15 August 2014

Zambia: Critique of U.S.-Zambia Relations Highlight's Country's Unsettling Slide


The feistiest criticism of the current state of Zambia-US relations came in a statement by the Zambia-based NGO, Coalition for the Defence of Democratic Rights (CDDR) just as the recent Africa-US Summit in Washington got underway. It went largely unanswered but accurately reflected the source of latent unease with the stewardship of President Michael Sata.

The statement of August 5 said: "The U.S. administration must wake up to the worsening situation in Zambia and curb its blind support of the Patriotic Front (PF) government which is responsible for growing political violence, repression and failure of governance that threatens Zambia's stability."

It also pointed out that prospects for democracy in the country had been downgraded by the 2014 annual report of the American NGO, Freedom House because of "the ruling party's ongoing repression and harassment of the political opposition, including through the increased use of the Public Order Act, hindering its ability to operate in general and to campaign in by-elections."

The statement continued by pointing out that "The United States government has a known record of supporting the PF despite its poor record on rights and democracy," pointing out that a decline in the standard of governance in Zambia had led to severe mismanagement of the economy, rising inflation, a near collapse of the currency and rapidly increasing food prices. The only response from the government had been to stir up tribal conflicts.

"Washington has a responsibility to support the public safety of all Zambians and the stability of the nation - they must immediately stop enabling the abusive conduct of the PF," the statement said.

"Many observers feel that Zambia is running on auto-pilot right now as the president has made only a handful of appearances in recent months and hasn't directly addressed the nation in a very long time."

It called on delegates to the summit to "grill" Vice President Guy Scott who represented Zambia "on critical issues such as President Michael Sata's health, the PF's failure to deliver the draft constitution and the widespread harassment of journalists and opposition MPs."

"Delegates to the Summit should ask Dr. Scott why multiple judges have been fired and the independence of the judiciary violated."

Whilst the statement was undeniably hard-hitting, it wasn't the first time that the CDDR has called international attention to the "worsening situation" in Zambia, nor is it the first time that it has lobbied for a more robust response from western governments.

In June 2013 it addressed an open letter to the ambassadors of the US, Japan and the British High Commissioner calling on "the diplomatic community to take a stronger stance towards the deteriorating environment for civil and human rights rather than solely focusing on economic policy."

The American and British envoys did speak out subsequently. The US charge d' affaires David Young decried the political violence and called for an end "before this trend... spins downward into a cycle of violent attacks." The British High Commissioner James Thornton warned that suppressing the freedom of assembly could become a time-bomb.

Both spoke out shortly after the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema narrowly escaped a lynching in Ndola, the provincial capital of the Copperbelt. Characteristically, the police took no action "because no complaint had been received."Since its inception, the CDDR has documented and called international attention to "violations."

Formed in October 2012, it described itself as "a legal defence alliance" in response to what it said was increasing "harassment and interference by the authorities."

Its inaugural statement detailed that the organisation would work within local and international legal structures to halt the violation of civil rights. It retains the combative Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam as its International Counsel and thus far has stayed the course.

On January 25, 2013, it for instance petitioned the Commonwealth Secretariat to suspend Zambia's membership until there was an end to "violations." The petition was for referral to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

It said the 40-page petition presented evidence of "serious and persistent" violations of the principles of the Commonwealth's Harare Declaration.

"It is our position that the current government has repeatedly broken the law and violated the rights of both civil society and opposition political parties. We are asking the Commonwealth to fulfill their commitment to expanding the role of the CMAG as stated in October 2011 and appoint an envoy to conduct an independent investigation into these violations."

A fact-finding mission from the Secretariat did visit Zambia subsequently and met with various officials. But nothing of the outcome has come to light or been publicly discussed.

That could well be the fate of this initiative. But it won't detract from the fact that its gist is consistent with the fears that have been expressed by citizens and many observers since the advent of the PF government.

There appears to be a troubling trend in dealing with political adversaries using outdated methods, notably violence and a determination to stifle political competition relying on the public order act and the police. The law it seems is expendable when it suits the authorities.

The Lusaka High Court for instance twice varied the bail conditions of the former president Rupiah Banda to enable him travel out of the county. But Immigration Officers simply stopped him.

Again, on May 31, 2013 an indoor prayer meeting in a Lusaka church convened by civil society organizations to discuss the sudden removal of state subsidies on fuel and maize meal was set upon by an organized group of the PF. There were injuries, but again apart from official pledges to deal with the culprits "regardless of political affiliation," there was no clear response.

Increasingly, the culprits are cast as the opposition leaders, all of whom face tedious court cases -defamation of the president, unlawful assembly, publishing false news to cause despondency, threatening a breach of the peace and the like. Police invariably turn down notices for opposition rallies and wherever they go, PF supporters make a show of their loyalty by disrupting their programmes.

The police have been downgraded to more or less agents of the PF. Ostensibly, their concern is for law and order but they invariably come through as more passionate about it when the opposition is involved.

It never used to be like this. The opposition which, combining the political groupings of the MMD and UPND, remains in the majority, was tolerated, allowing the PF, in opposition since 2001, to wrestle power away from the MMD in 2011.

The growing feeling today is of a police state and the CDDR statement goes some way to highlighting what is an unsettling slide for Zambia.

Arthur Simuchoba is a Zambian journalist. This article was commissioned via the African Journalism Fund.

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