Although not new in Zambia's history, increasing political violence spearheaded by youth cadres for hire is raising serious concerns.
Zambia traditionally enjoys a positive reputation for stability in southern Africa. While several of its neighbours have stumbled through civil wars and violent clashes of varying degrees, Zambia has held multiple elections, seen peaceful transitions between competing parties, and enjoys historically low crimes rates - that is, until an election comes about.
The advent of political violence as a form of mobilisation is certainly not unique, but in Zambia the phenomenon has become particularly acute in recent years.
This trend has resulted in deaths and scores of injuries during each election, as hordes of young, unemployed men are allegedly paid by major political parties to intimidate voters. With a president and ruling party which some feel do not condemn violence in strong enough terms, many observers are worried that Zambia might not stay so peaceful for very long.
Murder in Rufunsa
The lethal potential of Zambia's so-called "youth cadres" was illustrated earlier this month during local by-elections in Rufunsa, about 45 minutes east of the capital, Lusaka. In circumstances that were unclear, a member of the ruling Patriotic Front's (PF) youth cadre was gruesomely murdered, prompting an exchange of accusations.
Crispin Menyani Zulu, a 25-year-old resident of Lusaka who had been ferried to Rufunsa along with approximately 65 other PF cadres, died on November 8 as a result of heavy blows to the body and head, and possibly a stab wound. He leaves behind a pregnant wife and two children.
There are currently three different accounts of the incident:
The government declares that youth cadres from opposition parties, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and the United Party for National Development (UPND), were responsible for the murder.
In a statement released on the same day, President Michael Sata condemned his opponents, saying: "It's tragic that the political violence by the opposition UPND and MMD, which we have been preaching against, has resulted in a loss of an innocent life ... What has happened today could have been avoided if the two opposition political parties mentioned in this heinous crime had listened and at least cared for the lives of innocent citizens."
The opposition denies the accusation, and pins the blame on the PF itself. MMD president Nevers Mumba told Think Africa Press that his understanding of the incident was that infighting broke out amongst PF cadres at the end of the day when they were being given money to share, and that Zulu's death was the result of a financial disagreement. The otherwise pro-government Post Newspaper, also indicated that the internal PF conflict was behind the death.
The final account of the incident suggests that the villagers of Rufunsa - few of whom have political allegiance to the PF - may have been responsible. According to one anonymous source, who claimed to have spoken to police, Zulu and the other cadres had drunkenly engaged in a series of provocations and violence aimed at locals.
Towards the end of the day, the locals grew angrier and chased the cadres out of town. At this point Zulu allegedly fell out of the back of a moving vehicle, and may have died at the hands of an enraged mob.
So far the police have made numerous arrests of MMD and UPND members. They even charged one UPND official with murder before dropping the charges and releasing him within 24 hours after rights groups complained about the lack of evidence.
What seems clear is that this death and the many other violent incidents in other parts of the country (such as around the Mufumbwe parliamentary by-election) would not have occurred were it not for the widespread institutional practice of utilising violent youth cadres for political ends.
According to local sources, the average "youth" member actually ranges between 20 and 35 years of age. They are believed to be recruited from Zambia's large unemployed, urban, male population by the provincial chairmen of the parties, and paid around ZMK 25,000 (approximately $5) for a day of activism. Cadres are usually provided with free beer and are sometimes armed with panga machetes. Some cadres are even known to switch parties from day-to-day, depending on who is hiring.
Political violence has deep roots in Zambian history. Some of the earliest forms of youth cadres appeared shortly after independence in 1964, and began moving throughout the Copperbelt and the separatist Barotseland area of Western Province, attacking groups and individuals perceived to be part of the opposition.
Acting as the Youth League for the United National Independence Party (UNIP), these cadres were known to burn down the houses of people it suspected as members of the opposition Zambian African National Congress (ZANC). This intimidation caused many citizens, especially those of the Lozi tribe, to hide out and sleep in the bush.
Political goals of the youth cadres
According to political scientist Neo Simutanyi, Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, there are three different ways to look at youth cadre violence in Zambia: as a form of political thought; as a calculated plan of direct violence; and as propaganda.
Simutanyi explained to Think Africa Press how youth cadre violence is a central piece of a campaign, framing the political struggle as a kind of physical fight in which their supporters must show fearlessness, courage, and an unwillingness to bend before intimidation. In this more symbolic form, it is not actually violent acts which matter but rather the rhetoric of violence, which may explain why there are fewer fatalities than might be expected.
The second motivation of youth cadre violence is less common, but entails the use of violence to specifically target the outcome of a vote. These sorts of attacks, beatings, and harassment are a heightened risk during by-elections in faraway provinces, out of the reach of the Lusaka media and invisible to the international community.
The last form refers to the clashes between cadres, where the goal is not to inflict injury but rather to provoke a response, breaking the tolerance of police. This allows one party the opportunity to use the conflict as propaganda to paint the other party as "violent thugs".
"The police are placed in a very tough position," says Simutanyi. "On the one hand, they must uphold their instructions from above, but on the other hand, they are tasked with maintaining security, creating uncertain boundaries of how much violence is allowed and what is considered excessive."
President Sata's violent "vocabulary of power"
Many of Zambia's prominent public figures have emerged from the cadre structures. This includes President Sata, who started out as a colonial policeman and later became a leader of the UNIP Youth League.
Sata's opponents paint him as an architect of a new level of political violence in Zambia. In an interview last August, UPND president Hakainde Hichilema said that for Sata "violence is his vocabulary of power", pointing to the now infamous violent repression during the 2001 Chawama by-elections.
At the time, Sata served as minister without portfolio under President Frederick Chiluba's MMD administration, and was allegedly responsible for orchestrating a bloody fracas that sent dozens of people to the hospital with machete wounds, as part of a campaign to prevent the election of Geoffrey Samukonga of the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD).
Nevers Mumba commented, "President Sata's history is that of violence - this thing of using machetes, he is the one who introduced it in this country when he was National Secretary of MMD".
But PF officials speaking to Think Africa Press say that it is unfair to single out Sata, arguing that almost no party can claim innocence from youth cadre violence.
They point to the UPND's recruitment of the former MMD Lusaka Chairman William Banda, who has been named in a number of violent incidents dating all the way back to UNIP's repressions of the MMD back in 1991. Indeed Banda has been closely linked to Zulu's death in Rufunsa earlier this month.
A violent future?
"We must protect the peace that we have", UPND member Douglas Siakalima says with regard to the increasing clashes between UPND and PF cadres. "All genocides start small", he adds, "and we are beginning to see the same trends of hate speech and appearances of small arms here in Zambia. This must be stopped before it is too late."
Concerns over escalation from the traditional "rhetorical violence" of cadre activity during campaigns are echoed by civil society groups. Obby Chibuluma, Information Officer for the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), explains, "What we have in Zambia is a crisis of leadership among the main political parties to control their supporters. The cadres don't respect local populations, and often end up attacking locals, resulting in the situation we saw in Rufunsa."
Some leaders say that it all comes down to what kinds of signals are given to party supporters - what is encouraged, tolerated, rewarded, and condemned. Given the velocity with which violence has spread in many other neighbouring countries, observers will be keeping a close eye on Zambia to see how these trends develop as new risks and challenges emerge.
James is a contributing editor for Nigeria Intel. Follow him on twitter @jameskimer