On Wednesday, President Edgar Lungu told reporters that he would take ‘unprecedented measures’ to deal with a recent spate of arson attacks. “So if I become a dictator for once bear with me,” he said.
That dictatorship is nearer than anyone imagined.
At 8pm on Thursday, Lungu took a massive step towards dismantling his country’s famous democracy.
In a rambling speech, Lungu said that peace and tranquility in Zambia had been eroded by “unpatriotic citizens”; and that, as a result, he had no choice but to invoke Article 31 of the Constitution.
Although this has been widely interpreted as the declaration of a State of Emergency, that’s not technically true. Instead, what Lungu has done, according to his speech, is to “issue a statutory instrument proclaiming that a situation exists which, if allowed to continue, may lead to a state of public emergency”.
According to Nicole Beardsworth, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Lungu’s declaration gives him special constitutional powers for seven days. If his statutory instrument is approved by Parliament, these can be extended for up to three months. Thanks to the Constitution’s ambiguous wording, it’s unclear exactly what these special powers entail: definitely the power to temporarily dissolve parliament, and probably also to impose a curfew, restrict freedom of movement and censor media.
This is not the first worrying sign of authoritarianism from Lungu’s administration, as the Mail & Guardian has previously reported. Free media has been largely suppressed in the country, and the space for civil society narrowed. Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema is currently behind bars, facing trumped up treason charges, and 48 members of his United Party for National Development (UPND) were suspended after boycotting Lungu’s State of the Nation Address.
Those MPs are still suspended, which means that Lungu is now much more likely to have his new statutory instrument approved by the National Assembly. The constitution is not clear on how many MPs are required to constitute a quorum for a vote of this magnitude.
Lungu’s proclamation on Thursday raises plenty of questions, none of which have satisfactory answers.
Most immediately, attention will turn to the security incidents which prompted the announcement, especially Tuesday’s fire at Lusaka’s City Market. The government claims it was arson, but has provided no proof to this effect. The opposition, meanwhile, has blamed previous arson incidents on the government, describing them as “a ploy by the government to cause a state of emergency which will result in a one-party state”.
It’s also unclear what exactly Lungu’s motives for the announcement may be. “For quite a while commentators have suggested that President Lungu was working towards invoking a state of emergency…right now the conditions for which he has invoked the first steps towards a full state of emergency seem to be in the president’s own head. This is about politics, a president struggling to get a grip on both party and nation,” said Laura Miti, a political analyst.
Miti suggests that Lungu’s decision may have as much to do with faction-fighting within the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) as it does with the official opposition. “I am thinking this is as much about dealing with internal competition for 2021 as killing of UPND. His read headache is the faction with PF who believe he has no business being president,” she said. Lungu assumed the leadership of both the PF and the country on the death of former president Michael Sata in 2015, and has struggled to cement his control over the party.
Lungu, meanwhile, has insisted that ordinary Zambians have nothing to fear. “I wish to emphasise that all law-abiding citizens will not be impacted by this decision and should continue to go about their daily routines normally. I will ensure that the measures to be taken under the proclamation should not instil fear among our citizens but instead provide a sense of comfort and security.”
Given his track record, it’s hard to take Lungu at face value. Zambians, universally proud of their peaceful democracy, should be very scared indeed.