The past five years have been a nightmare for many Zambians. The country has attracted scorn for its economic mismanagement, political turmoil and, more recently, the inglorious distinction of becoming “the first African nation to default on its debt in the Covid-19 era.” Even if these circumstances are remote from the everyday experience of many Zambians, the persecution and even murder of some ordinary Zambians by both the police and political goons of the government are sorely felt by affected families and friends. The latest of such needless killings happened on 23 December 2020, when two citizens, one of whom was a state prosecutor, were shot to death “under unknown circumstances”, according to initial reports by police officials. Predictably, the police will try to disclaim responsibility for the killings because of the backdrop to this disturbing act; it happened on the day when Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the preeminent opposition party United Party for National Development, appeared before the police for questioning over some property that he purchased almost 15 years ago. Hakainde Hichilema (who is known by the sobriquet HH) has denied wrongdoing and considers his appearance as harassment and just one among numerous strategies used by the current government to intimidate members of the opposition and critics of the government.
In Zambia’s toxic political climate, both the government and the opposition have cobbled together groups of thugs claiming to be political cadres who act in extra-judicial fashion. The increased frustration of Zambians over the many political and economic maladies gnawing at their country seems to add fuel to the fire of this toxic political atmosphere. Thus, it is not surprising that a multitude of HH’s sympathisers showed up at the police headquarters to demonstrate their solidarity with him, regardless of the potential danger of a tumultuous mob spreading the novel coronavirus. It was during the police’s attempt to contain the crowd that the two victims met their death. This is not the first time that a clumsy attempt at crowd-control by Zambia Police has led to a tragic end.
On 13 February 2020, the police responded to the unrest in the Chazanga area of Lusaka where parents, who suspected that the perpetrators of deadly gassing incidents on citizens were hiding in a local school, were protesting. An empirical Human Rights Report (HRC) on the incident established that the residents of the area heard random gunshots and none of them “testified that they heard the police announce or advise the protesters to disperse. All they could see were uncompromising armed police officers on patrol vehicles driving up and down the streets, without saying anything,” reported HRC. Unfortunately, a 14-year-old boy lost his life, and an autopsy report found that the said boy, Frank Mugala, a high school student, had been fatally shot. The Report states that Mugala might have died while cowering from gunfire in a local phone booth.
Such is the current nature of policing in Zambia. The police are deeply and dangerously in thrall to an increasingly authoritarian regime. One clear evidence of the complicity of the Zambian police with the government and its officials is when the supporters of Chitalu Chilufya, a government minister of health who was arraigned for corruption charges, effectively truncated court proceedings without any consequence. Thus, as if it is not bad enough that state-sanctioned impunity by the police has had tragic consequences, mobs of ordinary Zambian citizens aligned to parties and/or individual patrons have also carved out their jurisdictions in a country that should be “held captive” only to the Rule of Law.
It cannot be gainsaid that even opposition political parties have participated in stoking a volatile national situation. However, the government is mostly blameworthy, starting with President Edgar Lungu. The head of state and government is either complicit in his minions’ dangerous actions, or he is powerless to stop them. In any case, he and his cohorts are wreaking havoc in a country of great potential, with a citizenry that has thus far been patient and largely non-violent. One of the most objectionable but regretfully powerful members of the government is Bowman Lusambo, the minister of Lusaka Province, whose rhetoric and naked threats to those criticising the President have not been condemned by his boss. Going into the crucial August 2021 general elections, Zambia’s slide into an authoritarian abyss is likely to continue. The country’s situation is such that only the stupidly gullible or the beneficiaries of Lungu’s avaricious and authoritarian disposition would want a continuation of the current status quo come 2021. These times call for civil society organisations to be more vigilant. Other community players that have been historically effective, such as churches, should call out the government for its excesses.
Emmanuel Matambo is the Research Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
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