Time for International Action on Zambia

robert-amsterdam-zambia-sata-cddrThis article was originally published in the Zambian newspaper Daily Nation.

After 16 months under the Patriotic Front (PF) government, it is fair to draw some conclusions regarding its performance.

It is time to acknowledge that Zambia’s democracy is in crisis, and the future of the multiparty system is under threat.  It is time to recognize that President Michael Sata’s administration has refused to observe the law, and when informed of violations, has neglected to take corrective measures.  As such, it is time for the people of Zambia to request action from the international community before it is too late.

Some supporters of the PF will attempt to reject any international criticism.  They will ask what right do foreign governments and organisations have talking about Zambia’s sovereign affairs?

But this is not a valid argument for several reasons.  For one, when a government is behaving illegally and in violation of its own constitution, the international community becomes responsible for the protection of the basic rights of the people.

Laws exist for a reason.  In a democracy, the rule of law is the bedrock of the social contract that provides legitimacy to elected representatives.  We have these laws to define limits on the power of elected officials over the freedom of citizens, and when this balance is disrupted (as is the case in Zambia today), the issue is no longer purely domestic, but a matter of international concern.

Additionally, the sovereignty of Zambia belongs to the Zambian people, not to the minority interest group in State House at any given moment, and as such, many international treaties, conventions, and diplomatic agreements can be invoked in defence of the people against the aggression of the state.

The vast abuses of power that have taken place under President Sata and the PF are indisputable.  Over the past six months, the Coalition for the Defence of Democratic Rights (CDDR), in cooperation with other civil society groups and opposition party members, has carefully monitored and investigated violations of rights for presentation before international bodies.

It is difficult to begin to think of the PF as a ‘government’ when citizens are not even informed of the whereabouts or health condition of their president.  Operating more like a self-interested economic cabal, State House has been running on autopilot, with presidential statements being issued that seem to be written by someone else, democracy being undone, corruption allegedly being tolerated, while opposition leaders face constant harassment and arrests by police.

Many of these concerns were raised in a recent Pastoral Letter signed by some of the nation’s most prominent religious leaders.  The bishops wrote, “Unfortunately, looking at what is happening around us, it would seem to us, that the ideals of a politically plural society have not been fully understood and appreciated by those that aspire for political leadership in our successive Governments.”

The letter continued, “Much as we acknowledge that there are by-elections occasioned by deaths of office holders, we are also increasingly seeing more and more by-lections motivated by greed, individual interests and a selfish propensity for political dominance. This is being done without care, serious prior consideration of the views of the electorate and sensitivity to the colossal amounts of money these by-elections are imposing on our economy.”

The PF’s attack on democracy began shortly after the 2011 presidential elections when they petitioned the results of all the parliamentary seats they had lost to the opposition.  Not just one or two or a half dozen, but instead they petitioned 51 seats, which is unprecedented in Zambian history, and also logically impossible.

The next step in the PF’s strategy to transform Zambia back into a one-party state has been the alleged bribery and co-optation of opposition MPs to switch parties and vacate their seats.  The upcoming by-election in Mpongwe was caused by MP Gabriel Namulambe’s decision to switch allegiances to the ruling party.  Namulambe was under pressure with a corruption case in court, which presumably will now disappear because he has joined the PF, where even the Secretary General Wynter Kabimba has refused to answer his own corruption allegations.

Meanwhile, the police, acting under instructions from State House, are cracking down on basic liberties such as freedom of association and freedom of expression, with repeated arrests of government critics.  Apparently, it is now seen as “illegal” to disagree with President Sata, as shown by the arbitrary and unlawful arrests of journalists like Chanda Chimba III and others, while political leaders such as Nevers Mumba and Hakainde Hichilema are repeatedly arrested and denied the opportunity to function as opposition parties.  .  These illegal arrests were recently cited by the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, raising alarm bells across the region.

This established pattern of unlawful conduct by the PF represents several unambiguous violations of Zambia’s international treaties.  At the African Union level, the Sata government has clearly violated Article 13(1) of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  At the United Nations level, the current Zambian government is in clear violation of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and political Rights (ICCPR).  And at the Commonwealth level, the authorities have violated the principles of the 1991 Harare Declaration.

In coming weeks, the CDDR will present formal appeals before a number of international organisations detailing the nature of these violations.  The goal of these efforts is not to embarrass, provoke, or benefit any individual or special interest, but rather create incentives for the current leadership to recognize its boundaries, respect the law and the constitution, and abandon their campaign to erase political freedoms and human rights in the name of the one-party state.