LEE Habasonda says democratic participation in Zambia is for those who have taken power while those outside government are in for a rough ride.
And Alliance for Community Action executive director Laura Miti says President Edgar Lungu’s government is the most dictatorial regime since Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s rule and that Zambians will not be given back their democratic space for free.
Meanwhile, special assistant to the President for press and public relations Amos Chanda says government operations must not be looked at in a utopia and idealistic way.
During a public talk titled challenges of democracy in Zambia facilitated by the University of Zambia Historical and Archaeological Association and the University of Zambia Political Science Association at UNZA’s Confucius Institute Multi-purpose Hall today, Habasonda said lack of inclusiveness was what had tainted Zambia’s democracy.
We need good people on one hand and we need strong institutions on the other hand. So, I stand in between the two arguments. If we can work on both sides, our democracy can make some strides from where we are. The way I look at the problem, democracy in Zambia is this; lack of inclusive participation is what really is problematic about our democracy. The fact that one political party wins elections means that if you did not support them, you’ll not get a position, if you say a bad thing about them, they may not even greet you and yet you enjoy citizenship rights to such a country. Participation in this country is for those that have taken power; if you are outside, you are in for a rough ride. If you are a businessman, it means you may not be able to run your business – you’ll run broke! You won’t be able to send anybody to school, you won’t meet your basics. So, the best is to associate and therefore, you are killing the spirit of democracy, which demands that there must be plurality,
Habasonda said during the debate moderated by Voice of America Straight Talk Africa host Shaka Ssali.
I can even extend this to development and make examples of the current arrangement; if you look at our Cabinet today, probably it is the first time since 1964 where you have eight Cabinet ministers from one region and only one from Southern Province. Look at other regions! We are talking about representation when we talk about democracy and even if President Lungu is honest enough to take a road to the famous Dundumwezi, the question is even if you bring the development and I look at your Cabinet and government, I don’t see myself and I don’t see anybody representing me. We need to ensure that people are well represented even if they lose elections; trying to further marginalise them doesn’t make democracy work. The exclusionary bid worsens divisions in the country. Even if you are talking about unity, let’s see it first by the way you are forming your government; how representative is it in terms of regions, in terms of ethnicity [because] these are things that are alive in our country and we can’t pretend.
He also noted that the Zambian parliament had been dominated by one party where if the President took a decision for ratification, no matter how stupid, it would pass.
“In fact, as a taxpayer I’m very suspicious of subsidising Parliament; I would rather we have an executive, it takes decisions and we run with them because you have to convince me what really is the value of our Parliament. They have never rejected, for example, any budget that has been proposed by the executive from Kaunda’s time up to today. So, when we say they are a rubberstamp, I agree,” Habasonda said.
On electoral matters in Zambia, he noted that elections were technically won.
“Elections in Zambia, like in many other countries, are not really won because you are campaigning [but] they are won outside in informal strategies and sections. In fact, by the time you go to vote, the winner is already determined,” Habasonda said.
Asked by Ssali, the celebrated Ugandan-born American journalist, whether Zambians were citizens or subjects in their country, Habasonda responded: “Ideally, we are citizens but in practice really those who govern us are the masters rather than ourselves. That is where the whole democratic issue becomes a difficult one.”
He said while Zambians in 1991 adopted the democratic system of government, what happened was the democratisation of the public space rather than the private space.
The problem begins there because you did find that the Constitution allowed for multiparty dispensation, political parties coming up. But when you look at the political parties, do they enjoy the space that they must enjoy? When you look at the citizens as right holders, do they claim their rights? Do they demand for accountability? My answer is that I’m doubtful and therefore, we need a dual approach if democracy has to work. One, the formal level of institutions and the rule of law as put in the paper and the issue of democratising private power. Why do we think that we have gender violence in our homes? Why do we think that people are intolerant when we meet in the streets? It’s because they have not democratised their private power. You can democratise the State but if you put a little guy in a democratic office and they haven’t changed as individuals, I always demonstrate this clearly by talking about a head teacher; if you are a head teacher in a school and you take the date stamp to your house, you get the ball pens to your house, the next moment you are appointed [as] permanent secretary, I’m sure a number of things that belong to the permanent secretary’s office will be at your farm, at your house and therefore, democracy can’t work because you’re naturally unable to be accountable,
So, my first argument is that democracy is a concept that we want but as individuals, as families, the process of socialisation doesn’t seem to take us to the culture of democracy. In defining democracy, one of the dimensions to it is that there must be consultations and consensus building. But [if] I woke up this morning and I find that there is a policy that wants to test my HIV/AIDS status without first consulting me, not even my member of parliament consulted me – I’m just told [that] somebody has to know the privacy of my life – I think it is not the duty of the government to pop into the private affairs of citizens [but] it is the role of government to make the fundamental guidelines for me to live happily.
And Miti noted that those that take away the democratic space would not give it back to citizens for free.
So, your core business is actually protecting democracy. Being in power in Zambia is one of the best things that can happen to a human being – it’s a good life [because] there is absolutely no accountability. This government that we have now is the most dictatorial between Kaunda and now. It is the one that has shrunk democratic space. So, if we expect that President Lungu and his Cabinet are going to give us back our democratic space for free, it will not happen. We must demand for our democratic space and if we must protest peacefully, we must! Let’s not break the law but let’s not sit back and say my core business is working at the market, my core business is being a student. The government cannot pick and choose when they can allow us to speak and when they cannot. My view, for example, of the last election is that it was deeply flawed! It might not have been flawed on the day we went to vote but it was deeply flawed in the campaign period because the opposition parties could not campaign, they could not go on ZNBC,
“I would say that democracy is a system that tries to put citizens at the centre of governance. We can’t afford to be scared, we can’t be fearful [because] democracy will not come for free.”
Asked what happened with a once vibrant civil society in Zambia, She highlighted a number of issues.
There are people who have been offered jobs in government…I think it is not only the civil society but the general populace in Zambia has given up space. It has allowed politicians to encroach on their freedoms. I heard Dickson speak, for example, about how we need the right people in offices, the kind of people who understand democracy. No! We don’t! [But] we need a general public that demands those in power not to encroach on their space. The problem in Zambia is that we seem to imagine that we’ll get an angel Gabriel in State House – we don’t want a good President, we want a humble President, we want a Christian President [but] we don’t need any of those. We can have a devil in State House but we need to have people who can say being a devil is yours but you cannot cross this line,
So, the democratic space in Zambia has died not so much because of power holders but because of right holders. It is our inability to demand and protect our space; let’s take the University of Zambia, for example; this University is going to be unbundled into colleges but I have not heard any student ask ‘at what point was that decision made?’ The first [time] we heard about it was that it was in a 10-hour Cabinet meeting [and] in that 10-hour Cabinet meeting, they came out with mandatory HIV testing, they came out with unbundling [UNZA]. [But] who sat in that Cabinet meeting who understood anything about how a university runs? It was left to the Minister of Information Kampamba Mulenga to tell us about it! She is not particularly articulate [and] she didn’t seem to understand what she was saying to us. The academia has not asked questions, the university has not asked questions. When I was at this university, we were two in a room [but] right now I hear from students that they are five, seven in a room… [But] I always wonder; why is that the university students have not raised that as an issue?
She further expressed worry at how fearful citizens were on national issues that mattered.
“We had a very dodgy threatened state of emergency declared [last] month; absolutely dodgy, no premise whatsoever! [But] the response from citizens was to be scared, was to stop speaking up. So, what happens next? You’ll get a full state of emergency if you do not resist. So, I think that we should stop blaming duty bearers because what they do is that they will be in office one day and the very next day when they are out office, they begin to sound democratic. Why? It is because they know the right thing to do. So, it is not a matter of those who are in government not knowing what to do; it is being able to get away with murder. The DPP is so protected [but] it is amazing that the DPP can begin to arrest someone-again, on dodgy charges! It sounds political…Why can she get away with it? It is because the public allows it. We are very good at changing; from Kaunda to Chiluba, to Mwanawasa – some die [while others] live but nothing changes! It has not changed, not because of the duty bearers [but] it is because of the low expectations; our expectations as a people for those in power are so low [and] it is amazing,” said Miti.
“There is a lot that is said about the civil society now that people are not speaking. But once you shrunk the space in the media that used to report on civil society, it looks like civil society is doing nothing. Right now, you can say something; I write a lot and I write on my Facebook page because there is nowhere else to write – there is absolutely no space! Years ago when I was much younger, I had a column in the Times of Zambia, I had a column in The Post, I could go to ZNBC. So, unless we understand how the very institutions of democracy are broken down…”
Another panelist, Dickson Jere, a media practitioner and lawyer, explained that “what we need to take into consideration is that for democracy to survive in Africa, it requires men and women who have the courage to make sure that the responsibility which they are given they’re able to implement it without any interference”.
In Zambia, for instance, we have a situation where our Constitution, even though not perfect, is one of the best Constitutions we have so far in this region. It creates a clear-cut mechanism of separation of power – we have the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. What seems to be the problem is that the people that we choose to be in these institutions tend to sell themselves out to the executive and therefore, it becomes difficult for them to implement what they are supposed to do,
Jere, a former press aide to fourth Republican President Rupiah Banda, said.
He recalled how Zambia used to be a role model in terms activism.
“I remember when President [Bakili] Muluzi in Malawi wanted to go for a third term, it took efforts of Zambian civil society leaders to fly into Malawi to jack up the Malawians that this is how we do it. [But that] is all dead! You know why? They all (Zambian civil society activists) got jobs in government. They are in government. If you go through the list of those who put up a very good fight against the third term in Zambia, they are now in government and most of them have even forgotten what they used to do when they were in civil society. You’ll be interested to know that our current Vice-President was actually the leader of the NGOCC (Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council) at that point when we were fighting the third term [and] you may be interested to know that our key civil society activists Emily Sikazwe is sitting comfortably at the Electoral Commission of Zambia. If you go through the list [of eminent activists], they’ve all migrated,” Jere debated.
“So, there is this perception that probably people in civil society were doing these things not because they were doing it for the love of the country [but] probably it was for identity – they went to cross [to] the other side where it is buttered. So, once you cross, civil society has died. I remember I was president of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and at that time, touch a journalist; you’ll be all over the world. We’ll send out alerts and do whatever. But also I found myself in government at some point and so, sometimes we must be realistic. Very few people would say no to a job offer of going into government and that is the beginning of the problem that civil society became a breeding ground for those who wanted to get into government. At some point, we ended up having major political parties adopting leaders in the civil society on their tickets to be members of parliament [and] none of them were able to say ‘no, my calling is to be on the side where I’ll be counter-checking government.’”
He further said there appeared to be a perception that the executive arm of government was so attractive that “all what you need is to fight hard to get into the executive and sit and eat”.
So, that is the problem and the civil society has completely died! Media institutions have been closing in this country [but] I rarely hear about the Press Association of Zambia (PAZA). It used to be a very vibrant association. Journalists have been arrested [but] I have never heard about the Lusaka Press Club, I have never heard of MISA. I remember my friend who has just walked in; Amos Chanda (President Edgar Lungu’s special assistant for press and public relations), we worked together very well; he was in the Press Association of Zambia, I was in MISA and we put up very good fights in terms of fighting for press freedom. What has happened to the current leaders in these institutions (MISA-Zambia and PAZA)? The institutions have not died; NGOCC is still there, MISA is still there, PAZA is still there [but] what has happened? The moment you put fear [as a constraint] for speaking out, that’s the start of the problem. You have to be prepared for the consequences if you are to fight for democracy – it’s not good enough to say ‘I’ll be taken somewhere’,
University of Zambia Students’ Union (UNZA) vice-president Piyo Grey Ndlovu said it was worrisome that freedom of expression had been curtailed at the country’s highest learning institution.
“Looking at the University of Zambia, we have been activists in terms of democracy. Right now, if you are to ask me if we have the rights or if we uphold the right of freedom of expression as students, the answer will come from the crowd. Do we still have freedom of expression? (Audience choruses with NO!) When you talk of issues of demonstrations or issues of speaking out, issues of civic values…right now we cannot have a peaceful demonstration. Why? Because there is fear of being implicated; there is fear that somebody is going to capture me and take me to places where I’ll be implicated or blacklisted such that at the time when I’ll graduate and want to look for employment, I’ll not be employed because I spoke,” said Ndlovu.
Meanwhile, Chanda, who was called to respond to some concerns raised by the panelists, said Zambia’s democratic setup delivered exactly the kind of Parliament that was there.
“The law says the President shall appoint ministers from within Parliament. If that is not sufficient in the broader principle of inclusiveness, the President has eight members to nominate from those who are not in Parliament…I can reveal to you that Mr Hichilema said that the eleventh commandment in the UPND is never ever agree with Edgar Lungu. So, can you tell me today if Gary Nkombo was called to government, how does it sit with that eleventh commandment? So, this utopia and idealistic way of looking at government, I think government is much more complex…In the last two years, there is no journalist in jail?” said Chanda, whose explanation was watered down by coordinated disapproval from the audience.