Oscar Benavides, a Peruvian president from the 1930s, once famously quipped, “For my friends, anything; for my enemies, the law.”
Benavides’ comment is probably the illustrative example of how political leaders of the past sometimes regarded the law not as a principle or the cornerstone of the social contract, but rather as a tool to be selectively applied in their favor.
In Zambia, unfortunately, it could be argued that President Michael Sata and the Patriotic Front belong to this older generation of leaders who view the courts as a convenient way to attack their enemies. This is not a government that upholds rule of law; in fact, there are many recent events indicating that the Patriotic Front would like to return the country to a one-party state where there is no judicial independence to speak of.
This conduct has not been hidden or disguised. It is plain for everyone to see. This is a president who publically declared himself “untouchable” before the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), and ordered prosecutors to ask his permission before investigating his ministers. This is a government whose Minister of Justice Wynter Kabimba arrives to an investigatory interview with a threatening horde of violent cadres, and then declares that Zambians “want a one-party state.” This is a government which has made a mockery out of the anti-corruption fight by pursuing political motivated cases against its critics while at the same time several ministers stand accused of grave crimes. This is a government that has removed judges in order to help their chief ally in the media avoid paying debts to the taxpayer, while also unlawfully deporting any opponent of their main financier.
In response to some of these actions, the normally restrained Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) released a statement on 11 December criticising the PF on its legal position. “We implore the Executive, for the sake of justice and good order, to observe the rule of law and allow the investigative processes and procedures to reach their natural conclusions without any explicit or implied undue influence from the executive,” the LAZ statement reads.
The LAZ statement represents a very important document that courageously argues a principled position at a crucial moment for Zambia. This statement should not be forgotten as soon as the next scandal surfaces, but rather placed in the inbox of every government in the region, every non-governmental organisation, every foreign investor, and a number of offices at the United Nations. We need to continue asking these questions to President Sata and the PF and demand that they halt their abuse of the law before it is too late.
I would argue that each outrageous violation of the constitution, manipulation of the prosecutors, and each degraded attack against the opposition parties represent a test to the democratic integrity of Zambia. The PF are asking, what can we get away with now?
Mr. Sata is openly abusing the Public Order Act in order to detain opposition political party leaders and disrupt their meetings. Worse still, deportations of business executives perceived to be enemies of the PF government and its financiers has increased in the last months.
Recently immigration officials have received numerous instructions to deport any business executive who has crossed the path of President Sata’s key financial supporter, Finance Bank Chairman Rajan Mahtani. Even though the High Court ruled against the deportation of two executives, the government ignored the court and proceeded to have Mr. Mahtani’s opponents removed from the country, raising grave concerns among investors. Who can feel safe to do business in Zambia when they can deport you even against a court order?
The PF has succeeded in poaching some MPs from the opposition who seek to avoid the law. The defection strategy adopted by the Patriotic Front is anti-democratic in the extreme. When individuals vote for a candidate of a political party, they have every right to expect that the principles and values of that party will continue to be represented. In today’s Zambia, there is no political allegiance that Mr. Sata’s use of political favors cannot buy. In a real sense, the games of the Patriotic Front dramatically reduce the value of the vote of every Zambian.
This catalogue of abuses underscores the need for civil society to wake up to the clear and present danger that this government represents an existential threat to the very future of a multiparty democracy in Zambia.
This article was originally published in the Zambian newspaper Daily Nation.