A close political race gets angrier
8TH JULY 2016
The government has closed the leading independent newspaper which uncovered plans to rig next month’s election
Credible claims of bias at the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and the suspicious inflation of the number of registered voters are heating up the campaign ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on 11 August.
The contest between incumbent President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front and his opponent Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) was always going to be close. Now it is getting bad-tempered, with claims of thuggery on all sides. Opposition activists say the government’s forcible closure two weeks ago of The Post, the best-selling independent daily, is a sign of desperation in the Lungu camp (AC Vol 57 No 13, Not the last Post).
At the last election in January 2015, Lungu beat Hichelema by just under 30,000 votes. Since then the economy has nose-dived due to the crash in the price of the country’s copper exports and the sharp weakening of the kwacha against the US dollar.
The signs are that Hichilema, a rather stolid businessman, has been gaining on Lungu, whose populism and lack of focus is beginning to pall on hard-pressed Zambians. Several important figures in the Patriotic Front have defected to the opposition UPND, among them Guy Scott, the former Vice President who took over the top job briefly after the death of his friend and ally, President Michael Sata. Sata’s impressive wife, Christine Kaseba Sata, a medical doctor who has done much to improve the health service, and her stepson Mulenga Sata have also crossed over to the UPND.
After Sata’s death in November 2014, Lungu’s team went to extraordinary lengths to secure the Patriotic Front’s presidential nomination for their man (AC Vol 55 No 22, Fights before the funeral).
Adding to the febrile climate is the circulation of a document purporting be the Patriotic Front’s election strategy: it includes plans to shut down The Post; to print extra ballot papers in Dubai; to put foreigners on the voters’ register; to buy votes with state patronage; and to restrict flights by the opposition’s campaign team.
The government and others say the document, which has been posted on the Zambia Watchdog website is a forgery. It is supposed to have been written by a political scientist from Kenya who advised the victorious Jubilee Alliance in that country’s disputed elections in 2013.
However, the document is getting a lot of coverage mainly because many of its proposals appear to be in the process of implementation. The ballot papers are being printed at Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing Dubai at twice the price offered by Ren-Form CC, the South African company which had printed the ballot papers in previous elections. Ren-Form appealed the award but the ECZ confirmed its choice. Oppositionists claim there is a plan to print extra ballot papers which will be marked in favour of Lungu should he look like losing the vote.
ECZ Director of Elections Priscilla Isaac insists her officials will be monitoring the printing in Dubai to ensure there is no foul play. Opposition supporters increasingly doubt the independence of the Commission as it comes under growing pressure from the presidency. Although the law stipulates that state-owned radio and television must ensure equal and balanced coverage between the parties, the ECZ is yet to set up a group to monitor media fairness with only a month to go to the elections. Last week, the authorities grounded the UPND’s campaign aircraft which had filed flight plans to Luapula province. This followed a sudden decision by Lungu to visit the province in the presidential jet.
Zambia has long suffered from political violence by young men paid to bring out the vote and physically resist campaigning by rival parties. The PF has taken the lead in such activity, reports say, but the UPND has formed a youth militia of its own, thus increasing the risk of violence. UPND says it is only motivated by self-protection.
President Lungu has warned the Zambia Police that he will ask them ‘to step aside’ and ask the PF youths to take charge of security if the UPND militia is not disarmed. He has never openly spoken about the existence of the PF militia but PF youths in paramilitary costume are a common feature at Lungu’s political meetings. He also threatened Hichilema personally, saying at one rally, ‘If HH refuses to accept the [election] results, he will see what I will do to him’.
Lungu is believed to be a great admirer of President Yoweri Museveni, who employed a battery of barely legal measures and de facto intimidation to secure his victory in the general elections in February (AC Vol 57 No 5, Lungu schemes to survive). Lungu attended his counterpart’s inauguration and flew to Kampala again on 4 July to attend the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Israeli military’s rescue of hostages taken by Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe airport in 1976, returning to Lusaka in the evening.
The row over the closure of The Post is the strongest evidence of the abuse of state powers. The Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) claims The Post owes 68 million kwacha (US$7 mn.) in back taxes, a figure vigorously disputed by the publishers. Although the ZRA has been trying to boost state coffers by chasing after back taxes from sundry companies, the timing of its pursuit of The Post is curious to say the least. Last month, The Post published several investigative stories claiming that thousands of Malawians were being put on the Zambian electoral register so they could vote for Lungu and the Patriotic Front. It carried interviews with several Malawians and Zambians involved in the racket.
Editor-in-chief and publisher of The Post, Fred M’Membe, has a penchant for Mao Zedong-style shirts and his colleagues call him Comrade Fred. He has made no secret of his strong support for Sata and distaste for Lungu. But his editorial team is highly professional and independent-minded and is broadly sceptical about all the parties in contention.
After The Post’s presses stopped, M’membe went to court. The newspaper’s lawyer, Nchima Nchito, obtained a stay against the demand notice from the Lusaka High Court on grounds that the reconciliation process with the ZRA had not been completed. But armed officers from ZRA and Zambia Police ignored the stay on the ground they had ‘instructions from above’ that the closure of the newspaper needed to be executed without fail.
M’membe had organised a survival plan, however. Last month he explained to Africa Confidential that the government can confiscate machinery and equipment from newspapers and radio stations and then damage it. That means no more printing or broadcasting even if the courts eventually demand that the equipment should be returned to the rightful owners.
This time, The Post is continuing to print from a secret location. On 27 June, the Tax Appeals Tribunal Registrar Chola Shapi Mutambo ordered the ZRA and the police to vacate The Post’s premises and allow the newspaper to continue conducting business pending resolution of the tax matters.
When M’membe, news editor Joseph Mwenda, accompanied by their lawyers Nchito and Chisuwo Hamwela, went to enforce the ex-parte order, security officials refused to let them in. The Post security team managed to open the premises and M’membe went in. He and Nchima later left, leaving Mwenda behind in the company of guards.
Around 11 p.m., a State House security detail in the company of the Zambia Police paramilitary unit arrived at the newspaper premises and demanded the paper be closed.
Nchito and M’membe then arrived with his wife Mutinta Mazoka (daughter of late UPND founding president Anderson Kambela Mazoka). The security officers then beat up M’membe, Mutinta, Mwenda, and Nchito and some of the newspaper staff that had had come to the offices. M’membe, Mwenda and Mutinta were later bundled into a police van to be detained at Lusaka Central Police station.
They were charged in the early hours of 28 June with criminal trespass and possessing false documents. They were later each released on a K10,000 bond and are scheduled to appear in court on 7 July. The police claimed that the court order ordering ZRA to hand over the premises was fake, and that M’membe had forged Mutambo’s signature.
Lungu’s pressure on independent officers of the state has been persistent. Respected corruption fighter Rosewin Wandi was last March forced to step down as director general of the Anti-Corruption Commission after initiating an investigation of people close to Lungu for graft. Wandi first felt the pressure after the ACC arrested Lungu’s senior private secretary Florence Chawelwa in connection with a construction tender awarded during ex-President Rupiah Banda’s administration. An investigation into Lungu’s aide and public relations supremo Kaiser Zulu was also halted, we hear. ACC was investigating the special assistant for press and public relations Amos Chanda but it backed off after Chanda accused it of ‘trying to play politics’.
Although it had ignored the Tax Appeals Tribunal ruling, ZRA has appealed Registrar Mutambo’s judgement and asked her to set it aside. While The Post’s lawyers and ZRA legal team waited for an inter parte hearing on 30 June, two plainclothes police officers interrogated Mutambo for over 45 minutes at her office. The state claims that the interrogation was part of the investigation into whether M’membe had forged her signature, but a judicial source said it was attempted intimidation. Mutambo has confirmed she made the ruling.
Before M’membe’s arrest, police officers tear-gassed those employees at The Post who had continued to work outside the company’s premises. The Law Association of Zambia has expressed concern about state agencies ignoring judgements and court orders.