Zambian president Edgar Lungu finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place in both economic and political terms. As a result, he has begun to lash out, manipulating the law to intimidate the opposition, and in the process sacrificing what credibility he had left after deeply problematic general elections in 2016.
Let us start with the economy, where the president is stuck in something of a lose-lose position. On the one hand, his populace is growing increasingly frustrated at the absence of economic job and opportunities, while a number of experts have pointed out that the country is on the verge of a fresh debt crisis. Economic growth was just 2.9% in 2016, while the public debt is expected to hit 54% of GDP this year, and the government cannot afford to pay many of its domestic suppliers.
On the other, a proposed $1.2 billion rescue deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has the potential to increase opposition to the government for two reasons. First, it would mean significantly reducing government spending, including on some of Lungu’s more popular policies. Second, many Zambians are understandably suspicious of IMF and the World Bank, having suffered under previous adjustment programmes that delivered neither jobs nor sustainable growth.
The president faces similar challenges on the political front. Having won a presidential election in 2016 that the opposition believes was rigged, and which involved a number of major procedural flaws, Lungu desperately needs to relegitimate himself. However, this need clashes with another, more important, imperative – namely, the president’s desire to secure a third term in office when his current tenure ends in 2020.
The problem for Lungu is that while it looks like he will be able to use his influence over the Constitutional Court to ensure that it interprets the country’s new constitutional arrangements to imply that he should be allowed to stand for a third term – on the basis that his first period in office was filling in for the late Michael Sata after his untimely death in office, and so should not count – such a strategy is likely to generate considerable criticism from the opposition, civil society and international community.
Lacking viable opportunities to boost his support base and relegitimate his government, President Lungu has responded by pursuing another strategy altogether: the intimidation of the opposition and the repression of dissent. While in some ways represents a continuation of some of the tactics used ahead of the 2016 election, when the supporters and leaders of rival parties were harassed and in some cases detained, the recent actions of the Patriotic Front (PF) government represent a worrying gear-shift.
Most obviously, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who came so close to leading his United Party of National Development (UPND) to victory in the latest polls, has been arrested and his home raided. His crimes? There appear to be two sets of charges. One set is relatively mundane, and relates to an incident in which Hichilema is accused of refusing to give way to the president’s convoy. For this, the opposition leader has been charged with breaking the highway code and using insulting language.
The second charge – that of treason – is much more serious, but also much less clear. Court documents state that Hichilema “on unknown dates but between 10 October 2016 and 8 April 2017 and whilst acting together with other persons unknown did endeavour to overthrow by unlawful means the government of Edgar Lungu.” Although this charge has also been linked to the recent traffic incident, it seems more likely to be motivated by the president’s ongoing frustration that the UPND continues to contest his election and refuses to recognise him as a legitimately elected leader.
If this is the true motivation for the charges, it will only be the latest of a number of moves to cow the opposition. For example, in response to the refusal of UNPD legislators to listen to Lungu’s address to the National Assembly, Richard Mumba – a PF proxy close to State House – petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare vacant the seats of all MPs who were absent.
The opposition are not alone. Key elements of civil society have also come under fire. As a result of the waning influence of trade unions, professional associations now find themselves as one of the last lines of defence for the country’s fragile democracy, most notably the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ). It should therefore come as no surprise that a government MP, Kelvin Sampa, recent introduced legislation into the National Assembly that would effectively dissolve the LAZ and replace it with a number of smaller bodies, each of which would be far less influential.
The bills introduced by Mumba and Sampa may not succeed, but in some ways they don’t need to. Their cumulative effect has been to signal that those who seek to resist the governments are likely to find themselves the subject of the sharp end of the security forces and the PF’s manipulation of the rule of law. The nature of Hichilema’s arrest is a case in point. Despite numerous opportunities to detain him in broad daylight, armed police and paramilitaries planned a night attack in which they switched off the power to the house, blocked access to the main roads, and broke down the entrance gate. Inside the property, the security forces are accused of firing tear gas, torture, urinating on the opposition leader’s bed and looting the property.
It is therefore clear that the main aim of the operation was not an efficient and speedy arrest, but rather the humiliation and intimidation of an opponent.
Such abuses may help Lungu to secure the short-term goal of prolonging his stay in power, but they will threaten to undermine Zambia’s future. It will – or at least it should – be politically embarrassing for the IMF to conclude a deal with Zambia while the opposition leader is on trial on jumped up charges and civil society is decrying the slide towards authoritarian rule. Rumours now circulating in Lusaka suggest that President Lungu may be preparing to enhance his authority by declaring a State of Emergency in the near future, which would further complicate the country’s international standing.
Lungu’s blatant disregard for the rules of the democratic game also has important implications for the county’s political future. Many Zambian commentators reported that the 2016 election was the most violent in the country’s history, and forecast rising political instability if this trend was not reserved. Rather than heed this warning, President Lungu appears determined to put this prophecy to the test.
By Nic Cheeseman
The author is a Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham