currently lacking in the Zambian situation. There is a lot of fear of being arrested and thereafter fail to have resources to hire legal representation. There is need to enhance solidarity efforts among citizens and discard the spirit of the fear of government and its leadership that has engulfed many citizens. Civil society must bring to a stop the increasingly rise of statism in Zambia which has consequently put people’s rights and freedoms in perpetual chains and slavery. Zambia’s civil society movement needs to push and advocate for a more competent, more trustworthy, more tolerant, more democratic and more benevolent government and leadership in the country and reject by confronting the any emergency of oppressive, corrupt and intolerant regime.
Therefore, one cannot be far from the truth in stating that Zambia’s democratic space and credentials have declined in the last six years of the Patriotic Front’s reign. The human rights and governance records are crumbling very fast on the watch of its citizens and the region at large. One wonders what has happened to a country that was a citadel of stability, unity and peace not too long ago and why it is now seemingly crumbling and its citizens living under forced peace and stability. There is no critical moment since the fall of the one party system in Zambian in 1991 than now that citizens have seen the scary emergence of a strong state that has put so much power in itself and coerced the opponents and critical voices, breaking their wills and compelling them into submission. The church, civil society, trade and students’ union movements have not been spared from the fear of the executive, if not divided on tribal and partisan lines. These movements, like majority citizens, have adopted the “watch and see” approach and the “wait for the 2021 elections” notion to sanction the political culprits. Perhaps, it is time that civil society in Zambia rediscover itself and stop leaving a “burning pot” unattended. Therefore, Zambian civil society and the citizens at large must not leave this battle to a few.
8. Any other additional analysis?
In Zambia currently, there is a growing imbalance between the citizen’s power to bind the government and the government’s power to bind the citizens. Theoretically, Zambian leaders still claim to be democratic, respecters of human rights and practitioners of good governance but in reality their practices speak to the contrary.
Public policy today in Zambia is a vast maze of payoffs and kickbacks, tangling everything that the state touches in political intrigue. For instance, elections have become a futile exercise to reveal comparative popular contempt for competing professional politicians.
Justice has become whatever serves the political needs of those in power. This is what has led to the emergence of the governance crisis in Zambia which has exhibited itself through declining or suppression of religious, civic, political and other liberties. It has also manifested itself in allegations of rampant corruption and abuse of public resources. The stronger the government grows, the more irrelevant the individual voter becomes to the leaders.
- Civic space in Zambia is rated as “Obstructed” by the CIVICUS Monitor
- Email McDonald Chipenzi on or see his Facebook page: https://web.facebook.com/chipenzi.mcdonald