Can anyone stop Zambia’s slide into authoritarianism?

Lungu may be taking his country down a path from which it’ll be hard to return.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu is not a dictator, and nor does he want to be.

That’s his version, at least, and he’s sticking to it. ‘Zambia is the most accomplished democracy in this region or the whole of Africa. If this is dictatorship, there is no democracy in Africa,’ he told a press conference in Lusaka 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.’

Lungu’s actions, however, tell a different story. This year has seen him accrue more and more power at the expense of local media, civil society and opposition parties. Three incidents in particular stand out.

The first came on 11 April, when opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested at his home. Hichilema and his family took refuge inside a safe room while heavily armed police laid siege to the residence, using tear gas in an attempt to smoke him out. Hichilema alleges that members of his household staff were tortured.

Eventually Hichilema was persuaded to emerge. He was charged with treason for allegedly endangering the president’s life in a traffic incident at a cultural festival. The charge is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and seems clearly designed to sideline the popular opposition leader.

Lungu’s term runs until 2021 – and with special emergency powers, can his local critics stop him?

The second came in mid-June, when the speaker of the National Assembly unilaterally suspended 48 members of Parliament belonging to Hichilema’s party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), without pay or voting rights for a month. Their offence was to have boycotted the president’s state of the nation address; because, they said, they did not recognise the president’s legitimacy.

There is no room for this kind of dissent in Lungu’s Zambia, apparently; no space for the lively debate and disagreement that is the hallmark of successful democracies.

And finally, last week came the most ominous development of all. In response to a fire at a popular Lusaka market, Lungu declared the threat of a state of emergency. This gave him special powers to deal with it, including the ability to suspend Parliament entirely, restrict freedom of movement, arrest potential troublemakers and impose a curfew.

The declaration effectively allows Lungu to circumvent all remaining checks and balances envisaged by Zambia’s constitution.

As any student of history will know, declaring a state of emergency, or the threat of one, is a dictators favourite tool. This is especially true when the pretext for such a declaration is so flimsy: if Zambia is such an ‘accomplished democracy’, surely its police and judiciary should be capable of investigating the fire in Lusaka without the need for the president to resort to such measures?

Given these worrying signs of Lungu’s growing authoritarianism, attention turns to what can be done to prevent him from turning into a fully fledged dictator. And if that really is his end goal, who is going to stop him?

South Africa, which wields significant influence in Lusaka, has been deafeningly silent

Domestically, the president has successfully hobbled the official opposition by detaining Hichilema and suspending members of Parliament. He has also succeeded in weakening local media; most flagrantly, in June last year authorities shut down independent newspaper The Post – again on a flimsy pretext. Its editor and owner, Fred M’membe, remains in hiding.

There is still some fight left in civil society, however, with several prominent institutions – including the Civil Society Constitution Agenda and the Law Association of Zambia – criticising the declaration of the threat of a state of emergency. Some of the country’s highly influential church groups have also voiced their disapproval.

Clearly Lungu is not going to have it all his own way. However, given that his term in office runs until 2021, and given the special emergency powers he has arrogated to himself, it’s hard to see what his local critics can do to stop him.

More levers of power are available to the international community. Zambia’s economy is in a rut, and the country remains heavily reliant on international partners for investment, aid and other forms of financing. But of these powers, few are speaking out.

South Africa, which wields significant influence in Lusaka, has been deafeningly silent, seemingly preoccupied with its own leadership troubles. China, a major investor in Zambia’s natural resource sector, can hardly condemn the muzzling of political opponents given its record at home. And the United States has offered little more than platitudes.

Another potential pressure point comes in the form of the International Monetary Fund, which is in the process of negotiating a $1.3 billion credit facility with Zambia. It’s money the Zambian government desperately needs, but should it come with good governance strings attached?

Zambia desperately needs the IMF deal – should it come with good governance strings attached?

Lungu remains defiant. ‘If the IMF thinks we have gone beyond the norms of good governance and democracy, they are free to go. We cannot sacrifice the Zambian people at the altar of economic expediency,’ he told last week’s press briefing.

Nonetheless, the economy remains the most obvious way in which the international community can reverse Zambia’s backsliding. ‘This is a vulnerable government with an economy that is fast running out of money,’ says Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham.

The question, he says, is whether the will is there to do so. ‘Right now, it does not seem to be the case. However, the IMF deal is not yet done, and I would think that some pressure is being brought behind the scenes both within Zambia and without for a compromise to be found.’

What worries Cheeseman is that Lungu sees what Mugabe has been able to do in Zimbabwe – ‘take his country to the brink of ruin and hang on regardless’ – and that this has emboldened the president to go down a path from which it is hard to return.

Simon Allison, ISS Consultant

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