A Brief History of the Police State in Zambia

“I have no particular love for the idealized “worker” as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” ― George Orwell

As a Member of Parliament, Garry Nkombo is not exactly an “idealized worker” in the mind of anyone let alone a Communist, but seeing him in conflict with Constable Spider Ngoma left me in no doubt which side I am on.

Even if Nkombo “assaulted” the policeman―a ludicrous claim for a “victim” who was armed with an AK-47―I would not be alone in sympathising with the honorable member and his wife, as well as the countless other victims of police harassment and brutality. Surely the Zambia Police Service must be among the public institutions least trusted by the general public, and little wonder.

The fact remains, however, that “To Serve and Protect” the general public has never been the role of police forces. Worldwide, ruling classes have instead used police to protect themselves and their property―and oppress poor and working people who get uppity―ever since police forces were invented.

“Before the nineteenth century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world,” according to American history professor Sam Mitrani. “In the Northern United States, there was a system of elected constables and sheriffs, much more responsible to the population in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working class neighborhoods.”

As Industrialisation gathered pace in the US and Europe, the new working classes clashed with their bosses in riots and strike actions, according to Prof Mitrani:

“In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology of order that developed in the late nineteenth century echoes down to today―except that today, poor black and Latino people are the main threat, rather than immigrant workers… There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced “the law,” or came anywhere close to that ideal (for that matter, the law itself has never been neutral).”

In Africa, police forces were introduced by European colonial authorities. The British South Africa Police was the first constabulary in the region, founded by Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1889 as a paramilitary force. The line between police and military duties was blurred from the beginning, as these early forces were crucial to the suppression of local discontent, for example during the Matebele Wars.

Here in Zambia, the North-Eastern Rhodesia Constabulary was formed in 1903, and tasked with guarding government property, escorting caravans, liasing with local chiefs, as well as arresting and guarding native prisoners. This force was about 200-strong and included unarmed natives constables who could make arrests on warrant or if an offence was committed in their presence.

Within a few decades, however, opposition to colonialism had grown and so too had the suppression of dissent by the colonial government and police. In 1960, a series of discussions with future president Kenneth Kaunda were published under the title “Black Government?” These musing of Kaunda contained the following insights:

“The demands and aspirations of the majority frighten the minority groups in power, and they react by employing various methods in order to safeguard their privileged positions. They will employ all sorts of methods to keep that power in their hands. As a result police states are created, men lose sight of the most important values and are guided by fear, suspicion and hatred… [A] police state is where the following conditions apply: 1) Overruling or short-circuiting of the Legislature or Judiciary, 2) Imposition of arbitrary laws by force, 3) Denial of the right of opposition to oppose, and 4) Drastic curtailment of freedom of expression both written and spoken.”

Post-independence, most African countries continued to employ colonial police tactics―including laws such as the Public Order Act and Emergency powers here in Zambia―rather than rewrite laws based on the inalienable rights of citizens.

After all, what better way for the newly-christened African ruling classes to control their populations than by using the old masters’ techniques? So it was that Kaunda went from bemoaning colonial police states in 1960 to creating his own in the decade after Independence.

In his brilliant and penetrating memoirs, Valentine Musakanya demonstrated this fact persuasively:

“In many African states it is fascism [acting] against the majority blacks by the minority ruling elite… As Kaunda himself points out, ‘The violence of the top-dog (rulers) is often subtle and invisible. It spans a range which takes in international economic pressures, control of the media, manipulation of the education system and psychological conditioning, as well as the more visible strong-arm methods.’ These are weapons well developed and practiced by Kaunda himself.”

While it is up for debate whether or not we are approaching a police state in Zambia today, there is no doubt that under Kaunda there existed severe authoritarian rule enforced by the police.

Throughout his 27 years in power, Kaunda repeatedly took advantage of the “Preservation of Public Security Regulations” and the State of Emergency―declared in 1964 against the “insurrection” of Alice Lenshina and the Lumpa church―to mercilessly terrorise and detain his political enemies and distract the Zambian people from his economic failures.

“Detention laws are only found in primitive political systems, that is where the minority or an unpopular government is suppressing the majority in order to remain in power,” wrote Musakanya while himself incarcerated under such detention powers.

Thankfully we no longer have Emergency powers in effect, nor arbitrary detention laws in this country. We also now have the civil society organizations such as the Human Rights Commission, not to mention that Internet and social media, which have proven to be highly effective in promoting freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas and opinions as provided for by our innate human rights.

Clearly there is always room for improvement. Some 26 years after the return of democracy in Zambia―and well into the globalized world of the 21st century―colonial-era laws such as the Public Order Act still prevent Zambians from exercising their rights to freedom of assembly.

It’s time we take steps to strengthen our democracy by overturning outdated colonial laws such as the POA, and crafting our own based on universal human rights and the social welfare of all Zambians.

To do anything less runs the risk of sliding backward into authoritarianism.

         

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