Even before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in March 2020, Zambia’s flight from being a model of democracy in Africa to a disguised authoritarianism had already taken off.
The erosion of democratic principles started under president Michael Sata, who led the Patriotic Front (PF) to victory in 2011. This trajectory has however worsened under President Edgar Lungu, who was first elected in 2015 after Sata died in office before a disputed vote returned him to power in 2016.
As well as successfully pressuring the Constitutional Court to allow him to run for a third term, Lungu has presided over the shutdown of the main independent newspaper, almost succeeded in muzzling civil society, removed the vestiges of autonomy in nearly all state institutions, and created a general climate of fear.
Amidst this changing political character of Zambia’s democratic tradition, the arrival of Covid-19 proved, for the authorities, to be a blessing in disguise in two main ways.
First, it threw a lifeline to Lungu’s power push ahead of the 2021 elections. At the time, when the first few cases of Covid-19 were reported, Parliament was debating the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill that would weaken institutions — such as elections, the judiciary and the Constitution itself — that offer the long-term hope for democratic consolidation.
After failing to raise the two-thirds majority required to pass it, the PF, fearful that the Bill would be defeated, asked the Speaker to abruptly suspend Parliament using the coronavirus as the pretext.
Since then, the confirmed number of Covid-19 cases in the country has soared to 1358 (as of June 15), but the authorities planned to resume parliamentary sittings presumably after having enough time to mobilise the required support. If passed, the Bill will consolidate the PF’s stay in power, making it effectively impossible to remove President Lungu from office.
Second, the PF have manipulated the pandemic to bury authoritarian abuse under the guise of fighting it. In April, the broadcasting licence of Zambia’s leading private television station was cancelled, days after it declined a government request to broadcast Covid-19 adverts for free.
Radio stations that host opposition figures who highlight the government’s failings have also been violently attacked by ruling party supporters, who insist that no form of campaigning should happen until the pandemic is past.
Meanwhile, public meetings by civil society and opposition parties remain proscribed on health concerns, even when the PF continues to hold theirs. A series of repressive measures that curtail civil liberties have also been enacted. In the words of one government minister, ‘when it comes to fighting Covid-19, human rights are suspended’!
With the official death toll standing at 11, the major casualty of the coronavirus disease in Zambia is not human life but the country’s democratic tradition. Only the election vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic.
Sishuwa Sishuwa is a lecturer in history at the University of Zambia, post-doctoral research fellow in the Institute for Democracy at the University of Cape Town and senior researcher at the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research.
This article was produced in partnership with Democracy in Africa and was first published in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.