Photograph — Mail & Guardian

The civil society in Zambia is worried that the country’s democracy is dying, giving way to an authoritarian regime under the administration of President Edgar Lungu, a minister-turn-Head of State.

Lungu previously served as Minister of Justice and Minister of Defense under ex-President Michael Sata. After the leader’s death in October 2014, Lungu won the January 2015 presidential by-election, which was to determine who would serve out the remainder of Sata’s term.

The incumbent leader was elected to a full presidential term in the August 2016 election, narrowly defeating his main opponent, Hakainde Hichilema. The opposition candidate, who has always refused to acknowledge the victory on claims of fraud, initially disputed the election result at the Constitutional Court.

But on September 5, the court dismissed the case. Lungu was sworn in for his first full term on September 13, 2016. Since the controversial re-election three years ago, the political climate in the southern African country has worsened, reports say.

The first sign of Lungu drifting towards authoritarianism was in the punishment of Hichilema. In 2017, the opposition leader was reportedly detained for four months for obstructing the presidential convoy, a “crime” qualified by the courts as “treason” and punishable by death. Although the charges were later dropped, Hichilema denounced the imprisonment as “political”.

In what reignited suspicions of authoritarianism against Lungu after things had calmed for some time, the Constitutional Court last year granted the leader the right to stand for re-election in 2021. This is supposedly against Zambia’s Basic Law, which states that the Head of State may run for only two five-year terms.

First elected in 2015 to succeed Sata, who died in office, Lungu was re-elected in 2016. Thus, the opposition considered that he could no longer contest in 2021, a claim the country’s highest judicial body ruled against. Lungu was reported to have publicly urged the judges not to “plunge the country into chaos” in order to convince them to rule in his favour.

Now under the 62-year old, who has been the President of Zambia for over four years, the country is in a dilemma over a highly controversial constitutional reform that significantly strengthens the powers of President Lungu with less than two years to go before the general elections.

Referred to as Bill 10 of 2019, the proposed amendments reintroduces the position of Deputy Ministers which Zambia scrapped in 2016 after years of consistent submissions by the public against the position; removes the powers of the central bank to issue currency as well as transfers the responsibility for monetary policy from the regulator to the government.

The bill also extends the President’s powers to appoint judges and ministers, allows him to change the electoral map all by himself and includes various clauses that increase the powers of the Executive significantly over other arms of government.

The constitutional amendment, which will be Zambia’s fifth since gaining independence in 1964, will soon be discussed in the National Assembly, where Lungu’s party – Patriotic Front (FP) – has an absolute majority of deputies.

Considering the dangers and far-reaching negative consequences of the new law – if voted as it stands – to Zambia’s democracy, the opposition, civil society, analysts and think-tanks at home and abroad have jointly kicked back against the planned amendments.

“This text will dig the grave of democracy in Zambia. It is designed first and foremost to consolidate the FP’s hold on the country and make it impossible to dismiss President Edgar Lungu,” said Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa, a professor of political science at the University of Zambia.

Zambia’s union for legal practitioners has also challenged the reforms, bringing Edgar Lungu, Attorney General Likando Kalaluka and the entire Assembly before the judiciary. In a 101-page petition filed at the Constitutional Court, the Lawyers’ Association of Zambia (LAZ) claims that the proposed changes, which include removing a requirement that parliament approves all new loans secured by the state, are illegal.

“This bill strengthens the powers of the executive at the expense of Parliament, so it is unconstitutional,” said Muna Ndulo, a United States-based law professor and member of the LAZ.

Featuring in a public discussion in Lusaka last month, Ndulo and locally-based constitutional lawyer John Sangwa explained that the proposed constitutional amendments were about the ruling party’s desire to win the 2021 general election.

“This constitution amendment is about power; it is about winning the 2021 election no matter how you try to mask it. It is about winning elections in 2021. The Bill is about reversing whatever advances (constitutional amendments) we made in 2016,” Sangwa said.

For his part, the opposition leader Hichilema also declared war on the new bill with intense political arguments. “Do you really want Edgar Lungu to stay in power for seven more years?” he told reporters. “Who will still be alive given the current level of poverty?”

Amidst the dissension, a musician, Chama Fumba, has been prosecuted for a song the authorities considered hostile to the president. Fumba’s prosecution is what led activist Laura Miti to launch a campaign in July – Yellow Card – against regime corruption and reform.

The artiste’s argument is simple. “Would you accept that a president you don’t like should have such powers, whether he is a saint, the devil or something in between?” she recently wrote in a forum.

Despite the heavy backlash against his project from virtually every corner in Zambia, President Lungu does not appear ready to give in and his government has said it will press on with the constitutional amendment plans. “We braved the storm to prepare this Constitution (…). Support the procedure,” Lungu told lawmakers late September. “If you don’t want to change it, we will”.

At the court, AFP reported that the government spokesperson smiled at the lawyers’ entry into the scene against President Lungu. “We know that the job of some lawyers is to promote them,” Dora Siliya mocked, “they are people who waste other people’s time, but the bill will go its way.”

Illegal detention of political opposition, intolerance for dissenting voices, an unconstitutional extension of rule, and constitutional amendments that literally exalts the executive above every other government arm, these are all signs showing Zambia’s shift in political ideology from democratic to autocratic, towing the path of several other authoritarian African regimes.

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