from ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA, (CAJ News) – THE new Zambian administration will have its work cut out for it in dismantling a culture of human rights violations and violence, seen as the hallmark of the immediate past government.
The human rights situation has been deteriorating and violence spiralling under the presidency of Edgar Lungu.
While the Southern African country is emerging from elections that have been widely acclaimed for culminating in a smooth transition of power, polls were marred by the most widespread violence and state security was accused of stifling campaigns by the opposition.
Hakainde Hichilema, the newly-inaugurated president, was not spared the arrest and detention of opposition leaders and activists.
Prominent media houses were shut down and police crackdowns on peaceful protests led to some deaths and drove a wedge between Lungu’s government and human rights groups.
Amnesty International has thus urged Hichilema, sworn-in on Tuesday, to prioritise the protection of freedom of expression and association, take decisive action to end abuses by police and place socio-economic rights on his agenda.
“The inauguration of Hakainde Hichilema must spell the end of a dark era of repression in Zambia,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“We are calling on the new administration to place human rights at the centre of their agenda, including by removing restrictions on the peaceful exercise of human rights, and ensuring accountability for past violations in order to end the culture of impunity.”
Muchena said the years of intensifying repression had pushed Zambia to the brink of a human rights crisis.
“Now is the time for a decisive break with the past,” the activist added.
Lungu’s rule, from 2015, culminated in authorities weaponising the law to criminalize peaceful dissent, charging critics with a wide range of offences including criminal defamation, incitement of public disorder and sedition.
Hichilande fell foul of the draconian legislation in 2017 when he was arrested on suspicion of treason and charged with attempting to overthrow the government.
This after his motorcade allegedly refused to give way to the one transporting Lungu.
While Hichilema was in jail, Lungu imposed a state of emergency, a move critics saw as a ploy by the former defence minister to tighten his grip on power.
The then-opposition leader was in prison for four months and released without trial.
In 2020, police arrested a 15-year-old boy and charged him with three counts of criminal libel after he allegedly criticised Lungu on Facebook.
Media outlets also incurred the wrath of the vicious presidency.
The Post, known for its critical investigative work against government, was shut down and liquidated over a disputed tax debt in 2016.
Prior, state-sanctioned violence against staff saw the beating of its owner, Fred M’membe, his wife Mutinta M’membe and the newspaper’s Deputy Managing Editor, Joseph Mwenda.
The clampdown also saw an escalation in excessive use of force by the police.
At the end of 2020, police shot dead two unarmed people at a gathering of opposition supporters, who had converged to show their solidarity with Haikainde after police summoned him for questioning in Lusaka.
State prosecutor, Nsama Nsama, who was not part of the gathering, was shot dead at a nearby restaurant.
The Zambia’s Human Rights Commission established that Lusaka Police Commissioner, Nelson Phiri, gave the directive to shoot.
He was removed from office but not charged with any offence.
No officer has also been charged for the death in 2018 of student Vesper Shimuzhila after police threw a tear gas canister into her room, during their violent dispersal of a student protest.
Muchena believes Hichilema must adopt a bold and decisive human rights strategy to ensure respect for the human rights of all Zambians, including by tackling impunity and bringing to justice perpetrators of past violations.
“Hichilema (President) has an opportunity to pull Zambia back from the brink. Tackling the injustices of the past is a crucial step towards building a better future for the country,” Muchena said.
The Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD) has meanwhile welcomed the firearm amnesty that the Zambia Police Service (ZPS) has given to the public.
“The phenomenon of political violence that has characterized aspects of Zambia’s politics has seen guns become a weapon used to intimidate and traumatize citizens,” Boniface Cheembe, SACCORD Executive Director, said.
He stated the circulation and usage of firearms had contributed to a reduction in the safety and security of citizens, as evidenced in the reduced levels of peacefulness as contained in the 2021 Global Peace Index (GPI) by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
Illegal weapons were also blamed for the pre-election violence.
Cheembe thus appealed to citizens to take advantage of the amnesty advanced by the ZPS.
“A safer and secure Zambia starts with all citizens being responsible and prioritizing participating in activities that contribute to providing greater safety and security for all,” he said.
On the eve of the inauguration, Lungu said, “I look back at our (Patriotic Front’s) ten years in office with satisfaction, our failures notwithstanding. Yes, there are things we could have done better, but I’m happy that in many aspects, we leave behind a better country.”
Hichilema has pledged a Zambia in which fundamental freedoms are protected under his United Party for National Development.
“We will promote unity in diversity and ensure respect for the fundamental human rights and freedoms for all,” he assured.
“We will restore the rule of law, general order in our public places and communities, and return our country back to normalcy,” the president added.
– CAJ News