By Andrew England in Lusaka
As traffic crawls along Cairo road in central Lusaka, a hawker wearing an African-print shirt emblazoned with the image of Michael Sata extols the virtues of his president. Another touts a stern-faced portrait of Zambia’s head of state to motorists caught up in the midday jam.
It is a scene that would no doubt bring some cheer to Mr Sata, a veteran politician whose combative style earned him the nickname King Cobra. The former colonial-era policeman was elected 18 months ago on a populist ticket vowing to distribute more equitably the mineral wealth of Africa’s largest copper producer and champion the poor.
The elections on September 2011 were hailed as an example of the small but growing number of democratic transitions on the continent as the septuagenarian and his Patriotic Front party peacefully ended the Movement for Multiparty Democracy’s 20-year grip on power. But 18 months on and the gleam of the victory is fast wearing off as Mr Sata faces mounting accusations from opposition politicians, church leaders and civil society groups that his autocratic tendencies threaten to roll back Zambia’s democratic gains.
“We are seeing a regression of democratic practices – there’s so much tolerance of undemocratic practices,” says Neo Simutanyi, at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Zambia has been one of Africa’s successes of recent years as it has enjoyed impressive economic growth and attracted increasing levels of foreign investment, while proving to be politically stable since the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1991. But it also highlights some of the continent’s challenges.
Despite the country’s mineral wealth and economic growth forecast at 7.8 per cent this year, nearly two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line with the absolute number of poor increasing since 1991.
Many Zambians welcomed Mr Sata’s election as a fresh opportunity to tackle gaping inequalities. His government has since significantly increased the minimum wage and public sector salaries and raised royalties in the mining sector but the complaints of autocratic behaviour have cast a cloud over his administration.
Opposition leaders have spent nights behind bars and opposition parties have been prevented from holding public rallies. “He wants to destroy the opposition,” says Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development. “There’s still an abrogation of human rights and civil liberties and we still have a situation where democracy is threatened.”
Mr Hichilema says he has been detained five times since Mr Sata took office and faces three charges that include defaming the president and inciting violence. Other opposition leaders have been arrested on similar charges.
Mr Sata’s critics warn the country may slide back to conditions akin to those under a period of oppressive one-party rule during the presidency of Kenneth Kaunda.
The opposition have taken their complaints to the Commonwealth, hoping it would take action, including the possible suspension of Zambia from the grouping. In response, the Commonwealth dispatched a team to Zambia in March and it envisages a follow-up visit “in the near future”, said Richard Uku, a spokesman for the organisation’s secretariat. “There are indeed some deep tensions in Zambia which we think can best be addressed by political dialogue between the government and main opposition parties,” Mr Uku said.
A key accusation is that the government abused a colonial-era law, the Public Order Act, to stymie opposition efforts to hold public meetings during recent by-elections. There are also allegations that the government is using a fight against corruption to punish opponents while protecting supporters.
“There is serious concern with the respect of the rule of law,” says James Banda, president of the Law Association of Zambia, which has launched legal proceedings to challenge the constitutionality of the Public Order Act.
The opposition [has] never been under so much pressure [since the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1991]
Mr Sata has rebutted criticisms, saying in December that his government was determined to build a “democratic and totally transformed country”.
Miles Sampa, deputy finance minister and senior PF official, says: “When these opposition have been taken to court or arrested, there’s been a reason; there’s been a law that has been cited that they have been broken.”
“We are not going backwards, we are going forwards.”
Vernon Mwaanga, who served every post-independence government as a diplomat and minister, until his retirement from politics in 2011, says he is unsure whether the crackdown is part of a planned agenda or merely a reflection of the president’s character. “In my view it’s probably the way he is,” he says. “He was a very hard man. He was respected by some, despised by others.”
“The opposition [has] never been under so much pressure [since the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1991],” he says. “There’s that element of fear creeping into society, something only attained during the one-party state.”
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