On 13 June 2017, Speaker of the National Assembly Patrick Matibini suspended 48 opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) members of parliament for 30 days for missing President Edgar Lungu’s state of the nation address to the National Assembly on 17 March this year. The UPND MPs had boycotted the event on the grounds that they could not listen to someone whose election was a subject of a petition in the High Court.

To recap: while the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) retained power by winning both the presidency and the majority of seats in the National Assembly last August, the election was marred by serious irregularities that resulted in a presidential petition and more than 80 parliamentary petitions. The decision on the presidential petition was inconclusive as the Constitutional Court disposed of the matter without ever hearing the evidence and fell short of declaring Lungu the winner as required by the Constitution. To the extent that the petitioners’ case was not heard, they petitioned the High Court on the constitutionality of being denied their right to be heard as stipulated in Article 18 of the Constitution. This case remains before the High Court and the UPND argues that the party will not recognise Lungu’s election until its legal challenge is conclusively disposed of – a position that appears to greatly inconvenience the governing authorities.

In his ruling regarding the decision by the opposition MPs to abscond the state of the nation address, Speaker Matibini found them guilty of abrogating parliamentary rules and challenged them ‘to resign on moral grounds if you do not recognise that there is a legitimately-elected government’. During the suspension, which is without pay, the MPs will not be allowed to enter Parliament grounds or access accommodation and facilities at Parliament Motel. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of looking at this development.

First, it must be conceded that in suspending the 48 opposition UPND MPs over their decision to boycott President Lungu’s speech, Speaker Matibini acted within the limits of his power, as conferred onto his office by the Parliamentary Committee on Privileges, Absences and Support Services. This Committee is an 8-member group that has the exclusive power to examine:

‘…every case where a member [of parliament] has been absent for any period from the sittings of the House or any sessional committee without the permission of the Speaker or the Chief Whip and reports whether the absence should by resolution, either direct the Speaker to reprimand such a member or suspend him from the services of the National Assembly for such a period as it may determine.’

The Committee, which is constituted by the Speaker at the onset of every parliamentary session, currently comprises the Deputy Speaker, Catherine Namugala (chairperson), and MPs from the ruling PF (3) the opposition UPND (2), Forum for Democracy and Development (1) and Movement for Multiparty Democracy (1). A quorum is formed when four members are present.

It is worth noting that when the UPND MPs boycotted Parliament in March, it was the second time they had done so. The first was on 30 September 2016 when the lawmakers shunned Lungu’s address to the official opening of Parliament on similar grounds. On that occasion, their action was referred to the Committee on Privileges, Absences and Support Services, which subsequently asked the Speaker to reprimand them, a recommendation that Matibini promptly effected.

Following the March boycott, ruling party MPs raised a complaint to the Speaker against the affected UPND MPs and their party leader Hakainde Hichilema, who, on March 28, asked Matibini to resign for alleged unprofessionalism and partisanship in his conduct as the presiding officer of the National Assembly. As per the earlier case and procedure, Speaker Matibini referred the latest complaint to the Committee on Privileges, Absences and Support Services, which examined the case. This time, the Committee, dominated by pro-PF members, determined that the action by the 48 opposition MPs merited a 30-day suspension from the National Assembly, a recommendation that the Speaker has now enforced.

I must pause here to state that there are a few questions that are taxing my mind. What alternative did Speaker Matibini had to suspending the disaffected UPND MPs from the National Assembly? Could he have delivered another reprimand? How does one counter the argument that the opposition legislators possibly knew what would happen if they boycotted Lungu’s address again? Why didn’t the UPND MPs exercise caution and restraint, given that they were treading on weak ground, are dealing with a Speaker who, to put it kindly, can never claim to be above reproach, and are operating in a repressive political climate that is highly intolerant both to their very existence as a political force and, more generally, to dissent? Going forward, it might be wise for the UPND to consider understanding the context within which they are working and rethinking their political strategy.

Second, although the Speaker acted within the bounds of the law as he has the authority to suspend any MP who stays away from the House without permission, the mass suspension of 48 opposition MPs is punitive, unprecedented and a brazen assault on parliamentary democracy. The UPND is the leading parliamentary opposition party with 58 MPs (10 of whom had permission to be absent from the National Assembly on the material day), and suspending such a high number of lawmakers, especially at a time when its leader is in prison on a non-bailable charge of treason, suggests an organised effort to weaken the party. We now have a situation in Zambia where the president of the main opposition party is in indefinite detention and where there is effectively no opposition party in the National Assembly. Ba PF, muletutwala kwisa?

Boycotting presidential addresses is a legitimate form of protest and a commonplace tactic practised in many functional multiparty democracies around the world. It is simply unheard of in the Commonwealth to suspend from the National Assembly such a large number of lawmakers from the main opposition party. To treat the action by the UPND MPs as a major offence only serves to highlight Zambia’s slide towards authoritarianism, where any attitude towards the President except craven support becomes illegal. With this move, Zambia has taken another step on the road towards a defacto one-party state and dictatorship. The decision to suspend the UPND MPs appears to be motivated by a desire by the authorities to coerce the opposition lawmakers into recognising Lungu as the legitimate President, something that they and their party leadership have been unwilling to do while the court case on the election remains pending.

Increasingly, all forms of critical political expression are regarded as essentially illegal. Matibini made an additional ruling that Hichilema’s comments on his conduct as Speaker amounted to disparaging insults on his office and, rather than ignoring the comments from the UPND leader as part of normal political debate, referred the case to the Inspector General of Police and the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible prosecution. Matibini’s move suggests a deliberate attempt to intimidate citizens, restrict freedom of speech and curtail criticism of any parliamentary deliberations. By assuming prosecutorial powers not assigned to his office, the Speaker appears to have inadvertently confirmed Hichilema’s point that he is unprofessional and partisan.

In addition to exercising restraint, Speaker Matibini should have been measured and conciliatory in his language. To challenge the affected opposition lawmakers to resign on grounds that Lungu was ‘legitimately-elected’ was most unnecessary. In addressing himself to the issue of the non-recognition of Lungu by the UPND, or the reasons for the walkout, Matibini exceeded his authority and interfered with a case properly decided by the judiciary. His mandate is to maintain discipline in the National Assembly and nothing more. Matibini could have simply said that while he understands the concerns of the UPND MPs about the election petition, the existing rules of the National Assembly relevant to their case leave him with no alternative but to reprimand or suspend them. As Speaker, Matibini has nothing to lose by speaking in a polite manner. That does not mean that he should not continue to express his views as clearly as possible, but he should at least moderate his choice of words and consider working on the tone of his sometimes divisive language.

The democratic backslides in Zambia under both Michael Sata’s and Lungu’s PF are real. Although the wholesale suspension of UPND MPs alongside the recent violent arrest and subsequent detention of Hichilema are perhaps the most obvious and serious breaches of democratic principles under Lungu, they are merely the latest in a series of what appears to be organised and concerted efforts to destroy, coerce or co-opt potential alternative sources of power and authority in the country. Previous efforts have quite successfully targeted other key political institutions such as the Electoral Commission, police, judiciary, critical free press, and, more recently, civil society organisations. This is a dark time for Zambia. I hope it will not be long before our country returns to happier times, when it would not be the subject of bad international headlines and embarrassing breaking news.

For l must admit that the Zambia l have returned to is different from the one l left. The one l have returned to is draped in silence and whispers, perhaps for fear of reprisals. A couple of months back, when I made the easy decision to return home soon after completing my doctoral studies at Oxford, a well-meaning fellow citizen who previously urged me, rather unsuccessfully, to stop criticising then President Michael Sata and other powerful leaders in my weekly commentaries in The Post for fear that ‘You might be sorted out by the powers that be’, said to me on learning about my final departure from Jeremy Corbyn’s country to Kenneth Kaunda’s land: “I hope you will be silent this time around when you return home’. I responded to his advise with a quote from Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land:

“I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine. And I would say to this land whose loam is part of my flesh: ‘I have wandered for a long time and I am coming back to the deserted hideousness of your sores’. I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it: ‘Embrace me without fear…And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak’.

And again I would say, ‘My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth; my voice the freedom of those who break down in the prison halls of despair; and if all I know how to do is speak, it is for you that I shall speak. My lips shall speak for miseries that have no mouth’.

And on the way I would say to myself, and above all to my body as well as my soul ‘Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear.”

We have a duty to refuse to assume the sterile attitude of a spectator. We should not be afraid. In fact, fear and ignorance are the tools dictators (like all bullies too!) rely upon to survive. If we succumb to fear, and allow ignorance to be the guiding darkness in our lives, then we are doomed, for a very long time. Can we cast away our fear and equip ourselves with the weapon of knowledge necessary to win our freedom? We must.