On Tuesday, Zambian riot police were deployed all over Lusaka. They were armed and wore full body armour. This show of force was intended to disperse a youth protest planned for Tuesday afternoon, organised in response to several government corruption scandals.
The protesters never arrived but the protest went ahead.
“We had this idea,” said Chama Fumbe, an activist rapper better known by his stage name, Pilato. “Let’s announce that the protest was on. But then let’s do it from the bush.”
At the last minute, the organisers had told their supporters to stay at home. From an undisclosed location just outside of Lusaka, 13 youth activists live-streamed themselves making fiery speeches that railed against corruption and poor governance. And, while the police searched fruitlessly for a demonstration that was not happening, more than half a million people tuned in online.
“It has the potential to change how protest will be conducted,” Pilato said. “There are two streets. There are these physical streets and social media streets. I think this had more influence than if we’d gone to the physical streets.”
There was another upside: no one was shot, beaten or arrested. A furious police spokesperson has announced that arrests will be made – although it’s unclear what anyone could be charged with. As one joker noted on social media, not entirely accurately, only the Zambia Wildlife Authority has jurisdiction in the bush.
Information Minister and government spokesperson Dora Siliya said the police presence in Lusaka was designed to deter an illegal protest. “The youth have nothing to fear from government. But when they want to gather, in the middle of a pandemic … if it was not in a pandemic, I promise you it would be a different story,” she said. “Even Parliament is not allowed to gather.”
Laura Miti, a veteran activist and head of the Alliance for Community Action, hailed the activists’ strategic acumen. “It was a wonderful ruse,” she said. “It was two wins — they were heard widely, and they left power with egg all over their faces. Young people feel very invigorated.”
The government, on the other hand, must be rattled, said Miti. “These protests and Malawi together cannot make for a very comfortable situation for the government.”
In this week’s presidential election in neighbouring Malawi, the ruling party — also dogged by accusations of corruption and poor governance — appears to have been dumped out of office in a landslide victory for the opposition (the results are yet to be officially confirmed).
Pilato and his colleagues used the protest to present a youth charter for the advancement of a “a free society in which every Zambian can aspire for and attain a decent living for themselves”. Its nine central demands include better and more employment; action against corruption; respect for basic freedoms and human rights; accountable leadership; respect for the Constitution; improved education standards; access to health, good housing and sanitation for all; the promotion of women’s rights; and a fairer tax system where the rich pay their fair share.