Raila Odinga former Kenyana Prime Minister
Now is the time for African democrats to speak out, writes former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga
Last August politicians across the Continent watched with mounting concern as the drama surrounding the elections in Zambia unfolded. Without doubt the election result was close; many alleged it was stolen.
Last week, Hakainde Hichilema (HH), the leader of the main opposition party, the UPND, was arrested on charges of treason and so far, both the African and the wider international response have been muted.
Now is the time for African democrats to speak out.
The run up to the 2016 Zambian elections were acknowledged by election monitors to have been lopsided.
President Edgar Lungu’s Patriotic Front used state resources to support their cause, shut down media outlets, and deliberately disrupt the opposition campaign.
Even the EU election-observation mission noted that “the campaign period was marred by systematic bias in state media, which failed to provide fair and equitable coverage of the campaigns of all parties, limiting the possibility for voters to make an informed choice.”
Then once voting was over, the counting started to slow and numerous allegations of vote-rigging and tampering emerged.
When the result was finally announced Lungu won by just 16,000 votes.
The UPND appealed to the constitutional court which eventually sat, first it postponed the hearing, and then, with a decision that defies justice, decided that the appeal was out of time and did not even consider the case.
There could easily been violent protests but the UPND, keen to play by the rules, kept their supporters in check despite the widespread feeling of electoral theft. They still do not accept the result then, and many still do not today.
Now popular discontent with both the result and the very challenging economic circumstances faced by Zambia is on the rise.
Thus, in some respects it is unsurprising that last Tuesday the Zambian Police launched an aggressive assault on HH’s family compound using excessive violence, including CS gas, against his both his family and his employees.
HH has now been detained, is charged with treason, and has been denied proper access to both his legal team and his family.
The pretext for this was a traffic incident involving the presidential motorcade: treason for a traffic incident – this speaks of vengeance not justice.
Frankly, the international response has been weak. Both the EU and the US have issued statements but in reality, are fixed on other more pressing international problems and will only up their engagement if stability appears threatened, which is a dangerous position to take.
Ruling parties don’t go easily, even when they lose. We know about this in Kenya, with the last two national elections in 2007 and 2013 the subject of rigging and, in the case of the former, extreme violence.
For these reasons we continue to urge critical engagement by Africa and the international community well before, during and after the polls.
Still, Afrobarometer records that democracy is the style of government that the vast majority of Africans want.
This is no surprise. Democracy has proven best at delivering both the economic growth and the stability we need, particularly as we face the challenges that stem from rapid population growth.
At its heart democracy is about a competition of ideas and it is that healthy competition that drives long-term, improved performance.
The idea that one man and one party knows best and that all alternatives should be repressed has, throughout history, proven a disastrous route to follow.
We Africans need to stand up and be counted when democracy is under threat on our continent, whether it’s in Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Congo or my own country Kenya.
It is our destiny that is at stake. We need to be clear about what we want and what we will no longer put up with. The costs of doing nothing are huge.
What has been happening in Zambia must not pass without comment. It is a direct assault on Zambia’s democratic traditions and a stain on the continent’s record.
It has long-term costs for Zambians and other Africans alike.
That much, too, should be recognised by those international actors and donors who profess to hold African development dear.
But the onus is on African politicians everywhere to speak out. When they don’t, their populations should be asking why not?
I would urge those in power in Zambia to take a step back from the brink and move back onto the path of democratic progress while they still can, before irreversible damage is done.
Quickly releasing HH would be a good first step for the cause of democracy in Zambia and Africa.
Odinga is the former Prime Minister of Kenya and current Leader of opposition