Is politics a dirty game in Zambia?

Filed under: Politics,Special Comments |

By Professor Geoffrey Lungwangwa, MP

The term politics conveys different meanings to different people. To some, politics is public service in the national interest. In this view, political leaders are the voices of the voiceless grassroots people.
The aspirations, hopes and dreams of the people for a better life are conveyed by the political leaders. Others view politics as a contest for power and power is about who gets what resources, when, and how. Politics as a struggle for power perspective views politics as a vicious contest among competing political elites for access to public resources for individual gain or for buying more political support to stay in power. The term corruption among political leaders arises from this of politics, namely, it is the abuse of power for personal gain.

Aristotle a Greek Philosopher defined politics as a “noble activity in which men decide the rules they will live by and the goals they will collectively pursue.” In Aristotle’s view, politics is a practical science which deals with making citizens happy. The term noble is key. An activity which is noble can be given various definitions such as: honourable, upright, righteous, moral, ethical, virtuous, decent, good, uncorrupted, self-sacrificing etc. For Aristotle, therefore, those who take up the practical science of making citizens happy must be individuals with demonstrated noble character. Aristotle’s thinking on politics and leadership of the state was influenced by his teacher Plato. In his book, The Republic, Plato viewed leadership as an exercise in guardianship of the state. Leaders were, in his view, Guardians of the state. Rising to the level of being the guardian of the state required having climbed the ladder of merit to its highest level namely the achievement of higher education. According to Plato, the status of Guardianship of the state dictated that individuals who attain it must have honestly and successfully climbed the ladder of the brightest and the best namely education. Such individuals must be of high virtue, impeccable character and unquestionable knowledge and skills in guiding the state for the wellbeing of all.

From the idealistic thinking of Aristotle and Plato, politics and leadership of the state are ideally expected to be exercised by individuals of good standing in society. In this vein, politics is expected to be a good undertaking because it is exercised by individuals of good standing in society. This article is an effort to raise a debate among its readers whether from our experience thus far in Zambia politics is truly a dirty game or it is a good activity in the way Aristotle and Plato viewed it.

Students of political history know that experience across several societies with leadership and politics in general is not in line with the ideals depicted by the Greek philosophers. The political environment in different parts of the world and at various times in history has seen different types of leaders and political systems. Some leaders have exerted the highest levels of dictatorship thereby causing unbearable misery among their people. Millions of people have lost their lives as a result of such tyrannical leadership. The world has experienced and is still experiencing conflicts and wars in various parts and human life has been and is still being lost. Politics is at the centre of these conflicts. Africa’s colonial past and the cruel and brutal apartheid system experienced in South Africa where the human rights and freedom of the Africans were never respected are still fresh in our minds. The military coups and counter coups of post-independence Africa and the human suffering and loss of life that ensured are still vivid in the minds of many. Many African youth are today trekking long distances in to unknown lands running away from their motherlands because of tribal wars in their countries largely stemming from the struggle for political power among the competing political leaders. Such experiences are what have qualified Politics to be termed a dirty game.

To guard themselves against the vagaries that arise from politics societies try to put in place measures that restrain or control political leaders. Some of these measures include:

1. Making institutions of governance strong and independent. These institutions include the legislature, judiciary, the law enforcement agencies, electoral commissions among others.
2. Adherence to the dictate of the Rule of Law. That is no one is above the law. The laws of the land should and shall apply to all individuals equally regardless of one’s status.
3. Development of a critically informed citizenry through quality education that is universally accessible. Individual citizens are the best custodians of their rights, liberties and freedoms. This is best achieved when citizens develop into a critical mass of informed citizens who can hold leaders accountable.
4. Establishment of an independent free press which will enable citizens access information. Many nascent democracies, Zambia included are at different in their efforts of establishing such measures.

In an effort to try and create a more decent political environment, Zambia has enshrined in its 2016 amended constitution what are termed national values and principles. These are the political ethos to guide the citizens and those who get into leadership and to define the political environment. The national values include: morality and ethics; patriotism and national unity; democracy and constitutionalism, human dignity, equity, social justice, equality and nondiscrimination; good governance and integrity and sustainable development. According to the amended constitution, these values and principles are expected to apply when interpreting the constitution, enacting laws and development and implementation of state policies. When the President and Members of Parliament take oath that they will defend and protect the constitution this includes these national values. Leaders are expected to embrace these values in their interactions among themselves and those whom they lead. In section 60 clause 2(a) of the constitution, political parties are instructed to “promote the national values and principles specified in this constitution”. The President is required by the constitution to report to Parliament how the country is doing in realizing these national values.

The question that arises from Zambia’s experience is whether the established national values can make politics a noble activity. A fair answer is that the national values can contribute to the establishment of politics as a noble activity but they are not a sufficient condition. There are many reasons for this answer. First, the national values do to a certain extent define the ethical standards expected of the political leaders. The following ethical attributes are expected from the leaders of the nation namely: humbleness, humility, honesty, integrity, moral uprightness, compassionate especially to the less privileged, patriotism, respect and adherence to the laws of the land and accountability to all the people in various parts of the country, good governance and respect for the fundamental tenets of democracy. Secondly, the national values do define how the political environment should be namely that it ought to be: guided by the constitution, and rule of law; it should be democratic; it should not be discriminatory; individuals should be treated equally, equitably and fairly; and the country should be united. Thirdly, the national values can be used as yardstick measures of how well the country is being governed and how successful the leaders are in bringing about the political environment which is implied in them.

Zambia’s national values like the established institutions of governance do serve as necessary but not sufficient conditions for the establishment noble politics. They are not sufficient because the national values are yet to be deeply and broadly understood in the society as a whole. Additionally, the national values are yet to be the reference basis upon which the citizens critically assess and vigorously evaluate the leadership and overall governance of the country.

In the light of the weaknesses in the institutions of governance and the formative stage at which the national values are, the question that arises is whether politics is a dirty game in our country? My answer which is the subject of the debate is that YES IT IS. There are many facts that attest to this conclusion. The violence and personalized vulgar language which characterize almost every election is a good pointer to how dirty our politics are. The violence and vulgar language of the political campaigns discourage many capable, decent and well-meaning citizens from giving themselves in the service of their country. The political language from those in leadership of the country is still characterized by such discriminatory statements like if you do not vote for the candidate of the ruling party there will not be development in your area. Such statements are against the spirit of the national values. Unfortunately these statements are echoed by Cabinet Ministers in Parliament from time to time in responding to the questions of members of the opposition when they raise development issues in their constituencies.

The division of the country which arose from the voting pattern of the 2016 general elections is still with us. Because of this political divide, some political leaders are still heard and seen appealing to tribal sentiments in seeking political support. Consequently, our political environment is still characterized by the “us and them” syndrome. This is a basis for hatred and enmity which is against the national values. A good indicator of how our politics is still a dirty game is in the character assassination among political leaders. Political debate is to a large extent still defined by how hard one hits at the character or persona of the opponent. Unfortunately character assassination of each other has come to be accepted as a norm in our political culture. Those who are good at personal attacks to the point of even insulting others are considered heroes and the “leaders”. Much of our political culture is to some degree characterized by muckraking.

There are many areas which define our politics as a dirty game. The challenge however is polishing our political culture so that we come out of it. There is no other way out of this but strict adherence to measures that make politics a noble activity in the service of the people as discussed earlier. We have to make the key institutions of governance strong and independent. The rule of law must be the leading principle in all that we say and do. Every effort must be made to ensure that a critical informed citizenry is developed so that citizens take the task of making leaders accountable to them. The press must truly be independent for the benefit of all the citizens and President Mandela’s words must be followed namely. “a critical, independent and investigative press is the life blood of democracy”. The national values as defined in the amended constitution must be popularised and understood by all citizens as the foundation of what the country should be. The leadership of the country must without exception be assessed on the basis of the spirit of the national values.


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