The Zambian parliament’s decision last week to approve a 90-day state of emergency sought by the country’s president, Edgar Lungu, has reinforced fears among his critics that he is trying to establish an authoritarian regime.
On July 11th, 85 lawmakers from Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party gave the police increased arrest and detention powers, after the president alleged that supporters of the main opposition, the United Party for National Development (UPND), were behind a string of recent arson attacks.
The UPND’s 48 parliamentary MPs had boycotted the vote in protest over the extent of the powers that would be given to the government, which the opposition party believes illegitimately came to power last August following disputed general elections.
The emergency decree “constitutes abuse of power designed to silence his critics and kill democracy,” UPND vice president Geoffrey Mwamba said in a statement. “It is clear that [Lungu’s] actions are premeditated and designed to strengthen the hand of dictatorship.”
The move to secure a state of emergency that gives government sweeping powers to suspend civil rights has also been highly criticised locally and internationally.
And many observers say it is just the latest sign that Lungu is trying to establish a dictatorship to quell growing dissent to his rule among Zambians still suffering from the negative effects of an economic downturn that began in 2015.
According to the World Bank, Zambia’s gross domestic product only grew by 2.8 per cent in 2015 and 3.3 per cent in 2016, which is much slower than the 7.4 per cent average recorded in the 10 years up to 2014.
Lungu’s government first set alarm bells ringing among rights groups in 2016 ahead of the August general election, in which the PF leader was seeking re-election as the southern African country’s president.
During that period Lungu’s state security agencies were involved in an attack on a national newspaper, The Post, which was viewed as largely critical of the establishment.
It was reported locally that the publication was stormed by police over accusations it was evading taxes. The Post’s journalists were teargassed and physically attacked before the newspaper was shut down.
More recently, on April 11th UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested at his home and later charged with treason for allegedly attempting to block a motorcade in which Lungu was travelling, an act which was said to have endangered the president’s life.
Hichilema remains incarcerated in a maximum security prison in the capital Lusaka, and there is no indication yet as to when he might next appear in court.
Next, the UPND’s 48 MPs were suspended from parliament in June for two weeks for boycotting a speech delivered by Lungu to the lower house.
Following the introduction of the state of emergency South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), accused the Lungu administration of trying to “cement a dictatorship” in Zambia.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane was also refused entry into Zambia earlier this year when he tried to attend a court hearing for Hichilema.
In response to the allegations that he is becoming increasingly dictatorial, Lungu insisted Zambia was Africa’s most accomplished democracy, and that he was only trying to bring “sanity” to the country.
“If this is dictatorship, there is no democracy in Africa, ” he told a press conference last week. “I know that people think I am targeting political players. I am not targeting any political player. I am only trying to bring sanity.”
Zambia’s democracy has been one of the most resilient in the region, having undergone two peaceful transfers of power since the country’s first multi-party elections in 1991.
Professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham, Nicolas Cheeseman, said this form of governance was only successfully secured because of the active involvement of civil society and the international community in local politics.
“Zambians have always wanted democracy and they have been supported in the past to achieve it by strong unions, church movements and the international community,” Cheeseman told The Irish Times.
“But in recent years the unions have weakened, church organisations are no longer as united as they once were, and the international community appears to be focused elsewhere,” he concluded.