By Sishuwa Sishuwa
(NOTE: The article below is a flashback and was published in the print edition of The Post newspaper on 11 September 2012. It is reproduced here in its original form, without ANY alterations, to demonstrate the evolution of the PF-UPND rivalry and erosion of democratic principles under the watch of Michael Sata and now Edgar Lungu.)
THE relationship between the government, the police and the public is raising serious concern about the maturity of our democracy. Last week, police cancelled a political rally that the United Party for National Development (UPND) was supposed to hold in Lusaka’s Kanyama township on Sunday, September 9, 2012.
Police argued that there were insufficient police officers to man the gathering, as many of them would be sent to Ndola to provide security to the Zambia vs. Uganda soccer match a day before the rally. Later, the UPND successfully contested the police decision in court and Lusaka High Court judge Justin Chashi directed police to allow the second largest opposition party to proceed with their rally.
However, police defied the court order, sealed off the rally’s venue on the material day and sent away party officials that were supposed to address it. Police also impounded two 26-seater buses from Southern Province in Kafue on the presumption that the passengers were UPND cadres going to attend an ‘illegal’ rally. What do we make out of this?
First is that the decision by the police to cancel a rally that had the backing of a court order – however flawed that order might be, including the improper manner in which it was served – raises serious questions about their attitude towards court rulings and the law in general.
Does a police directive take precedence over court rulings under the new political dispensation of the Patriotic Front government? Are we moving away from what the law says to what the police are saying? On what legal grounds did the police stop unarmed passengers from attending a rally in Lusaka?
What law did those suspected UPND cadres, whose buses were impounded, violate by seeking to attend the rally in Lusaka? Doesn’t our Constitution guarantee us the right of assembly and the freedom of movement? The action by the police threatens the consolidation of democracy in the country, is a recipe for trouble and anarchy and a blatant violation of the fundamental freedoms bestowed on all of us by the Constitution.
As The Post editorialised on Sunday, ‘the freedom of assembly is an inalienable right protected as such by our Constitution, which cannot be taken away from the UPND or indeed anybody else by the police’ or the government. The argument that there were insufficient police officers to provide security at the UPND rally is simply unconvincing.
Were all the police officers on the entire Copperbelt Province, including the Mobile Unit from Kamfinsa in Kitwe, inadequate for the Zambia vs. Uganda match? During the campaigns for last year’s elections, we saw the police providing security to the rallies of different political parties, sometimes in the same location. What has changed? Has the population of police officers drastically reduced between September last year and today?
If so, the police command should inform the nation so that we ask the government to increase the staffing levels, because that is a frightening scenario. Calamities do not make appointments and it is possible that we will one day have challenges that require adequate police manpower in different localities.
In any case, what were the foundations of the fears of violence? How many police officers are required to police a political rally? 100 or 200, or more? How did the police arrive at the conclusion that the number of people who would have turned up at the UPND rally in Kanyama, a PF stronghold, would have been so huge that it required a massive police presence?
The purpose of the police is to protect the rights of citizens, not the wishes of anybody, including the political elites in power. If the police were afraid that the rally attendants would have violated the rights and freedoms of other people, there are adequate laws in place to deal with that. Allowing the UPND to go ahead with the planned rally would have actually been a litmus test for the party leadership and membership.
There was absolutely no need for the police to trample on the rights and freedoms of citizens with such impunity, and the behaviour of our men and women in uniform should be condemned in strongest terms.
Given both the highly provocative behaviour of PF cadres, who, armed with dangerous weapons, marched through the venue and needlessly taunted their UPND counterparts on the day of the rally, and the unprofessional and partisan conduct of the police, it is possible that if the UPND had taken a more confrontational and physical approach, we would have ended up with the kind of carnage similar to the recent Lonmin platinum mine massacre by police at Marikana in South Africa.
Lessons should be drawn from this sour case and never again should we return to this rather embarrassing episode. Our second observation is in form of a question: ba PF, muletutwala kwisa? Please tell us, what is really going on?
The stunning silence by the government on the conduct of the police on this case suggests that they do not see anything wrong with what occurred. It may indeed be that the police were simply acting on political instructions from some government officials.
There appears to be an element of desperation on the part of the ruling party, especially when it comes to the UPND. It would seem that the PF is determined to silence the UPND and its leader, Hakainde Hichilema. But they are going about it in a way that suggests political victimisation and that might turn Hichilema into a personality. Why is the PF shooting itself into the foot by giving the UPND political mileage?
For a leader and a political party without national appeal as the UPND and Hichilema are, the attacks by the PF on them are likely to backfire. I have previously written in this column that many of the utterances that Hichilema makes are extremely petty and shallow, and do not deserve any response at all.
Many people may begin thinking that for the government to give such considerable attention to Hichilema and even to demonstrate signs of panicking, there must be something about him that is really good. Consequently, Hichilema and the UPND may be recipients of both public sympathy and the revulsion against the PF, thereby raising their political profile in the imagination of many Zambians.
There are people who gave the PF a sympathy vote in last year’s elections as a protest against the MMD’s perceived harassment of PF leaders. It may be that the PF views the politically-untested Hichilema as a more potent threat to their hold onto power than the MMD, which remains discredited in the eyes of many Zambians.
This view is reinforced by the fact that the PF has strategically sustained the revulsion against the MMD by constantly referring to its dubious past while attempting to silence Hichilema and the UPND by denying them the political space in which to freely conduct their campaigns and criticise power.
The consequence of this kind of politics is that we will have political opposition and even political alternations founded not on different ideologies, world outlooks, values and policies but on the revulsion against the incumbent leadership and ruling party, and the electorate’s desire to give a chance to those who remain politically untested.
A more serious effect of having an opposition party that gets in power not on the basis of any ideological opposition but because of widespread revulsion against an incumbent is that such a party, once in government, may not be in a position to propose policies; after all, all it would have learnt in opposition was how to oppose whatever the former ruling party proposed.
Is this all there is to our politics, or have we reduced politics to this?
(As exactly published in The Post on 11 September 2012. The original article also appears on this link