The imposition of the state of emergency by President Edgar Lungu two weeks ago followed a fire that burnt down the country’s biggest market in the capital Lusaka.
It has been met with dismay by human rights groups, opposition parties and civic society organisations as mirroring a “decay” of democracy under Lungu, who was elected in 2015 after the death of Michael Sata, and re-elected last year in a disputed poll, just slightly ahead of Hakainde Hichilema.
The 2016 election that Lungu narrowly won - with 50.35% of the vote ahead of the 47.63% polled by his closest rival - has been the most divisive since the first post-independence polls. Hichilema, who rejected the outcome of the poll held last August, has been remanded in prison since April on suspicion of treason and charged with attempting to overthrow the government.
His supporters have been outraged at what they believe is persecution of their leader.
A fire that burnt thousands of stalls at the City Market, and apparently celebrated by a key opposition figure, has stoked political flames in a country that has over the years avoided the political skirmishes that have bedeviled most of its neighbours post-independence.
Bizarrely, a United Kingdom-based adviser of Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND), Larry Etwatwa, praised the arsonists for the “job well done”.
While the human rights groups, opposition parties and civic society organisations condemned the arsonists for the series of infernos that also saw the destruction of a local court recently, they equally did not approve Lungu’s declaration of a state of emergency, which some denounced as “reckless” and “dictatorial”.
Head of the Civil Society Constitutional Agenda (CiSCA), John Mambo, said the state of emergency was unjustifiable.
“CiSCA would like to remind President Lungu that the crime of arson is adequately covered by the Penal Code and is far from the realm of reasons for a declaration of a state of emergency real or threatened.
We would like to further remind the president that suspending any of our fundamental freedoms is essentially suspending our dignity and humanity,” said Mambo.
“Further, we want to categorically remind him (Lungu) that his executive powers are derived from us the citizens of this country under Article 90, and not the other way around.”
The civil society leader argued a declaration of public emergency was enforced by the police.
By the state of emergency, Mambo said, Lungu had disregarded “with impunity” some aspects of Article 15 which “protected citizens, including suspected criminals, from inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment or other like treatment which is a human right and cannot be suspended even in a state of public emergency.”
“We do not believe the police are adequately prepared to manage an emergency considering the previous state of emergency was 26 years ago. Trust in our police service is at an all-time low.”
Some 26 years ago, at least 27 people died in three days of food rioting, sparked by president Kenneth Kaunda’s government doubling the price of the staple maize meal. Security forces disbanded rioters with bayonets.
This week, the UPND accused Lungu of dictatorship.
“It is clear that actions (by president Lungu) are premeditated and designed to strengthen the hand of dictatorship. We insist on the speedy release of Hichilema,” the imprisoned leader’s deputy, Geoffrey Mwamba, said.
He alleged Zambians would be arrested on suspicion to fulfil the ruling Patriotic Front’s political agenda to remain in power forever.
The Law Association of Zambia also urged government to exercise restraint until the inferno was fully and thoroughly investigated.
“Declaring a state of emergency automatically usurps citizens of their rights. We therefore cannot condone what the president did,” Pretty Mumba-Kapambwe, a vendor, said.
Ironically, Lungu is formerly of the UPND.
Found guilty of “professional misconduct” and suspended by the Law Association of Zambia in 2010, Lungu came under fire in 2015 for forcing the head of the central bank out of office following a difference over interest rates.
However, the ruling party supported the recent declaration by Lungu as being in accordance with the law.
“President Lungu’s actions were definitely justifiable.
“How would you want him to react in such a situation whereby more than 3000 vendors were forced out of business by a small group of rowdy political activists who go about destroying public property?” asked a party official on condition of anonymity.
“What President Lungu did is not new, instead, we saw this happening even in developed countries claiming to be champions of human rights and democracy.
“Just recently, a state of emergency was declared in Butte County (in California) after a fire that destroyed property worth millions of dollars.
Why should it become ugly when such a state of emergency is declared in Africa.
These are double standards,” the official told said.
Lungu this week said opposition criticism would not distract him from doing his duties.
“In order to preserve peace, tranquillity, safety of our citizens and national security we had no choice but to take this decision, given the events that have occurred in the recent past,” he said.
The president accused his detractors of abusing the freedom of the press and opinion to “get mileage and prominence by insulting me, humiliating me and saying things”.
He pointed out the declaration would be effective only for a week after which parliament would determine the duration of the state of emergency.
The constitution declares that state security, supported by police, will prohibit public meetings, erect roadblocks, effect curfews and restrict movement. - CAJ News