Zambia’s Continued Slide to Authoritarianism under the Edgar Lungu Regime

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With 14 months to go before the 2021 general elections, Zambia’s calamitous decline of democracy continues. Calculations by The Economist’s Democracy Index show that since Edgar Lungu became president of Zambia in 2015, the country has slipped in democratic indices from being a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime with an average grading of 5.73 out of a total of 10 marks for full democracies. What is even more troubling is that the situation is getting worse. The marginal victories that brought Lungu to power have undoubtedly played a central role in making Lungu and his cohorts an increasingly paranoid clique of dictators. The government has outdone itself in political clumsiness and the low levels to which it has stooped to suppress dissent manifest the behaviour of a charlatan who has realised has nothing to lose and does not care about presenting a façade, however illusory, of reasonableness and competence. The closure of Prime TV, a private television channel, is the latest high profile move to muzzle to media. The Post newspaper was also forced to close ostensibly because of tax evasion. These were media houses whose independent and feisty reportage makes them pesky annoyances for petulant dictatorships such as Zambia’s current one. 

Amnesty International, the Oasis Forum and the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops have all bemoaned Zambia’s tilt to authoritarianism. In fact, religious leaders were among the first actors to brand the current Zambian government as a dictatorship. By far the most important actors in shining the spotlight on Zambia have been Zambian citizens. Through social media and general vigilance, citizens seem to be more politically aware of the malaise currently gnawing at the country’s once admirable democratic credentials. Most recently, the police arrested well-known photographer Chella Tukuta. Initial reports from the police only went as far as confirming the arrest, but the charges for the move remained a mystery. Tukuta has been very vocal in criticising what he terms the government’s attempts to silence dissent. Sadly, it was expected that Tukuta would be harassed either with imprisonment or familiar means such as allegations of libel or defamation against government officials. Unfortunately for the government, arresting young people like Tukuta will only add credence to the narrative that Zambia’s democracy and youth are in danger at the hands of the Lungu administration. The government is also unwittingly creating martyrs out of people that would ordinarily be political lightweights. This is likely to embolden what is called the “youth revolution” for the defence of democracy. The seeming popularity of this “revolution” has unleashed the worst demons in the Patriotic Front’s government. 

Bowman Lusambo, who is the minister of the country’s capital, Lusaka, has been Lungu’s most visible enforcer. His thuggish tactics and general lack of political finesse have been on full display when he moves to intimidate mostly young people who are increasingly restive of what he represents. Recent events of Zambia’s supine stance towards foreign nationals at the expense of their Zambian employees have galvanised Zambian youths even further. Outrage on social media and planned street protests have elicited barefaced threats from the government. Lungu’s unwillingness to rein in Lusambo means that the president approves of Minister of Lusaka’s distasteful tactics. 

It is important that those who cherish democracy put pressure on the Zambian government to arrest the current decline of democracy. Lungu is not the sole initiator of the current travails. Democracy in Zambia has always been endangered because the political discourse has historically been dominated by what the late Patrick Chabal described as Africa’s “Big Men”, the seemingly omnipotent and invincible individuals who rule their parties as personal fiefdoms and lord it over their followers because they are secure in the fact that they have eliminated all possible threats to their hold on power. The Patriotic Front (PF), the party that currently rules Zambia, was established by Michael Sata as a personal vehicle for his private ambitions for the presidency. As a breakaway party from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the PF did not offer any fresh ideology and substantial difference from the MMD. Indeed, Sata left the MMD only after Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s president from 1991 to 2001, picked Levy Mwanawasa as his successor in lieu of the more active Sata at the time. It was clear after Sata’s death in 2014 that members of the PF were in there party on Sata’s sufferance and because of their personal allegiance to him. He was the quintessential Big Man that Chabal talks about. 

Lungu is thus keenly aware that in order to maintain power he must use highhanded means because a lot of people, within and outside his party, rightly begrudge him his current position. the lesson for the people of Zambia is that support for political movements has to go beyond the allure of personalities; a party that aspires to run the country should show signs of authentic programmatic pursuits rather than the private ambitions of those who are perched atop such parties. This should serve as a warning shot about opposition parties that are also arranged around individual leaders for whom it is difficult to make a case for their interest for the country save for their individual pursuits of power. For as long as opposition towards Lungu continues to grow, and people appraise his appeal and qualities in comparison to more forceful personalities of his predecessors, there will be no respite on the current government’s assault on democracy. Apart from being particularly cruel to consequential opposition parties, the government will likely be more vicious towards individuals that left the PF and swelled the ranks of criticism against the government following Sata’s death. This is the difficult future for which Zambians should brace themselves. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies. 

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