by Joseph Cotterill in Lusaka ( Financial Times)
The mysterious blaze that destroyed Zambia’sbiggest market this month was still smouldering when President Edgar Lungu invoked emergency powers to prevent further “sabotage” he blamed on the opposition.
But standing beside the burnt-out shell of the market in the capital Lusaka, those who lost livelihoods in the fire say that Mr Lungu, far from helping them, is presiding over the rapid decay of what was until recently one of Africa’s most peaceful democracies.
“No one is free to say anything against the government. The president wants everyone to agree with him. This is not democracy,” says a taxi driver whose wife lost her stall in the blaze, and who asked for his name to be withheld for fear of police reprisal. He says Mr Lungu’s ruling Patriotic Front is “working with the police to arrest the opposition”.
Mr Lungu, who has been in power since early 2015, blames Zambia’s opposition for a spate of alleged arson attacks that culminated in the market fire on July 4. But critics say the president is pursuing a vendetta against opponents who claim that he stole a narrow victory in presidential elections last year.
Those concerns were sharpened by the arrest of Hakainde Hichilema, the main opposition leader, on treason charges in April after his convoy refused to pull over for the presidential motorcade. Mr Hichilema has been in jail ever since in what the opposition says is a bid to force him to recognise Mr Lungu as president — which he has refused to do since he came second in last year’s election.
The fear in Zambia and more widely is that Mr Lungu’s attacks on the opposition and the detention of Mr Hichilema have stoked a political crisis that is imperilling the southern African nation’s reputation for stability.
“Our democracy is on the cliff and at any time we may fall over into the ditch,” says McDonald Chipenzi, a political activist, who points to a weakening of civil society, polarisation of the media and smothering of dissent in Zambia’s rural hinterland. “Our democracy is not as it is supposed to be.”
Mr Lungu has said that the emergency measures, which includes increasing the powers of detention, are “necessary to allow for a speedy and thorough investigation” of the market blaze and other “politically motivated” fires in recent months. He insists civil liberties remain intact.
Zambian president Edgar Lungu, left, and Hakainde Hichilema, the country’s main opposition leader, right
However, opposition rallies have been repeatedly interrupted, even before the emergency powers were enacted for three months.
A poll released last week by Afrobarometer, a research company, showed that less than half the 1,200 Zambians questioned were satisfied with how the nation’s democracy was working in the wake of last year’s vote, compared with 68 per cent following elections in 2011. Only 60 per cent believe last year’s poll was free and fair, while nearly two-thirds do not feel free to criticise Mr Lungu — echoing fears expressed at the Lusaka city market.
“In a Zambian context, this [crackdown] is very unusual,” says one western diplomat of the fears over democracy.
Zambia, Africa’s second biggest copper producer, threw off decades of post-independence one-party rule in 1991 and has not experienced a state of emergency in 20 years.
The diplomat warns of a “Catch-22” situation developing over how to resolve the crisis, with Mr Lungu insisting that Mr Hichilema recognise him as president before any reconciliation talks can start.
The Catholic church has sought to foster dialogue between the two rivals. Some diplomats have expressed hope that the government may be prepared to withdraw the treason charges to prevent Mr Hichilema becoming a martyr.
But Mr Lungu last week reacted fiercely against the country’s law association after it said the emergency powers must end after three months. Lawyers should go into politics if they want to oppose him, the president said.
Observers say a broader problem in the crisis is the weakness of Zambia’s political parties, which are held together by personalities and access to patronage, such as the building of roads to politically loyal areas.
“Issues of loyalty are very fluid,” says Bradford Machila, a lawyer and former cabinet minister.
The political crisis has also distracted from the policy challenges faced by the country, which is emerging from a downturn in copper prices that battered public finances and where most of the population still depend on subsistence farming.
Analysts say Mr Lungu’s hounding of the opposition is in part a reflection of rivals in his own party. He is said to face at least three factions inside the Patriotic Front, including the old guard who served under Michael Sata, his predecessor who died in office in 2014.
Mr Lungu has insisted that he will stand in the next general election, due in 2021, in what is seen as an attempt to stamp his authority on his party and the country.