THREATS AND MOTIVES
How Zambia's Edgar Lungu justifies increasingly authoritarian moves
If the Zambian president’s expressed intention to declare a state of emergency is carried out, it will consolidate his power, critics warn, as fears mount that he will target members of the opposition
A day after Zambia’s biggest market, Lusaka City, was destroyed by fire, President Edgar Lungu signalled his intention to declare a state of emergency in the landlocked country.
"I didn’t say the country is no longer safe. I said it is sliding into a worrisome state that might lead me to declare a state of emergency," Lungu said at a State House press conference last week.
The latest move comes after Lungu’s government suspended 48 opposition party members from parliament in June, and as opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema faces treason charges. It raises fears inside and outside the country about the erosion of its democracy.
Lungu has justified his statement by saying it was a response to the fires — suspected arson — as well as sabotage of economic infrastructure, which he says is a "deliberate strategy by the opposition to drive us to the negotiating table".
Four markets have been gutted, leading to the loss of goods worth millions of kwacha. One local court, as well as district education board offices, have also been burnt down. Power installations have not been spared — pylons have been destroyed in Kafue and Ndola, leaving thousands without electricity.
Civil society organisations, particularly church groups, have been scathing in their criticism of Lungu’s actions even before he proposed a state of emergency (see Financial Mail June 22-28).
More recently, Alliance for Community Action executive director Laura Miti has described the president’s declaration as an abuse of power. She says no evidence has been provided to link the vandalism to members of the opposition, and there is nothing to suggest that its intention is economic sabotage.
"The president critically failed to explain to the nation what findings led him to the conclusion that the fires are cases of sabotage. With the conditions for [the state of emergency] not fully explained, it is an abuse of power by the president that will lead to higher levels of tension in the country," she says.
With Hichilema in jail and the MPs suspended from parliament, Chilufya Tayali, executive director of civil society organisation Zambian Voice, has accused Lungu of a power grab.
"Much as I appreciate that the spate of fires is of great concern, I don’t think Lungu declared the threatened state of emergency in the interest of the nation. He took advantage of the situation for political expediency, targeting his political opponents," Tayali says.
The convenient absence of the 48 United Party for National Development MPs from parliament also means Lungu’s intended decree would be almost guaranteed to gain parliamentary approval. His Patriotic Front MPs are expected to pass the state of emergency motion for up to three months.
This would suspend or curtail the rights of citizens and limit activities to those government says do not pose a threat to peace and security.
Lungu seems to have been inspired partly by the ongoing state of emergency in Ethiopia.
"I was in Addis Ababa a few days ago. There is a state of emergency there. It was put in place about six months ago and it was renewed during our visit there. But people are going about their business as usual.
"Please don’t panic. Don’t live under fear; just do what you normally do within the law," he said recently.
He has warned that citizens who face arrest were unlikely to enjoy the right to appear in a court within 48 hours. Curfews may be declared in some areas, and the police would be given the power to stop, search and detain anyone at any time.
Hichilema’s party, which has denied any involvement in the fires, says emergency powers are unnecessary and are a ploy to make it easier for police to arrest its supporters.