Bend the rule, or else
Is Zambia headed for a constitutional crisis?
Based on President Edgar Lungu’s threats, Zambia could be headed for a constitutional crisis if the courts stick to the letter of the law on what constitutes a third presidential term
Amid an ongoing case in Zambia’s constitutional court to determine his eligibility to run for a third term in the 2021 general elections, President Edgar Lungu has warned the judges not to emulate Kenya’s supreme court judges by disqualifying him as that would plunge the country into chaos.
In Kenya, supreme court judges declared the August presidential election null and void after a petition filed by main opposition leader Raila Odinga cited irregularities in the poll. This forced an election re-run, which was boycotted by Odinga, to the dismay of some of his supporters.
Lungu warned Zambia’s top judges that disqualifying him would not be in the interests of the people. He believes the only barrier he faces is whether his party, the Patriotic Front (PF), adopts him as its candidate, rather than what the constitution says or how the court will interpret it.
"The most important thing I can say right now is that in 2021 I am available to stand if my party decides that I [should]. But to our friends in the court system, I am saying, do not plunge us into chaos by imitating Kenya or any other court system ... which does not care about the interests of the people. I have heard some judges say: ‘Why don’t we emulate the Kenyan courts, they are very brave with what they have done?’"
Lungu’s warning has been widely condemned as intimidation of the judiciary and interference with its independence. An alarmed Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) said Lungu’s statement appeared to be a warning to the judiciary not to rule against him. LAZ president Linda Kasonde said Lungu’s statement justified suspicion that the executive tries to interfere with the work of the judiciary and undermines its authority, which in turn erodes public confidence in it.
"As such, LAZ condemns these statements unreservedly. The judiciary should be able to perform their duties without intimidation or threat of harm, especially from the head of state, who should be the first to defend the judiciary from attack," Kasonde said.
LAZ has called on Lungu to retract his statement and to "assure the judiciary and the public that justice will be allowed to prevail no matter the outcome of the judgment or decision of the constitutional court in the case that will determine his eligibility."
Lungu has described his critics as "people who don’t love peace and freedom, (who) will say president Lungu is intimidating the courts of law. I am just warning you that I have information that some of you want to be adventurous. Your adventure should not plunge us into chaos. Don’t try to become a copycat and think that you will be a hero ..."
Lungu was first sworn into office in January 2015 after winning a presidential by-election to replace Michael Sata who died in office. He was re-elected in August 2016.
However, earlier, in January 2016, Zambia adopted an amended constitution which says a person who has twice held office as president is not eligible for re-election as president, and that a vice-president or another person who assumes the presidency due to a by-election, will not be deemed to have held office if they have served as president for less than three years before the date of the next general election.
Lungu, who became president under an old constitution is hoping the court will declare him eligible based on the fact that he only served for 18 months before the 2016 elections, which he also won.
"We submit that president Lungu has ‘twice held office’," says Elias Munshya, a lawyer. Lungu’s first stint was from January 2015 (for 18 months), and the second was after the August 2016 elections, which he also won. Munshya says the three-year rule does not apply in Lungu’s case as he was not a vice-president who was elected as a running mate who took over after the incumbent president had died.
According to Lungu there are people within and outside Africa who want to sow confusion on the continent by forcing regime changes. "They have picked on SA, Zambia and Kenya for regime change. So to my colleagues in the judiciary, my message is do your work, interpret the law without fear or favour, look at the interests of this country, Zambia."
Pamela Chisanga, country director of WaterAid, an international charity, says: "The PF has for some time now been talking about this imperialist takeover. I think it has a responsibility to explain clearly to the Zambian people who these imperialists are and what they want from Zambia. I fear that a lot of things will be done and said in the name of these unknown imperialists who may just be a figment of someone’s overactive imagination."