Campaigning in Zambia’s presidential polls has been marred by violence and legal wrangling with the opposition questioning whether President Edgar Lungu can legally stand for re-election on August 12.
Often, the climate has been tense and an environment of extreme violence has been witnessed. In some cases, this has culminated in death as acrimony between supporters of the two main parties, the Patriotic Front (PF) and the United Party for National Development (UPND), boiled over into brawls.
Recently in Mongu, Zambia’s western district, a supporter of President Lungu’s ruling PF party was beaten by UPND sympathisers and later lynched and killed.
Chibombo, a district in the centre of the country, was also the scene of violence, when PF supporters, who at the time sported the clothes and flags of the ruling party, were ambushed by UPND elements on their way to Lusaka, the Zambian capital.
Another case of violence occurred in the north of the country in Nakonde, where suspected UPND supporters stormed a police station to rescue eight of its members detained in cases related to political violence.
Restrictions on electioneering blamed on a rise in Covid-19 cases have also caused tension between rival groups, while coverage of the campaign has been overshadowed by the June 17 death of Zambia’s founding father, President Kenneth Kaunda.
Faced with the escalation in violence, the Patriotic Front and the UPND were forced to sign an ‘Agreement to End Violence’ on June 19.
The two parties entered into an agreement signed by Kabushi’s parliamentary candidate for the Patriotic Front, Bowman Lusambo, and by UPND Ndola Central’s parliamentary candidate, Frank Tayali.
‘The elections are only for one day and after that, we will remain friends,’ said the Patriotic Front’s signatory, Bowman Lusambo, who is standing as an MP in Kabushi.
‘Today, we are here as a team, UPND and PF, during this period of mourning for our father Dr Kenneth Kaunda, we want to reaffirm that President Dr Kaunda fought against political violence and tribalism and that is why we are here today.’
Signing the agreement for the UPND, Tayali, who is standing as a candidate for the Ndola Central constituency, said: ‘It is the duty of the police to police everyone.’ He accused the police of colluding with PF supporters to remove opposition posters.
Political strife has been simmering in Zambia for months. In December, two UPND supporters were killed by police while protesting outside a police station where their leader, Hakainde Hichilema, was being questioned.
Opposition groups have spent more than two years trying to have 64-year-old President Lungu officially barred from running for office again, claiming that the constitution bans the president from serving more than two terms.
The PR leader came to power in 2015, when he won the mid-term elections for the presidency of Zambia, following the death of then-incumbent President Michael Sata, who died October 2014 before the end of his term.
In 2016, Lungu ran for the second time in the presidential elections, winning with 50.35 per cent of the vote – narrowly defeating the UPND’s Hichilema. The UPND has petitioned the courts, saying that if Edgar Lungu is elected he will assume the presidency of Zambia for the third consecutive time, thus breaking the constitution.
Above: Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Getty.
However, Zambia’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2018 that a term of less than three years, ‘served as a stand-in president’ did not count towards the two-term cap. A second attempt to have the decision overturned, on June 11 this year, also ended in frustration for the UPND, with the court ruling in the president’s favour.
In a separate blow to the opposition, the Zambia Electoral Commission (CEZ) announced two weeks of restrictions on campaigning on June 3, citing an alleged increase in the number of Covid-19 ‘cases’ in Zambia’s big cities.
The measures imposed restrictions on campaigning in Lusaka, Nakonde, Namwala and Mpulungu – urban districts seen as key targets by the opposition. Restrictions included a ban on political parties from holding electoral marches, as well as restrictions on door-to-door canvassing.
Hakainde Hichilema has accused the government of weaponising Covid-19 restrictions in order to disrupt campaigning by the UPND.
The opposition has also accused the president of flouting restrictions, travelling across the country to publicly inaugurate development projects.
However, the coordinator of the Patriotic Front’s presidential campaign in Lusaka, Davies Chama, said the ban on campaigning wouldn’t make a difference to the election result in the capital.
‘We’ve been campaigning since 2011, so the ECZ ban is irrelevant. We’ve already campaigned because we’ve developed Lusaka province. We’ve developed all of Zambia.’
Zambia-watchers blame the suspension of campaigning by the ECZ as one of the main causes of the increase in inter-party violence in the run-up to the poll.
‘The levels of inter-party violence reached such alarming levels that the Zambia Electoral Commission (ECZ) decided to suspend all campaign activities. This was due to the suspension of campaign rallies,’ explained Nicole Breadsworth, an expert in politics and international relations at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand.
‘For elections to be seen as legitimate and fair, it is crucial that both parties take action against actors who commit violence and intimidation. It is also vital that the police are seen as neutral and non-partisan, taking steps to arrest violent elements regardless of their political affiliation.’
Journalists in Zambia, meanwhile, have hit out after the broadcasting regulator tried to censure a TV channel critical of the government.
The regulator had threatened to suspend the license of a private TV station, Muvi TV, for allegedly violating broadcasting rules. It follows a series of Muvi TV broadcasts in which opposition politicians accused government officials of ‘irregularities’.
The move was met with condemnation by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ).
‘The Independent Broadcasting Authority [IBA] must stop harassing the private broadcaster Muvi TV and must publicly reaffirm the editorial independence of the media before the August 12 general election,’ the CPJ said.
This is not the first time the broadcasting regulator has threatened to suspend the license of private news services.
In August 2016, the IBA suspended Muvi TV’s broadcasting license for a month after accusing the channel of professional misconduct and posing a risk to national peace and stability.
In 2020, the IBA also cancelled the broadcasting license of another popular independent broadcaster, Prime TV, in the name of ‘public safety, peace and good social order’.