By Sishuwa Sishuwa
In response to my article ‘This is why Zambia may burn after the August election’, John Nyawali, a ‘concerned citizen and parent’ and former spokesperson of the Drug Enforcement Commission, took issue with my article that Zambia may burn after the August election if we do not address the factors that are responsible for the movement towards that horrible potential fate. In an article titled ‘Prediction of political turmoil: A response to Dr Sishuwa’, published in News Diggers on 22 March 2021, Nyawali falsely accused me of advocating violence post the election and declared that there will be no civil strife in Zambia because there has not been any in the past.
I welcome the response from Nyawali and take my hat off to him for mustering the courage to publish his thoughts openly through the same platform that I used to express mine. A key reason why I write is to encourage public debate on relevant issues and hopefully attract genuine attention to the subjects raised, for possible action. Side conversations undermine this objective. In the spirit of healthy public debate, I have decided to respond to Nyawali to set the record straight and enhance public understanding on democratic backsliding in Zambia. Let us unpack his reply on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Nyawali starts his reaction to my opinion piece with a patronising and despicable compliment.
Nyawali: “I must say that Dr. Sishuwa is a prolific writer and researcher with potential of being A rated. I have followed his exploits from the time he was a student at UNZA to-date. His last article I read was his eulogy for Andrew Sardines (may his soul rest in internal peace). I have been compelled to respond to Dr. Sishuwa’s latest article entitled “This is why Zambia may burn after the August elections”. Let me outrightly say that at the risk of being misunderstood, I am responding to Dr Sishuwa in my capacity as a concerned citizen and also as a parent.”
Comment: Here, Nyawali is employing a psychological device – pretending to know me well in order to qualify himself as a person who can rate me. According to him, sitting as the self-appointed reviewer, I am a respectable writer and researcher, but I am not yet at the level of being A rated. Why? Because he has closely followed my writings and even read my most recent article. At some point in future, I might earn his A rating. For now, however and in his appraisal, I am yet to reach that level. This offensive style of writing has one aim: to lower my status in the eyes of the readers and impress them to reduce the level of respect they may have for what I write.
I reject with the highest contempt the idea that I could be A rated. I do not write for recognition or rating from anyone. Neither do I write to appease anyone – one who writes for praise frames their arguments in a manner that is aimed at meeting that aspiration or ambition. Exercising my constitutional right to free speech, I write to advance the cause of truth (however inconvenient to some), justice and freedom; to encourage open and honest discussion on matters of public interest; to express myself on such matters and invite responses in practice and at the level of theory; and to contribute to fostering a culture of reading and written debate in Zambia.
In the case of the previous article, I wrote to alert Zambians to the possible consequences of the trajectory the country has embarked upon, to help identify the drivers of that possible danger ahead, and to suggest some effective solutions. In other words, I am not the message. I am the messenger. I am a carrier of the knowledge of the possible consequences of a flawed election. I am not the cause of the current movement towards civil unrest in Zambia, post the 12 August election. I hate violence, which is why I am, in fact, alerting the nation to the point that any country that follows the trajectory Zambia has embarked upon may end up in grief, great grief, if nothing is done to arrest the key drivers of potential post-election violence, as elaborated in my article.
I note Nyawali’s curious disclaimer that he was responding to my article in his “capacity as a concerned citizen and also as a parent”. What he conceals from readers is his other identity that necessitated this unsolicited clarification and could be a source of misunderstanding. I do not like discussing individuals when addressing important national subjects, but it becomes almost inevitable to do so when dealing with a response that avoids the gist of one’s argument and effectively amounts to a cynical manipulation of what should be a serious debate.
Nyawali works in the Office of the Vice-President of Zambia, particularly in the resettlement office in Kabwe. Is this the undisclosed capacity he feared might be misunderstood? Was he afraid that if readers knew his lack of critical distance from President Edgar Lungu’s authoritarian regime, they might see his views within the prism of someone who is part of the system and therefore has the responsibility to defend it? Is this the premise on which he sidestepped the discussion of the perilous state of human rights, governance and democracy in Zambia under Lungu’s watch?
Nyawali: “I have a different opinion from what the Dr. Sishuwa says concerning Zambia likely to go into flames after the results of the forthcoming elections particularly because 1) stakes are high and 2) silence of the international community including the United Kingdom. Those two are my departure points from what he says.”
Response: In the originating article, I wrote that “If Zambia descends into large-scale political unrest after the 12 August 2021 general election, there are three major factors that would have driven the country to that outcome”. I named the first factor as the public’s increasing lack of trust in (and outright contempt for) formal institutions – like the Judiciary, the Electoral Commission of Zambia and the police – as arbiters of the contest between those who wield state power and those seeking to acquire it.
I identified the second as a high-stakes election, featuring two ruthless groups of political elites. One wants to perpetuate its stay in power to continue accumulating resources and to escape possible prosecution and imprisonment; the other seeks to win power to prevent a crushing end to its members’ political careers. I stated that leaders and supporters of both groups see the August election as a matter of life and death and are likely to rebel violently against an outcome that does not favour them — particularly if the electoral process lacks credibility.
I then added that what has emboldened the first two factors is the third: the incriminating silence of international, mainly Western, institutions and actors who once spoke out against human rights violations and murderous attacks on democracy, thus exercising some kind of leverage over the actions of the political elites in power.
There are two points to be said here in response. The first is that while they coalesce around the reprehensible actions of President Lungu’s authoritarian regime, the three points I used to illustrate my argument that Zambia may burn after the elections were interrelated, and they should be assessed as such. One cannot be ripped out of the totality of why we are moving towards potential civil unrest. The second is that by taking the last two factors as his departure points, Nyawali, by implication, agrees with the first factor: that vital formal institutions such as the judiciary, the electoral body and the police have been vandalised by Lungu’s administration to a point where they are no longer trusted or seen by the public as legitimate. If there is substance to this supposition, then what prevented Nyawali from acknowledging this point and that removing Lungu, who has presided over this weakening of state institutions, is a welcome step in the right direction? If Nyawali disagrees with the first factor, why then did he omit it from his response?
Nyawali: “Firstly, I don’t find his article to be an opinion or prediction but advocacy in the sense that prediction is a science informed by well-established systems, approaches or models. An opinion is also informed by documented history or events that can be traced to help form an opinion. The article in question lacks any of those two to qualify to be an opinion or prediction, that’s why I think it can be classified as advocacy.”
Response: It is here where Nyawali presents me as a treasonable element who is advocating violence. He does this in two ways. First, he seeks to destroy the basis upon which I made my conclusions by claiming that my methodology had no scientific basis, and my conclusions were therefore flawed. Second, he imagines himself to be a dictionary and defines the relevant terms – prediction, opinion, and advocacy – for everybody. The truth is that I am neither an advocate for peace nor violence. Peace or violence occur not as a result of wishful declarations or prayers but a set of human-made conditions that make them inevitable. All I did in my article was to make a forecast based on a set of observable scientific facts – as they have accumulated thus far – about how Zambia, based on the current trajectory, is moving towards a flawed election that may give rise to political unrest. It is a fact that Lungu’s regime has:
- made a mockery of Zambia’s democratic tradition and effectively eliminated constitutional and lawful means of political competition for the occupation of government;
- effectively destroyed the vestiges of autonomy in all state institutions outside the executive arm of government for the purposes of establishing an authoritarian regime and a slide into a fearful dictatorship. The president has carried out this task with considerable ease, impunity and skill, employing a line of political rhetoric and well-concealed hypocrisy that went unrecognised until it was far too late;
- loaded the courts with judges loyal to the regime;
- turned the police into a political tool to be unleashed on critics and political opponents and armed it to the teeth;
- collapsed the economy, turning millions of Zambians into fearful beggars easy to corrupt and bribe;
- deeply polarised Zambia on ethno-regional and political lines;
- weakened the trade union movement to a point of rendering it useless to the working class;
- generated mass youth unemployment, massively grown prostitution and youth dependence on alcohol and drug abuse, swelled the ranks of street kids and orphans, exploded the number of violent crimes, increased youth remand and imprisonment, and produced a generation of young people without hope eager to be deployed for political violence;
- paved the way for bribery and corruption to thrive on a widespread scale and to destroy even the moral fibre of the leaders of the church, many of whom have been converted into party cadres;
- destroyed some and weakened and intimidated most of the private media;
- used sustained neglect, financial strangulation and bullying to turn public universities led by the University of Zambia into upgraded secondary schools and ghost institutions;
- created a new, dubious voters’ roll to make it nearly impossible for Lungu to be evicted from the government through elections;
- enacted a punitive cybercrime law to police the use of social media, legalise spying on citizens and arrest-free speech;
- recreated “party cadres” as the informal police to terrorise citizens who do not toe the line or identify with the wishes of those in power. These cadres have become perfect tools for the corrupt and violent political elites to deploy against their political opponents. Sadly, mass unemployment provides an endless supply of desperate, impoverished youths as “party cadres” for the violent political elites to deploy as they see fit; and
- stockpiled weapons to kill potential protesters in the event of a flawed election outcome.
These are observable facts, tied to several events or incidents that are well-known by any sane person who follows national affairs. Those who have a contrary view must demonstrate point by point why and how these fifteen facts are wrong. Making a prediction that rests on the analysis of these facts is not advocacy; it is (social) science. In any case, there is nothing that I said which the three Christian church mother bodies have not repeated. In a joint statement issued on the same day when my article was first published in News Diggers (19 March 2021), the leadership of the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Council of Churches in Zambia and the Evangelical Fellowship of
Zambia made a number of important observations on different national issues. The Churches said:
On the dangerous state of play: “We are aware that a good number of stakeholders are not satisfied with what is going on in the country; economically, politically and socially. As we move towards the August elections, there are issues currently affecting the country and others that may affect the credibility of the 2021 elections in August. We therefore wish to bring the following to the attention of the nation and call upon every Zambian to take every step possible to promote peace before, during and after elections.”
On selective issuance of National Registration Cards: “[the] exercise (mobile issuance of National Registration Cards) did not provide equal opportunities to all the Zambians that needed the cards. We raised this issue with the Ministry of Home Affairs, but no action was taken to improve the situation.”
On the voter registration exercise that left many Zambians disfranchised: “[T]he period that was given for this mobile voter registration exercise was clearly not enough and so many potential voters could not manage to register.”
On the scam that the new voters’ register is: “We have noted the obvious differences of the numbers between the provinces whose NRC issuance was restricted and those who had a longer period of obtaining their cards as well as those who experienced challenges during the registration of voters. We wish to inform the nation that we are currently studying the provisional register and analysing the data and will share our findings in due course. We are doing this because the Voter’s Roll is a very important document that determines the credibility of any election.”
On the abuse of the police and the erosion of the rule of law: “Zambia has experienced a situation where the Public Order Act (POA) has continued to be applied selectively to curtail the ability of opposition political parties to mobilise and publicize their manifestos and to shut up other players with contrary views from those of government and the party in power….We take this opportunity to remind the nation that the aim of rule of law is to limit and check the arbitrary, oppressive, and despotic tendencies of those in power, and to ensure equal treatment and protection of all citizens irrespective of race, tribe, class, status, religion, place of origin, or political persuasion. It means having a legal framework that is fair, impartial, particularly in regard to human rights, public security and safety. Authority is legitimate if there is an established legal and institutional framework, and if decisions are taken in accordance with the accepted institutional criteria, processes, and procedures. The perception that law enforcement agents had been biased and only favouring individuals from the ruling party, is now a reality that is making non ruling party members take the law into their own hands. This is equally not right.”
On the abuse of the public media and crackdown on the private media: “[T]he public media has failed to fairly provide a platform for all Zambians, regardless of their political affiliation, to air their views and express their opinions on them…. The cracking down of the private independent media that took place before and after the elections in 2016 sent a clear message to all private media that criticizing Government decisions and actions could put them in trouble. On the other hand, media houses have continued to be harassed and closed while some of the radio stations continue to be attacked by political cadres who are intolerant of divergent views. All these actions are a direct attack on the freedom of expression that Zambians are entitled to enjoy.”
On shrinking democratic space and the rising digital repression: “We are disheartened to see the country moving backwards by using the same exclusion political strategies that the colonialists used such as the POA, restriction in the use of the public media, use of violence and arbitrary arrest to scare political opponents and members of the public. In addition to this, media platform restriction has now extended to social media as government has taken to parliament the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill of 2021. We are aware that this has passed the third reading and is awaiting the assent of the President…. We are equally aware that many Zambians and organisations, such as the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ), political parties and a number of CSOs have raised concerns about this bill and demanded that it be withdrawn for further consultations. The Parliamentary Committee that considered the bill also recommended its withdrawal. As such, people are asking as to why the House moved on without taking into account the concerns of all key stakeholders? Therefore, we appeal to the conscience of the President not to sign the bill into law.”
On the use of COVID-related restrictions to crack down on opposition: “In addition, we urge those in authority not to use the observance of COVID-19 protocols to stifle the efforts of those seeking to be elected, especially those in opposition. A level playing field must be created in order to avoid a disputed election even before we cast a vote.”
On Church leaders who are now party cadres and prone to bribes: “As a conscience of the nation, the Church must be non-partisan and avoid receiving gifts that have the potential to make it lose its prophetic voice.”
On what is to be done: “we call upon government and all stakeholders in the nation to take concrete steps and actions that are necessary to restore confidence in the electoral processes and rule of law…so that we guarantee for our people, free, fair, credible and peaceful elections…and [a] peaceful Zambia where all citizens freely participate in governance within a thriving social and economic environment.”
Apart from my explicit warning that Zambia may burn after the election if we do not change course or take concrete steps and actions that are necessary to prevent that horrible outcome, what is the difference in substance between what I said and what the Churches said?
Nyawali again: “When he says that this year’s election has high stakes that’s why he sees Zambia likely to burn, let me remind Dr. Sishuwa that this is not the first time Zambia is having high stake democratic elections. We had the 1991 elections in which the party and its government (PIG/UNIP) lost power to an opposition party MMD and no high scale political unrest was experienced. Zambia as a country and her lovely people prevailed above all interests.”
Response: Did Nyawali read my article carefully? Had he done so, he would have noted that I characterised the August elections as high-stakes because they “feature two (desperate and) ruthless groups of political elites. One wants to perpetuate its stay in power to continue accumulating resources and to escape possible prosecution and imprisonment; the other seeks to win power to prevent a crushing end to its members’ political careers. I stated that leaders and supporters of both groups see the August election as a matter of life and death and are likely to rebel violently against an outcome that does not favour them — particularly if the electoral process lacks credibility”.
This is the criterion I used to describe the elections as high-stakes. This is the thesis upon which my argument rests. My assessment of why both sides cannot accept a loss is precisely because of the qualitatively different “stakes” at issue here from the previous elections: a loss for either side spells economic and political disaster as none has ever faced in our political history. Lungu awaits a fate worse than Frederick Chiluba’s. Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the main opposition party, would be finished, completely. There is neither middle ground nor alternative to winning the elections for either group.
So, the uniqueness of the situation is the presence of these two warring political factions, both of whom have no alternative but to win. Neither Lungu nor Hichilema have said they will be happy to lose the election. In fact, supporters of both groups have been psyched into the belief that their leaders will win the elections, come what may. In the same print newspaper edition that carried Nyawali’s article, there are two opposing stories that speak to my prognosis. One story is from Hichilema, who was quoted as saying ‘Zambia has suffered under PF. We won’t sleep until we take over [and] change is effected on August 12’. The other story is from Given Lubinda, the Minister of Justice, who was saying ‘We have been in opposition before. We are not prepared to go back there. Being in opposition is a sickness, a big problem which the ruling party does not want to go back to’. Since only one of these groups can win state power, what would happen if both claimed victory? This is the iron grip reality of our current situation which only an external force can shutter. I invite Nyawali to address himself to these specific points and to demonstrate with certainty how any country given this situation can escape large-scale political unrest.
It is worth noting that both groups are presently not talking about the militia-like party cadres and psychology of warfare that has been cultivated in either camp. Neither are they discussing the integrity of the electoral process, the voters’ roll and its integrity, the bias of the public media or the fear of closure that hovers constantly on the private media – in short, all the things that make it impossible to have a free and fair election. Hichilema is not saying ‘because the police are curtailing our political activities, because the Electoral Commission of Zambia has produced a voters’ roll that is skewed in favour of the incumbent, because Lungu has packed the courts with loyal judges, we cannot win this election’. He is simply saying ‘We will win the election in spite of all that’. Hichilema is not giving confidence to his supporters because he has faith in the integrity of the electoral process. He is giving confidence to his supporters that he will win the election because he is confident himself.
The same is true for Lungu. If the Constitution Court ruled that he is ineligible to stand for another term of office, will he and supporters welcome the decision? Or would they turn violent? If he lost the elections, will Lungu and his supporters accept the outcome – when his minister has told us that they are not leaving government? Recently, the president said he is not focused on the elections but what to do afterwards, suggesting that for him the outcome was a foregone conclusion – he will win. A few months earlier, Lungu had advised those who wish to lead Zambia to wait until 2026 or 2031, when he will finally be out of power. One can argue that this is politicians’ way of talking, but there is a difference. First, the question of Lungu’s eligibility to stand for another term in office is far from being settled. Where does Lungu draw the knowledge that he would be on the ballot for the 12 August election?
Lungu is not saying that ‘I recognise that there are Zambians who say I am not eligible to stand for a third time. I believe I am eligible and invite those who think otherwise to wait until after I have filed my nomination papers so that they can approach the Constitutional Court for final determination of the matter. If the ConCourt rules that I am not eligible, I will abide by that decision, ask my supporters to respect it and oversee the transition to the next president of Zambia after the 12 August poll. If the court rules that I am eligible, I expect those with a contrary view to similarly respect and accept the outcome.’ Does Lungu know something about his eligibility that Zambians do not? Does he or his supporters plan to intimidate judges into submission or employ violence against anyone who plans to lodge a petition against his eligibility to stand for election once he has filed his nomination papers? Do they intend to block routes to the courts?
Second, even if the ConCourt donates a third term to him, the workings of electoral democracy dictate that Lungu would still need to convince majority voters that he deserves another term. Given that he won the last presidential election with a slender margin, where does he get the confidence to declare that voters would return him to power this August? Is he confident of not being removed because he knows what he has done to make sure that he gets the result he wants – he now has a voters’ register that favours him, controls the police, has terrorised the opposition and is exploiting the pandemic to deny his political opponents the space they need to mobilise and conduct their activities? Or is it because he thinks no one can stop him since there are very few constraints in his path – timid citizens, weak institutions, and the confluence of forces that have shaped us into who we are: a strange, pacified and frightened lot that has allowed politicians like Lungu to trample on us with impunity?
Those accusing me of fanning the flames of violence are ignoring this point: Zambia has never been confronted with a situation where we have one group seeking to perpetuate itself in power at any cost and another seeking to win state power because its leadership has publicly pledged to quit politics if it loses this election. It is in this context that I termed the election as a matter of life and death. Both groups are proceeding on the certainty that they will be in government after Election Day. It is not important whether they win the elections or not. They do not care what the results will be. What matters is that they will be in government.
Now, I do not think there is anything wrong with any political party that says they are going to win the election. That is important for the morale of one’s supporters. No one votes for a person who says I might lose. The problem is that in Zambia the process is extremely flawed, and this perhaps does not allow the opposition to say that they will accept the results. Elections are a contest. One only accepts the results if the rules of the game are fair.
Looking at August 12 as a magical wand, both Hichilema and Lungu are feeding their supporters the illusion that they are only waiting for formal confirmation of their inevitable victory. This dangerous rhetoric totally ignores the hard reality, but it may be what is keeping the supporters of both groups from taking to the streets. Let Nyawali go to Lungu and Hichilema and ask them to pledge publicly that they would accept the outcome of the elections if they lost, even in the absence of an electoral process that is credible in the eyes of all the contestants. As things stand today, none of them appear prepared to lose to the other. No other outcome than victory will be acceptable to either of them.
This situation makes it close to impossible to conceive of a post-election Zambia in which both of them live peacefully with each other. When two irreconcilable forces emerge to confront each other, only the elimination of the other can end the stalemate. Could electoral exclusion be on the cards? Recent weeks have seen intense speculation in the media that Lungu harbours plans to arrest Hichilema on a trumped-up charge. If there is substance to this allegation, the objective would presumably be to secure a dubious conviction that would disqualify his main rival from the 2021 race.
Given that there is not enough time now to have a full process that would find him guilty (a hurried trial would expose the bogus and political nature of the case), a more likely objective would be to arrest him and either prevent him from filing nominations, confine him in detention during campaigns, or possibly eliminate him in custody, as Hichilema himself claimed recently. Were any of these scenarios to materialise, Zambia could burn long before the election. Indeed, a number of Hichilema’s supporters have recently warned that any attempt to arrest their leader would be met with strong resistance. I invite Nyawali and those who think like him to work with the concrete reality of our situation, not hope alone.
Nyawali: “In the 2001 democratic elections, a well-known opposition party took a clear early lead only for things to change at the 11th hour. Emotions and tempers were high among political players, it was a high-stake election, but reason and peace prevailed above everything else. Zambia and her people triumphed. When the late President His Excellency President Michael Sata lost a high-stake election, some of his supporters took to the street to cause anarchy, but he prevailed over them and called for peace. Zambia once again prevailed above any other interests.
Not long ago, 2011, the country experienced one of the closely and hotly contested elections in which a party in government lost to an opposition party. Jubilant scenes in the streets of our mother land and at the same time, emotional and heart touching pictures of an outgoing President shading tears in front of local and international media. That was one of the high-stake elections in the history of this country, but Zambia did not experience any unrest but peaceful transfer of power. Again, peace and reason prevailed above all interests. In all these elections, the institutions that Dr. Sishuwa is mentioning and possibly discrediting managed and delivered results that were internationally accepted.”
Response: Here, Nyawali fatally misses two crucial points. The first is that the current trajectory does not lend itself to historical comparison, i.e., what happened last time when the situation was like this. Until the 2011 election, Zambia had a strong democratic culture maintained by functioning state institutions that retained the trust of citizens. The government generally respected civil and political rights (right of public assembly, freedom of expression, right to life, freedom of association, etc.) and citizens were able to hold their leaders to account. There also existed an independent press, represented most notably by The Post newspaper and a functioning judiciary that was able to protect human rights. Those who lost elections could either turn to the Supreme Court or more likely look forward to the next election since they had relative confidence in the formal institutions. Civil society organisations and opposition parties, including the Patriotic Front, went about mobilising citizens or conducting their activities without undue restrictions from the government.
At the helm of the electoral commission was an effective leadership that sought to build consensus in times of divisions and was respected even by the opposition. The police service had its challenges, but it still retained its primary character as a professional institution out to maintain law and order, protect members of the public and their property, prevent the commission of offences and to bring the offenders to justice. The head of the executive branch of government (be it Kenneth Kaunda, Fredrick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa or Rupiah Banda) was an individual who was constrained as much by institutions as by their own character, who reflected diversity (ethnicity, gender, race, disability, etc) and inclusiveness in their appointments to public office, who recruited people who think and advocate solutions to the country’s problems, and who brought some kind of vision and competence to the presidency.
Previously, all these factors served as countervailing forces towards civil strife. This is exactly what has changed. Our democratic credentials and culture have collapsed, and the executive is today headed by a president who has neither restraint nor respect for the rules of the game. Critical media outlets (e.g., The Post newspaper and Prime Television) have been shut down while others continue to face intimidation. Civil society has been severely undermined, opposition parties have been obstructed from conducting their political activities, and the government has enacted terrible legislation to coercively control the use of digital space. Public confidence in the autonomy and authority of the police has been seriously eroded. Far from being seen as an apolitical and professional body that is out to protect individual liberties of all Zambians regardless of their political affiliation, the public now regards the police as nothing more than a sword for the elites in power and their supporters. This is because the executive branch of government has corrupted the police, as it has done to other state institutions.
More importantly, the key institutions that offer the long-term hope for democratic consolidation – elections, the constitution, the judiciary, etc. – are more under threat now than they were before. Captured by the executive, these are the institutions which previously could be relied upon to rise above partisan considerations and successfully mediate conflict between those holding state power and those seeking to acquire it. Added to this is the degree and forms of poverty especially among the youth, and the political usage of this impoverished layer by virtually all political parties, the intolerable levels of unemployment, extreme inequalities, and the fact that we have an executive arm of government that stokes ethnic divisions – the majority of all Cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and members of parastatal boards in Zambia today hail from two ethnic language groups in a Republic that prides itself as a multi-ethnic nation.
All considered, we have entered into the realm of the unprecedented and are actively brewing a bonfire we must expect to be roasted by, one day. It is fair to say that the balance of forces is pushing us towards this situation becoming more severe rather than a rebalancing. Approached from this perspective, it is easy to see what is different today from the past and to understand why a flawed outcome in the August election may turn out to be the spark that lights the simmering discontent. It is wrong for Nyawali to judge future Zambian political behaviour on the basis of the past when the relevant institutions in the past were not as rotten as they have become in the present.
In all the elections Nyawali cites, he does not deal with the core reason why l think possible unrest awaits us: the destruction, decay, and loss of public trust in the state/government institutions that made it possible for Zambia to ride over the objections from losers of elections in the past. His attempt at downplaying the scientific and factual basis of my prognosis reeks of feigned ignorance of the premise upon which I based my prognosis. My article begun by illustrating the reasons why this time things are uniquely different, how Lungu has destroyed public confidence in the mechanisms for arbitrating political competition and so on.
I invite Nyawali to address himself to my substantiative point, instead of singing praises for what does not exist anymore. Nyawali has deliberately concealed how I illustrated the sources of loss of public trust in vital state institutions, whose legitimacy even the church mother bodies are now questioning. What stops countries from erupting into civil strife is the quality of state institutions and the political culture that grows from them. We saw this recently in the United States where even the judges who had been appointed by Donald Trump stood above partisan politics at a decisive moment to uphold the rule of law, protect the country from burning, stand up to presidential power, and help preserve the constitutional order of the Republic. Can the Constitutional Court do this? History will tell. One thing is clear though: the survival of our democracy rests on the extent to which the public sees state institutions as legitimate.
The second point that Nyawali fatally misses is that a people’s past behaviour is not the definitive basis for how it will behave in the future. It may be instructive, but it is not automatic. The belief that because Zambians did not turn violent in any other election, they will therefore not become violent in any future election – whatever the quality of that election – does not lend itself to logic and the credence of social science. I have explained the factors that are different this time. While useful as a reference point, we cannot copy and paste the past into the future. The context and variables matter.
Much as we do not have a history of violence to use for a definitive forecast, it would be naïve to rely on our famed ‘peace-loving people’ refrain as the basis for ruling out with certainty the possibility for national unrest, post the elections. We have examples of Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) as countries that were once celebrated as peaceful and non-violent. Where are they today? They are unstable and have endured civil strife and political instability. The best and most effective way of preventing the drive towards violence is by identifying the potential causes and addressing them in real time. It is not by relying on the mythical non-violent character of a people.
In fact, the illusion that we Zambians have a non-violent gene is simply that: an illusion. The notion that anyone can ride roughshod over us, that we can bear and tolerate whatever indignity we are subjected to – because we are a pacified, cowardly and permanently whimpering lot, wedded to ‘peace’– is insulting. With the right triggers, we can erupt. We Zambians are a proud people, like any other, capable of fighting repression and injustices. Pressed to the wall, we are bound to behave like any other normal human being: to resist, especially if the formal institutions that should serve our interests and adjudicate disputes lose their legitimacy. To state this with certainty is not to fan the flames of violence. It is to define a human quality. It is natural to resist anything that diminishes our humanity. This is the ontological vocation of all human beings – to always grow to higher status, all round, to strive to defeat all things which dehumanise us and retard our full expression and full lives, and work towards the pursuit of more freedoms and greater fulfilment.
There are no people who are inherently peaceful or violent. We peaceful Zambians are as violent as anyone else, and we have seen this under Lungu’s government. Who in the past could have predicted that Zambians are capable of attacking each other violently through acts of ‘gassing’, as we experienced in early 2020? Who could have predicted that Zambians, with a proud history of sheltering millions of refugees during Southern Africa’s struggles for independence, are capable of rising and savaging foreigners with xenophobic violence as we witnessed in April 2016? Extreme poverty in Zambian townships is the cause of this xenophobia.
Zambians are killing each other in homes. Every day, we read or hear of stories of spouses being battered by their partners and even killed in many instances. The only difference is that the violence is not organised. In my originating article, I laid out the facts showing that large-scale political unrest may be ignited by either the opposition or the incumbent, who may simply call on their ‘supporters’ to protest the outcome. At the heart of the matter is the fact of the dominant social class in Zambia today – that unfortunate mass of unemployed workers – the lumpen proletariat. This is the class which holds the key to whether Zambia can one day graduate to full-blown national violence.
I would say that the country has long been ripe for national violence. It has only lacked the right combination of middle-class leadership. The elite and desperate politicians provide this leadership. The structural and social violence endemic in the everyday lives of Zambia’s underclass (both in the rural and urban environments) has long needed “political” organisers. Lungu and Hichilema are well placed to do so. Their struggle for ‘government’ is a matter of life and death. It is an intraclass war, since both belong to the same Zambian petty middle class (remember Lungu originally comes from the United Party for National Development!).
The current political and moral chaos in our political class represented by the two competing groups of Lungu and Hichilema (there are absolutely no ideological differences between them; they belong to the same class – a very frustrated aspirant professional and capitalist class who must survive off ‘government’, which is why they freely move between the various political tuntembas) – illustrates how desperate they have become to be part of ‘government’ for their survival. This energy, I am afraid, must burn out, literally and figuratively, before Zambia can be saved from these two groups. All I did in my article, using facts that are available in the public domain, is to expose how either Lungu or Hichilema and their crew may rebel against an election result that does not favour them.
The burning question I sought to address was: what is to be done to avoid this possible outcome? I offered concrete suggestions on how to prevent this in my article. Can Nyawali offer his? We Zambians must learn to think freely and deeply for and about ourselves, and stop being blackmailed by partisan considerations, historical experiences or the fear of anything and anyone. We are not objects of history. We are subjects of history and can shape it. We must never allow ourselves to suffer intolerable forms of indignity out of fear. It is public leaders in government and politicians who must be afraid of the response of Zambians to the violation of the rights of citizens.
Nyawali: “The August elections will mark 30 years of democratic dispensation since 1991, as such, it’s my belief that as a country we have 30 years experience of managing elections. This makes the country to deliver an election without any difficulties as systems may have improved in terms of human resource and technology than they were previously. History shows us that we are a people of reason, democratic and peaceful. No matter our differences, difficulties and challenging situations, we have a country and generations to protect. Zambia has always risen above her problems and has set good example to the world of what democracy should be in a third world country. Even this time, Zambia will not allow losers of the forthcoming election to turn the country upside down. Zambia is our heritage and we also owe it to future generations.”
Response: When one turns a blind eye to the routine violation of citizens’ rights of assembly, association and expression, to the closure of media houses, the silencing of journalists, the closing democratic space, and to the fact that many Zambians today live in fear of their government, they can easily sing the kinds of empty slogans Nyawali is humming. The truth is that Zambia is no longer a model of democracy that the country once was. As a matter of fact, it is now widely regarded as a pariah among democratic states. The fact that there was no unrest after the 2016 elections does not mean those elections were democratic. We owe our gratitude to the magnanimity of those who lost. To expect that a similar experience will occur this time around is to wallow in the tyranny of hope. The acceptance of an election result is dependent on the credibility of the process that produces it.
Nyawali: “Second point of the international community staying aloof, or being quiet on internal matter. In any case, there’s no good reason for them to meddle in our internal affairs. Quite right, we need them their support, we need their money but not to the extent of losing our sovereignty or losing our rights. Zambia needs to wane itself from the dependency syndrome. We need home grown solutions to our problems not solutions to come from abroad. Probably that’s why we are what we are today financially or economically because we have depended on foreign donors for a long time. Dr Sishuwa should also bear in mind that those countries he is mentioning to have pulled out or reduced their budgetary support also have internal economic problems exacerbated by Corona virus.
Additionally, international politics are dynamic and foreign policies change from time to time. Case in point, COVID vaccines have been nationalized and be few poor countries have been given the vaccines or America first. Anyway, that’s for another day.
So, the pulling out or reduction of donor aid presents us as a country an opportunity to find home grown solutions. It should not be seen as a bad thing to happen to the country but as a window of opportunity. As the Bemba adage says “ubuchushi upela amano”. The late Tanzanian President Dr. John Pombe Magufuli showed Africa and other third world countries was still alive on the importance of self reliance. We can research on his works and the works of several other intellectuals who have extensively written on donor aid and its implications.”
Response: I refuse to engage in meaningless distractions and shift the discussion from the real issues I raised in relation to how the silence of international, mainly Western, institutions and actors on the deteriorating state of human rights and democracy in Zambia is emboldening repression. Suffice to say that it is evidence of how Zambia under Lungu’s watch has fallen from grace in international relations that even our imperialist ‘colonial power’ no longer regards the country as important to its geopolitical interests – hence the UK’s decision to “deprioritise” Zambia and cut 70% in funding in 2021 alone, as part of its post-Brexit foreign policy centred on developing close ties with Southeast Asia.
That said, major powers still have the responsibility to speak out when democratic backsliding and human rights violations occur. By remaining quiet when human rights are being strangled, they are, in effect, sanctioning the violation of international treaties on human rights and diluting the universal culture on the importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights. We all have a responsibility to maintain an international order that respects democracy and human rights. The very idea of human rights presupposes that they are due to people not on the basis of citizenship but their humanity. Accountability for performance on human rights and governance must therefore be universal. Human beings should be protected by all human beings.
It is wrong for a government to abuse people and seek to escape international scrutiny by hiding under the banner of sovereignty. I have continued to receive death threats from supporters of those in power for merely expressing my views on the affairs of our country. Anyone from across the world must freely stand up to defend and protect me– though if my murder shines a bright light on Zambia’s authoritarian regime and the degrading conditions of life that most of its people suffer, then I would not have died in vain.
In other words, if the actions of Lungu and his friends in power suggest that they want my head to become a skeleton and will be quite happy to see me occupy a cemetery plot any day soon, non-Zambians should be free to join Nyawali in protecting my right to life. Dead people have no human rights. The constitution of Zambia and international instruments impose obligations on the government to ensure that my rights are protected against whoever violates them. This obligation cannot be imposed on the opposition or individuals.
Nyawali: “Having said all that, we need to emphasize that we have one Zambia and one nation. We have been a democratic country for a long time, we have experienced high stake election before and reason and peace has always prevailed above any other interests. Zambia will not go into flames because of people losing an election, ivo veve sivizachitika.”
Response: Who are these Zambians Nyawali is talking about who will not allow the losers – be they Lungu and his crew or Hichilema and team – to drive the country into unrest? Under normal circumstances, it should be the state institutions, since they are, at least in theory, neutral from all political sides. In the absence of credible state institutions to mediate possible conflict between competing political players, Zambia MAY burn.
In saying all this, I am not propelling the country to civil unrest. I am merely illustrating how our behaviour is leading us to that outcome. Alerting the country to this progression does not amount, even in the remotest sense, to fanning the flames. To the contrary, I am doing everything possible to prevent us from arriving at a situation where unrest becomes inevitable. Please stop shooting the messenger, deal with the message.