Opposition leaders have said colonial law has been used illegally to curb meetings and debate. Louise Redvers reports.
Opposition leaders arrested, youth meetings banned, political rallies blocked by riot police, allegations of judicial interference and ministerial corruption, smear campaigns in government media and threats and lawsuits against journalists are not part of the image most people have of Zambia, supposedly one of Africa's most peaceful democracies.
In September 2011, Michael Sata's Patriotic Front swept to power after the long-ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) gracefully stood aside. But despite its sleepy and safe façade – and its attractiveness to global mining companies and Southern African retailers – Zambia, according to some, is reverting back to a one-party system in which freedom of association, assembly and expression are under threat.
In the past eight months, there have been a number of clashes between police and opposition parties, some ending violently, with the two main opposition leaders, Nevers Mumba and Hakainde Hichilema now facing a string of charges including corruption, defamation and unlawful assembly.
The private Post newspaper has swung to support the PF government, along with the state- owned Times of Zambia, Daily Mail and ZNBC (Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation). The few remaining media outlets that do challenge the ruling party are facing hefty libel claims and closure threats.
The PF is trying hard to reassure Western diplomats (who are starting to question recent events) that their rivals are merely bitter about being in opposition and desperate for Sata to live up to his nickname, "King Cobra".
Officials deny that the crackdown on corruption is a witchhunt, but simply part of "cleaning up the country" after 20 years of MMD rule, though they remain eerily quiet on the controversial halting of probes into the business affairs of several Cabinet ministers and Sata's own announcement that he is immune to all investigations. "This country is deteriorating by the day and being run like a dictatorship," said an indignant Hichilema, president of the second opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND).
"We are not being allowed to exercise our human rights of freedom of assembly, association or expression. The police are working against us and we are being taken in and out of detention on flimsy charges."
Controversial Public Order Act
Both Hichilema and Mumba, the president of the MMD, have found themselves on the wrong side of the country's controversial Public Order Act. Devised by the British government in colonial times to control nationalistic politics and carried over into Kenneth Kaunda's one-party state that lasted until 1991, the Act outlaws free assembly without a permit. Although it was amended in Parliament some years ago to allow meetings to be held without permission (just a formal notification to the local police), opposition parties and civil society groups are claiming it has been reinvoked in its original form.
Both Mumba and Hichilema have been arrested several times while meeting constituents and they have been told they now need formal authorisation to hold rallies and meetings or they could face further detention. The commissioner of police in Lusaka, Joyce Kasosa, on Tuesday sent a written notice to the UPND refusing permission for an upcoming rally following, she said, party-related violence outside a police station last week.
Similar letters have been sent to other parties and groups, warning them about staging meetings and gatherings.
Members of United States President Barack Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali), who have been organising meetings on the new Constitution, have also come under scrutiny. The police would take "stern action", the group was told, in a letter signed by Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba, saying that no discussion of the new Constitution may take place without a member of the drafting committee being present.
Said Yali board secretary and law student Mundia Paul Hakoola: "This is intimidation at the highest level. We have a right to discuss our Constitution as we feel fit. It is the Constitution of the Zambian people, not the PF government.
"This country is becoming a police state if you cannot hold a meeting to discuss constitutional reform."
The MMD's Mumba told the Mail & Guardian: "I was arrested for going to visit a local chief and attracting a crowd. They said this was unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct and detained me.
"They are basically putting on the opposition unsubstantiated charges in order to intimidate us and stop us mobilising, and eroding our basic rights."
Said Michelo Hansungule, a Zambian professor of human rights law at the University of Pretoria: "The Public Order Act is a piece of colonial legislation and the way it is being used by the police now appears to be inconsistent with the statute book. We are seeing very flimsy grounds for arrests.
"This legislation is being used to deny basic rights of freedom of assembly. This is a reversal of our democratic gains," he said.
The government has not taken kindly to the negative reaction to the arrests and the outbursts now dominating Zambian discussion boards and social networking sites.
Reacting this week to one such criticism of the Public Order Act by a church leader, government spokesperson Kennedy Sakeni told the Zambia News and Information Service that "suggesting abuse of power by the state" in relation to the Act was "the worst form of lies and deceit" and was in ignorance of "fundamental realities of governance".
Vice-President Guy Scott admitted that certain police officers may be "over-zealously" applying the law, but he said a legal review was taking place and anyone who had been charged would face a fair trial to determine their guilt or innocence.
Asked about whether his country was becoming a totalitarian regime, he said: "People are being slightly over the top about this and their analysis is a little bit neurotic. African politics can be a bit of rough and tumble, this is normal. I myself was arrested while in opposition for defaming the president."
The MMD's Mumba disagreed: "I do not subscribe to the notion that Sata and the PF are merely doing to us what we did to them when we were in government," he said.
"During the MMD government, people were able to criticise and organise freely and they did so every day. Now we cannot even hold a meeting inside a room without fearing arrest. There is no longer any tolerance of criticism and our democratic advances are being eroded. Even civil society that used to be extremely vocal against the MMD has gone quiet."
Father Leonard Chiti, the director of Lusaka's Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, echoed the concern about the application of the Public Order Act.
"We need some urgent clarity on this and we welcome a review that is ongoing with the Law Association of Zambia in the courts," he said.
"The feeling is that the law seems to be applied only to opposition parties and not to members of government, so it is hard to be convinced that things are OK and that it is business as usual."
The UPND's Hichilema appealed to the international community to take note of what was happening in Zambia.
"Everyone talks about Zimbabwe, but never about Zambia. We hope the world does not wait until there is bloodshed here before they take any action."