Cake, and a State of Emergency
Zambian President Edgar Lungu’s state of emergency smacks of the strongman tactics that have helped many of Africa’s leaders consolidate power.
Lungu invoked emergency powers on July 6 ostensibly to counter fires at public markets that he called acts of sabotage. He can now ban public gatherings, impose curfews and shut down the media.
“It is a systematic approach by the opposition to stampede us into talks so that we renegotiate the results of the last elections,” he said, according to the Financial Times. “It is a strategy to create terror and panic so that they can say ‘there is tension in the country, let us talk.’”
But New24 reported., Zambia’s main opposition party accused Lungu of endangering the country’s democracy and plotting a dictatorship,
The emergency decree “constitutes abuse of power designed to silence his critics and kill democracy,” opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) Vice President Geoffrey Mwamba said. “It is clear that (Lungu’s) actions are premeditated and designed to strengthen the hand of dictatorship.”
In strongman fashion, Lungu used legal obfuscation to achieve his ends, wrote Quartz. Technically, he declared a “threat of a state of emergency,” not a full-blown “state of emergency.”
The distinction is important because the president is currently negotiating a $1.3 billion bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Dependent on copper exports, the Zambian economy is tanking due to low commodity prices.
“Lungu hopes to have his cake and eat it,” wrote Quartz, adding that the president might also be fighting rivals in his own ruling Patriotic Front political party and wanting to send a message to the public that he is not in ill health as rumors suggest. “He will have secured powers to consolidate his political control while generating ‘plausible deniability’ to whether or not he has fatally undermined Zambian democracy.”
Zambia was once considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies, the Associated Press observed.
But that reputation is fading. Lungu narrowly won reelection to a second term last year in a campaign that included violence and his opponents alleging polling irregularities.
Coincidentally, Zambian authorities arrested opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema in April on charges of treason, Reuters explained. The BBC argued that the case was putting Zambia’s democracy “at a crossroads.”
Hichilema’s convoy of vehicles failed to give way to the president’s motorcade as both were traveling to a traditional ceremony in western Zambia. Because Hichilema allegedly endangered the president’s life, he’s been charged with treason.
Many African despots have remained in office for years after they were slated to leave. Nobody can predict if Lungu will become yet another one of them. But this is how they started.