According to a new article published in the American magazine Forbes, Zambia's democracy is facing significant risks following repeated arrests of opposition leaders, harassment of journalists and NGOs, and attacks on the independence of the judiciary by the Patriotic Front government of President Michael Sata.
South Africa's Mail & Guardian recently reported: "Opposition leaders arrested, youth meetings banned, political rallies blocked by riot police, allegations of judicial interference and ministerial corruption, smear campaigns in government media and threats and lawsuits against journalists are not part of the image most people have of Zambia, supposedly one of Africa's most peaceful democracies."
Members of the diplomatic community have begun to speak out, earning a rebuke from President Sata, who publicly directed "the minister of foreign affairs to address the issue of diplomats meddling in internal affairs of the country." Ironically, while outside government Sata met with foreign diplomats, seeking their support.
According to the Forbes article, opposition figures complain that the president, nicknamed "King Cobra," is dragging the country back to a one-party system. Nevers Mumba, who heads the MMD, rejected the claim "that Sata and the PF are merely doing to us what we did to them when we were in government," contending that opponents then could "criticize and organize freely and they did so every day. Now we cannot even hold a meeting inside a room without fearing arrest."
Mumba is quoted by Forbes saying that what appears to be a government campaign of intimidation results from the regime's fear of its own failures: "This crackdown flows from the fact that the PF has been unable to deliver on its campaign promises, and it is increasingly clear that it is impossible for them to deliver on these promises. Their great fear is that the opposition will expose this truth, so they are attempting to silence us by unlawfully violating our freedom of assembly."
The magazine article highlights a press conference that took place on Feb 12, 2013 in Johannesburg by the Coalition for the Defense of Democratic Rights, which was formed as a self-described "legal defense alliance ... in response to increasing harassment and interference by the authorities."
The CDDR is presenting a big report denouncing the alleged violations by the PF government to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), demanding Zambia's temporary suspension from the Commonwealth.
CDDR presented evidence of "politically motivated persecution of democratic opponents" through "repeated arrests of opposition figures on false pretenses, defamation, and fictitious accusations of criminal activity levied against opponents of the state." Obviously it is difficult to judge the legitimacy of any particular legal charge, but so far the government's effort has led to few trials and convictions. Simply claiming an offense can inflict political damage and discourage further public involvement.
The report also warned of an "existential threat" to the "rule of law and judicial independence." The PF pledged to fill the judiciary with its members and President Sata suspended three judges involved in a case involving the Post's owner-editor. The Justice Minister complained of "a dictatorship of the judiciary" which needed to be "nipped in the bud." He even threatened to dissolve the judiciary if necessary.
According to Forbes, CDDR concluded its report with an appeal for Commonwealth intervention: "These violations of Commonwealth values without impunity are destroying the constitutional separation of power and its check and balances on the power of the presidency, creating real fears and uncertainty over Zambia's future as a democracy."
Robert Amsterdam, attorney for Rupiah Banda and the CDDR, told the Forbes journalist: "Given this government's established pattern of using violence and ethnic hate speech as a political strategy, we should be very concerned over what could happen next." He urged action before "another democracy is ruined in Africa."
The article states: "Zambia is no dictatorship. But the trend is worrisome, and goes beyond the tendency of all politicians every where to manipulate power to their advantage." The UPND's Hichilema, who faces multiple government prosecutions, warned: "Everyone talks about Zimbabwe, but never about Zambia. We hope the world does not wait until there is bloodshed here before they take any action."