Zambia is witnessing a regression in democratic governance as violence against opposition parties and foreigners increases in the run-up to elections in August. With the economy in trouble in the wake of low commodity prices, President Edgar Lungu is attempting to control dissent, after what has been a tumultuous two years in Zambian politics.
Last week, the government arrested the editors of Zambia’s leading newspaper, The Post, after shutting down the paper in a move that many deemed politically motivated. The Post had been critical of both Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front party, and was shuttered on allegations of unpaid taxes. The paper’s staff received a stay from the revenue appeals tribunal, and re-entered the Post’s offices, when they were arrested for trespassing and beaten by police.
The police had been instructed by the President’s office to ignore the documents from the revenue appeal tribunal. The editors are due to appear in court next week. Despite Lungu’s denial of any political motivations behind the incident, editor-in-chief Fred Mmembe holds a dim view of the Post’s chances. “you cannot say that the judiciary is going to act independently when the president has already given his judgement.”
Aside from the implications for freedom of the press and civil society, the ploy against the Post is a worrisome indicator for investors. If the President can direct and annul the dictates of the tax and regulatory authorities on a whim, foreign businesses are at risk to similar tactics should they run afoul of the government. Despite bordering the DRC, Zimbabwe, and Angola, Zambia has, until recently, enjoyed stability, thus enticing foreign mining firms. Yet any gains from past stability could be erased if regulatory and judicial authorities are seen to be increasingly impartial.
On a wing and a prayer: Zambia’s weak economy driving unrest
Zambia’s over-reliance on copper exports has left the country dangerously exposed to the end of the commodity super-cycle. This comes at a bad time for Lungu who is facing calls from the IMF and World Bank to reign in spending, while at the same time, the President is relying on various subsidies to garner support among the Zambia’s poor. Caught in the middle, Lungu is also having to deal with violence by local traditional leaders supporting both the government and opposition.
Deadly election related violence has gripped the country. There have also been attacks on foreign businesses and Rwandan refugees, as the populace seeks scapegoats and outlets for pent up frustration. The Non-Governmental Organization Coordinating Council has called on the President to use his position as commander in chief of the armed forces to end the political violence. While Lungu is attempting to prevent an escalation in violence, he is also benefiting from the intimidation of the opposition, and as such has so far refused to declare a state of emergency in the country.
Instead, Lungu is seeking to woo local traditional leaders with offers of opulent housing and expedited medical care. Moreover, Lungu is touting the creation of the Zambia Sugar Product Alignment and Refinery project as a means to increase jobs and wealth in the country’s south: an $80 million project set to double national sugar production. The government is also implementing a bilateral trade deal with DRC signed in 2015; with a focus on border infrastructure.
While these economic moves are positive, they are too little to reverse the country’s trends. Moreover, confidence in Lungu’s economic management remains low, given that his answer to the plummeting currency was to organize a national day of prayer seeking divine intervention to correct the exchange rate.
Alongside the commodity downturn, Zambia is the victim of bad timing due to the fallout from Brexit. For instance only a few days before the Brexit vote, the EU dropped the flight ban on Zambian registered airlines. The government had hoped that this would boost the economy and provide new opportunities, yet the UK’s Leave vote meant that Zambian airlines face uncertainty concerning verification. Moreover, Zambia’s economic ties to the UK have been undermined, not to mention the lack of access to Heathrow, a major European and international hub.
Furthermore, Britain’s exit from the EU undermines Zambian interests in two other respects. Firstly, the UK was one of the main advocates for more relaxed EU agricultural policy. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy sees cheap goods dumped in Zambia, with Zambian and other African agricultural goods effectively shut out of the European market due to EU subsidies and tariffs. With Brexit, Zambia loses a prominent advocate for reform.
Secondly, the UK was the largest contributor to the EU’s Development Fund. As a result the EU’s development budget will be reduced, with Zambia’s democratic regression a likely reason for Europe to reduce funding to the country. Lastly, this also raises uncertainty about bilateral aid from the UK, what with Britain’s lack of current political leadership, impending recession, and rising nativism.
The year of three presidents
Much of the uncertainty in Zambia stems from the Lungu’s lack of democratic credentials. He presides over a minority government, and is Zambia’s third president in two years following the death of President Sata in 2014, and brief tenure of caretaker president Guy Scott. Under Sata, Lungu rose from junior minister in 2011 to home affairs minister, and later defence minister by 2013. While Defence minister Lungu became the post of Justice minister in April 2014, a set of portfolios that beg the question regarding the president’s current influence over said ministries. This also sheds some insights into the dynamics behind The Post affair.
Furthermore, Lungu was acting president from 2013-2014 during the long illness of President Sata. It is easy to see how this scenario could facilitate a concentration of power in the President’s Office. Lungu officially became president in January 2015, after narrowly winning a presidential by-election by 48.3% to 46.6%. The fact that turnout was only 32.3% shows just how tenuous Lungu’s mandate is. While Lungu has said he personally has no intentions of rigging the upcoming election, these words (and wording) ring hollow.
The August election is likely Lungu’s last chance to secure any semblance of a commanding mandate. This has backed him into a corner, unable to deal with electoral and economic inspired violence without undermining his own position.