Zambian President Edgar Lungu  Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
not listening - Zambian President Edgar Lungu Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI

The arrest and incarceration of Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema in April on treason charges is an example of costly regional democratic drift. He remains in detention without trial as the government, knowing it has no evidence, fears losing face, or worse, by releasing him.

Now, President Edgar Lungu has taken a next step in increasing his powers. In a televised national address on 5 July, Lungu said that “I have issued a statutory instrument proclaiming that a situation exists in this country which if allowed to continue may lead to a state of public emergency.”

According to the president the state of emergency he has invoked is “only for seven days”, though he added that “Parliament will within the next seven days determine whether it will be there for one week, one month, three months or six months.” This should not be a problem given the parliamentary suspension of opposition lawmakers from the United Party for National Development (UPND).  

The immediate justification of this extreme presidential action was given as the occurrence of several fires, including one that burnt down Lusaka’s main market. Lungu described these as economic “sabotage” as part of a “deliberate strategy by opposition to drive us to the negotiating table”.

That explanation hints that these events, like HH’s arrest, have their roots elsewhere, notably in the election in August last year which, if not itself fraudulent, was reviewed in a manner akin less to a democracy than a dictatorship.

And this was a culmination of a longer process of democratic erosion in Zambia.

Fuelled by a controversial presidential by-election victory in January 2015 following the death in office of President Michael Sata, and in which Lungu beat HH by just 27,000 votes in 1.5 million, the August 2016 election was a tipping point for the complete breakdown in relations between Lungu’s Patriotic Front and HH’s UPND.

Hakainde Hichilema. Picture: REUTERS
jailed - Hakainde Hichilema. Picture: REUTERS

While international election observers worried about events on polling day, a stop-at-nothing government sought to skew the playing field well before. It closed the major opposition paper, The Post, shut down opposition rallies and constricted access to the state broadcaster amidst increasing violence. Most tellingly, in a gross miscarriage of justice, the opposition’s legal petition to the results was dismissed by the Constitutional Court on Monday 5 September 2016 on the grounds that the time for doing so had lapsed, despite the same Court extending the jurisdictional timeframe the previous working day.

If the government had nothing to hide why would the Court have done this? 

Even before Lungu’s latest move, Zambia was judged by its own Catholic Bishops’ Conference, as a virtual dictatorship following HH’s arrest. In response, the government has tried to deflect attention towards what it terms a “clever international media campaign” aimed to force HH’s release without any recourse to the law, invoking all manner of conspiracy theories, presumably in the belief that eventually some of it will stick.

These are not the crude caricatures of regimes à la North Korea or the old Soviet Union, the totalitarian misnamed ‘People’s Democracies’ or ‘Democratic Republics’, but a much more urbane variant, where democracy and its necessary institutions – including parliament, the press and NGOs – are permitted

Strong-arm actions are usually the resort of weak leaders lacking legitimacy.

In Zambia this stems both from the disputed election and because of the ruling PF’s role in presiding over the economic mess that Zambia finds itself in. Lusaka today is scratching, again, at the door of the IMF for relief, having borrowed over $10 billion in over the past decade, which is to mature within the next five to seven years. It is now officially the world’s most unequal society. 

However, Zambia’s democratic descent is part of a wider trend. Lusaka believes that it can get away with this type of errant behaviour because it has the sympathy of regional incumbents, reflecting flawed processed and contested outcomes immediately to its north and south in Congo and Zimbabwe, and given South Africa’s foreign policy of malign neglect.

The international community is complicit in this. The bar of acceptable elections is set so low, dependent on levels of violence rather than fairness, donors and diplomats prefer to turn a blind eye, holding thumbs that it will not all blow up on their watch. This is as short-sighted, however, as it is negligent.  

Africa’s authoritarians have also learnt from others. These are not the crude caricatures of regimes à la North Korea or the old Soviet Union, the totalitarian misnamed ‘People’s Democracies’ or ‘Democratic Republics’, but a much more urbane variant, where democracy and its necessary institutions – including parliament, the press and NGOs – are permitted, but only up to a point. Hence the existence of legislation in such states around foreign funding of NGOs (but never on state funding), for example, overstuffed presidencies, control of television especially, looking after ‘friends’, and regulatory interference in independent businesses or NGOs, all the time, as William Dobson notes in The Dictator’s Learning Curve “blending repression with regulation”.

These states are also those where government apparatus may be employed as a lever to crush the opposition, tamper or sometimes wholesale rig the election results, and where the law is employed to reinforce party interests. The late Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chávez, is said to have ruled along the lines of the mantra, ‘To my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law’.

Despite the use of authoritarianism as a justification to deal with poverty, there is a clear empirical correlation, especially in Africa, between economic performance and democratic governance

Zambians now know this only too well.

Democracy is not just about a freedom to vote. It is about the space to argue and make choices. And the methods of closing this down include the use of ‘conspiracy’, the tasking of intelligence serves against the presence of foreign ‘agents’, acting against the ‘unfairness’ of the media, and the prioritisation of national development and unity over competitive politics. Zambia is not alone in its region in seeing the outside world in this way.

While such arguments attempt to shift the blame for a lack of performance onto other, nefarious forces, there is a dramatic longer-term cost to the erosion of democracy and associated freedoms.

Despite the use of authoritarianism as a justification to deal with poverty, there is a clear empirical correlation, especially in Africa, between economic performance and democratic governance. The exceptional success of Rwanda and Ethiopia in delivering high rates of growth, do not prove the African rule on the relationship between political systems and economic performance.

Democracies develop faster because they allow greater scrutiny of government, better governance, and permit the competitive testing of ideas and choices by the electorate. As a result, they are considerably more stable.

Put differently, in Africa at least, benign dictators are an oxymoron. Rather than exhibit Singaporean levels of delivery, there are, as in Zambia, widening wealth divides, poor government delivery, and weak institutions. And if democracy fails, it also risks ingraining constituencies of losers, whether these be racial, tribal, sectarian, urban-rural, military-civilian, or between the public or private sector, threatening, as Kofi Annan has noted, “abuses of power by the winner” while encouraging “losers to reject democracy as a peaceful means for change.”

Now, under a state of emergency, police can prohibit public meetings, restrict movements and close roads, and impose curfews

Amnesty International says the arrest of Hichilema and his colleagues is “persecution through prosecution”, a “cynical ploy to silence all political opposition in Zambia”. Now, under a state of emergency, police can prohibit public meetings, restrict movements and close roads, and impose curfews. Its duration will explain whether it is designed to secure the country or weaken the opposition to the point that the PF can have things completely their own way.

In defending his actions, President Lungu says that the IMF “can go” with its billion dollar aid package if they think he has gone astray by invoking the powers that allow him to curtail freedoms to “restore order”. While claiming an international conspiracy against him and that “Zambia is one of the best democracies in Africa”, he has also stressed that he does not care if Hichilema is convicted for treason.

These developments spotlight the key question to be asked of Zambia’s leadership: Where are you taking your country Mr Lungu?

Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation, and is the co-author of ‘Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success’, the French edition of which is being launched this month.

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