Zambia is approaching a dangerous state of lawlessness following recent actions by the Patriotic Front-led government to defy court orders and organize violent militias to attack civil society, says international lawyer Robert Amsterdam.
“When a government brazenly ignores its courts and uses violence against its own citizens, society is exposed to the worst kinds of abuses of power that can lead to atrocities,” said Amsterdam, who serves as international lawyer to former President Rupiah Banda. “It’s time for the international community to wake up and take stock of the damage being done to Zambia’s democratic institutions before it’s too late.”
On May 31, 2013, a violent militia of cadres belonging to the ruling party attacked a group of civil society activists who were debating the recent removal of fuel and maize subsidies inside a church in the Matero area of Lusaka. On June 7, immigration authorities refused to recognize an order from the Lusaka High Court granting former President Banda permission to travel to South Africa to participate in the African Presidential Roundtable organized by Boston University. This was the second time that the Zambian government has violated the law by blocking the former president’s travel.
According to Mr. Amsterdam, the arbitrary and undignified treatment toward former President Banda by the PF underscores the fundamental political motivations driving the cases against him.
“If the PF were actually serious about pursuing justice, then why would they constantly have to break the law and behave like criminals with their treatment toward former President Banda?” Amsterdam said. “The international community has a responsibility to speak up when a government tries to make its citizens prisoners without convictions, when it sends organized violent mobs to attack peaceful assemblies, and when the constitutional separation of powers is breaking down before our very eyes.”
A number of independent organisations have raised urgent alarm over these developments.
According to the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ), “the steps taken by the Immigration Officers to block Mr Banda from traveling abroad are not only illegal but they directly border on contempt of Court. (…) The disobedience of Court Orders, especially by the Executive Wing of Government, as exhibited today will seek only to greatly undermine the justice system and the rule of law that that Courts were created to protect and foster. Such a state of affairs if not stemmed can lead to complete lawlessness and break down of Society.”
Similarly, the influential non-governmental organization Oasis Forum issued a statement denouncing the state-sponsored political violence of the ruling party: “we are left without any doubt that blame is to be laid squarely on the shoulders of leaders of the Patriotic Front Government and the kind of intolerance that they are introducing into our politics. The manner of the violence suggests pre-meditated and planned behaviour. We have said it before: This is evil and wrong. The Oasis Forum condemns the perpetrators of this violence and calls upon them to embrace civil ways of co-existence.”
Amsterdam says that the appearance of violent militias and the politically motivated persecution of opponents such as former President Banda represent a destructive campaign by the PF government of President Michael Sata to destroy the independence of the judiciary and return Zambia to a one-party state.
“President Sata and the PF have succeeded in embarrassing and isolating Zambia, leaving them relying on allies like Cuba and Sudan,” said Amsterdam. “If these trends are not recognized and acted upon by the international community, the situation is guaranteed to deteriorate rapidly.”