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Zambia went from a free and stable country to a dictatorship overnight. I covered it for the country’s only independent newspaper — until the government shut it down.
LUSAKA, Zambia — The slide toward dictatorship was abrupt. Two and a half years ago, Zambia was one of Africa’s most stable democracies, a place so functional that it rarely made international headlines. Now it is “all, except in designation, a dictatorship,” according to the country’s influential Conference of Catholic Bishops. And that was before a state of emergency was declared in July, granting President Edgar Lungu sweeping powers of arrest and detention as his government grapples with a string of alleged arson attacks it blames on the political opposition.
Lungu, who narrowly won reelection last year, has moved forcefully to sideline his opponents. In April, his government detained opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema on what many believe to be trumped-up treason charges. Two months later, 48 opposition parliamentarians were suspended after they refused to attend the president’s State of the Nation address. Last month, those same parliamentarians could do little more than abstain as the legislature rubber-stamped Lungu’s state of emergency declaration, which grants law enforcement “enhanced measures” to curb what the president has described as actions “ bordering on economic sabotage.” (To date, the government has produced no concrete evidence of sabotage, although it claims to have arrested 12 people in connection with the alleged arson attacks.)
The state of emergency measure, which passed with 85 votes from the president’s party, seems designed to justify additional acts of repression. As it was being debated, in fact, two government ministers reportedly called on police to shoot dead anyone found near power installations — thought to be potential targets for sabotage — during the state of emergency, instead of arresting and prosecuting them. Gary Nkombo, the opposition’s chief whip, described the comments by the two cabinet members as “an assault on our democratic credentials” and “disappointing to have come from people’s representatives.”
The first signs that trouble was brewing in Zambia came soon after Lungu ascended to the presidency in a January 2015 election that followed President Michael Sata’s death in office. In his inaugural speech, he came out strongly against his opponents, and vowed not to tolerate what he termed unnecessary criticism. Lungu, who served concurrently as minister of defense and minister of justice in Sata’s government, seemed paranoid from the start. He lashed out at enemies, real and perceived, and used the police and officials from his party to harass them. He also engineered the dismissal of the country’s respected public prosecutor, Mutembo Nchito, prompting critics to warn that he was eroding the separation of powers enshrined in Zambia’s constitution.
Things got markedly worse in the lead-up to the August 2016 general election, which pitted Lungu against Hichilema, an accomplished businessman and economist. Lungu’s supporters brutalized members of the opposition, religious groups, and civil society organizations. They attacked Hichilema’s political rallies in Lusaka and in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, areas with the most voters. At a campaign rally in Lusaka in June, Lungu warned Hichilema not to dispute the results of the election, threatening unspecified consequences if he did. “If [Hichilema] refuses to accept the results,” he said in the local Bemba dialect, “he will see what I will do to him.”
Later, in July, the police cancelled one of Hichilema’s rallies in Lusaka’s Chawama Township, claiming they lacked manpower to secure the event. His supporters were incensed and they started protesting in the central business district. In the process, police confronted them and shot dead one female supporter, Mapenzi Chibulo. Later, Hichilema’s campaign billboards were torn down and replaced by posters of Lungu.
As tensions mounted in the final months of the campaign, Lungu’s government shut down the country’s only independent newspaper, the Post, ostensibly over a delinquent tax bill. For 25 years, the Post had been one of Zambia’s most outspoken media organs, providing critical coverage of the government and the opposition alike. Its closure was “clearly designed to silence critical media voices,” the rights group Amnesty International said at the time.
On election day, the Post’s downtown headquarters remained shuttered, although the paper’s staff managed to publish an abbreviated edition from an undisclosed location (it continued to publish in secret for months, but has since stopped). Lungu prevailed by a razor-thin margin — 13,000 more votes for Hichilema and it would have gone to a run-off; the opposition rejected the result, claiming that the government had intimidated voters and rigged the ballot. Hichilema petitioned the Constitutional Court, but there was never a full hearing and the judges ruled in favor of Lungu — after his supporters camped out on the court premises and members of his party posted menacing messages on social media.
In office, Lungu has silenced anyone who questioned the legitimacy of his presidency. In September, for example, his government pressured the country’s regulatory body for electronic media, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, to shut down the biggest private television station, Muvi TV, and two community radio stations, claiming that they had operated unprofessionally during the campaign period. In fact, all they had done was air the opposition’s point of view throughout the crisis.
Then in March, Lungu’s supporters protested outside the offices of the Law Association of Zambia, the country’s main bar association. They denounced the association’s president, Linda Kasonde, calling for her resignation and for the dissolution of the body. Lungu’s supporters claimed that the organization, like Muvi TV and the two radio stations, had become unprofessional. What it had done was offer guidance as to the constitutionality of Hichilema’s petition — guidance that conflicted with Lungu’s and his party’s position. Later that month, a member of parliament from the president’s party tabled a private bill to abolish the law association. After a public outcry, the bill was not debated in the last sitting of parliament, but it is still pending.
In addition to attacking Zambia’s most trusted independent institutions, Lungu moved to neutralize the opposition. On the night of April 10, armed police raided Hichilema’s residence. They tear-gassed the premises and broke down doors and windows. They picked up Hichilema the same night, and the following day he was officially charged with treason for obstructing the president’s motorcade two days earlier in Mongu, a rural district in western Zambia. Both Hichilema and Lungu had been in the area to attend an annual traditional ceremony organized by the Lozi ethnic group. Hichilema spent two months in detention at Lusaka Central Prison before being moved to a maximum-security prison in Kabwe, north of Lusaka. His trial is due to start on Aug. 14.
The international response to Hichilema’s arrest — and to Zambia’s slide toward authoritarianism in general — has been remarkably muted. No current African head of state condemned Hichilema’s arrest, and Western powers were mostly circumspect. In an April 13 statement, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka said only that it remained “concerned over heightened political tension in Zambia, specifically noting the April 10 police raid of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema’s Lusaka residence and his subsequent arrest for treason.” It urged “all actors to exercise restraint in addressing differences, to respect the rule of law and electoral proceedings, and to follow the due process Zambians expect from a country with a reputation for political pluralism and peaceful conflict resolution.” China, one of Zambia’s most important donors, has unsurprisingly refrained from criticizing Lungu’s government throughout the crisis.
Lungu’s government is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a $1.3 billion aid package that could revitalize the country’s flagging economy. Asked by a journalist if the state of emergency would negatively affect these negotiations, Lungu challenged the IMF to pull out if they were not happy with his decision. “If the IMF feels we have gone beyond the norms of good governance, they are free to go. I am sure the IMF would like to come to a country which is stable. If they think I have gone astray, let them go,” he said.
With the opposition leader behind bars, and the press and civil society organizations muzzled, many fear that the state of emergency will sweep away the few democratic safeguards that remain. Lungu has defended the measure on the basis that it is necessary to preserve peace and stability. “This is not an easy decision to make,” Lungu said in a televised address to the nation on July 5, “but in order to preserve peace, tranquility, safety of our citizens and national security, we had no choice but to take this decision given the events that have occurred in the recent past.” Given that his government has produced no evidence of a conspiracy to sow chaos, save for the 12 people his government claims to have arrested since the state of emergency went into effect, few Zambians are convinced.