Reversing Zambia’s Authoritarian Drift

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written by
Robert Herman
Vice President for Regional Programs
written by
Cathal Gilbert
Project Director, Southern Africa
written by
Kellen McClure
Program Officer, Africa

Zambia won international praise in 2011 for free and fair elections that led to a peaceful transfer of power to the longtime opposition party—a rarity in Southern Africa. However, recent democratic setbacks in the country, overshadowed by threats to freedom in larger countries like Mali, Kenya, and South Africa, have yet to attract much attention abroad.

Over the past two decades, Zambia has successfully moved beyond outright dictatorship and made important gains in economic development, the rule of law, and the emergence of a dynamic civil society. However, as in some other developing democracies, these hard-won advancements have eroded because governing elites have failed to undertake second- and third-generation reforms that would tackle ineffectual institutions, de facto exclusion of many segments of society from political life, entrenched corruption, weak checks on executive power, and tilted electoral playing fields. The relatively stable and peaceful democracy that Zambians have worked hard to build is now being threatened by an increasingly defensive government intent on consolidating power and stifling dissent.

President Michael Sata and his Patriotic Front (PF) came to power two years ago after enduring sometimes violent repression by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which had ruled the country since 1991. While Sata has received credit for making good on some of his promises of economic reform, his government has reneged on almost all of its pledges regarding good governance, legal reform, and human rights. In fact, the PF appears to be dragging Zambia back toward abusive practices not seen since Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party rule in the 1970s and 80s.

In part by applying hated colonial-era public order laws, the government has moved methodically to silence critics in opposition parties and civil society. It has also decided to implement a restrictive law on nongovernmental organizations (NGO), which it had vehemently opposed while in opposition. The legislation gives the government sweeping powers to deregister organizations and allows substantial interference with freedom of association.

Sata and the PF have repeated specious and hackneyed accusations that prodemocracy and human rights activists are doing the bidding of hostile, foreign interests, creating a permissive climate that emboldens the government’s more radical supporters. In May 2013, peaceful demonstrators were prevented from protesting in a public space. Gathering in a church, they were besieged and beaten by thugs armed with hoe handles, machetes, and chains. The assailants were believed to be members of the ruling party’s youth wing.

The government’s growing intolerance for criticism has extended to the media. Journalists have been unlawfully arrested, websites shut down, and nationwide broadcasting licenses revoked in a thinly disguised campaign by the authorities to circumscribe free speech and encourage self-censorship.

There are also concerns about corruption, another area in which the PF had promised reforms during the 2011 election campaign. By most reliable accounts, after some initial steps to reduce endemic corruption, the Sata government has pulled back from investigating graft by senior officials and PF supporters. Most citizens now regard the Anti-Corruption Commission with cynicism, while the politicization of the judiciary ensures impunity for those who use public office for private gain.

Opposition parties, journalists, and activists have not been idle in the face of the PF’s abuses. The opposition is using the private media—mostly radio and online outlets—to challenge the government’s attempts to close democratic space. And despite rapidly dwindling funds, opposition parties are vigorously contesting the many by-elections engineered by the PF through court cases, and have won some notable victories in 2013. Consequently, the PF’s legally dubious efforts to change the balance in the parliament have yet to win it a two-thirds majority, leaving in place an important but shaky check on its power.

For civil society, the battle lines are now being drawn around a new constitution and NGO act. Movements have sprung up to ensure that the new charter includes some essential reforms. Recent statements by the president suggesting that the government will stall on long-awaited constitutional revisions are likely to fuel rather than quell civic activism. Civil society is also mobilizing to force the government to create a more liberal regulatory environment for NGOs, and there are some indications that the government may entertain a less restrictive version of the current law.

There is reason to hope that these efforts will be successful, as they have precedents in Zambia’s recent past. Perhaps most memorably, a grand coalition of civil society and opposition parties blocked the MMD’s Frederick Chiluba from seeking a third presidential term in 2001.

However, the domestic struggle to defend and expand Zambians’ democratic rights must be accompanied by external pressure. Unfortunately, regional institutions that could play a role, most notably the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), cannot be counted on to help. The African Union, with its even smaller share of democratic member states, is still less likely to take any meaningful steps or voice concerns about Zambia’s negative trajectory.

The resources of donor governments outside Africa are constrained, but surely it would be prudent to help already democratic countries prevent or reverse a slide into authoritarianism. Diplomatic pressure in tandem with political and financial support for domestic proponents of democratic change could form part of a promising strategy to counter the recent reversals in Zambia. The United States and European donors together have the requisite combination of carrots and sticks to encourage the Sata government to abandon its present course and embrace the reform agenda on which it campaigned in 2011.

One obvious point of leverage is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which provides generous U.S. funding to countries whose governments achieve adequate progress on a range of economic and governance reforms. MCC officials only recently communicated their concerns to the Zambian government, warning that the country is on a path inconsistent with its commitments under an MCC agreement. The compact, which is worth $354 million and entered into force in mid-November, is potentially at risk if the Zambian government continues to regress on governing “justly and democratically.”

Sata was long viewed as the outspoken champion of the people and a steadfast opponent of the corrupt MMD regime. His rapid fall from democratic grace once in office has been extremely disheartening. But the strong domestic resistance suggests that Zambians will not tolerate a return to the authoritarian past, and timely outside pressure would hasten the correction and limit the damage from this unfortunate backsliding.

Photo Credit: Zambia Reports

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