On 23 March 2018, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) filed in Parliament a notice of motion that seeks to impeach President Edgar Lungu. The action, moved by Mazabuka Central UPND MP Gary Nkombo, and supported by a third of other lawmakers including renegade Roan PF MP Chishimba Kambwili, was met with cynicism, represented most notably by Lungu’s spokesperson Amos Chanda. Chanda argues that the motion is destined for failure since the opposition lack the two-thirds majority support of MPs needed for it to succeed. However, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Catherine Namugala, declined to have the motion debated before Parliament adjourned on 29 March 2018. Despite acknowledging that the opposition party complied with the formal requirements for putting up such a proposal, Namugala told prying MPs that the ‘Constitution does not give a timeframe within which an impeachment motion must be tabled on the floor of this House.’ Her actions drew criticism from the UPND, who accuse her of working with the PF to obstruct their attempt to legally unseat Lungu. Unless something dramatic happens before then, it is now expected that the motion will be tabled in the next siting of Parliament scheduled for June this year. The opposition’s claim that Lungu deserves to be impeached rests on two grounds.
In Ground One, the UPND allege that Lungu has on several occasions violated the Republican Constitution and other laws of Zambia, such as when he threatened Constitutional Court judges in November 2017 that there would be chaos if they ruled against his wishes to stand for another term in 2021. They also contend that Lungu’s failure to step down and hand over executive power to the Speaker of the National Assembly Patrick Matibini once a petition was filed against his election in August 2016 violated Article 104 (3) of Zambia’s Constitution. In Ground Two, the main opposition claim that Lungu has committed numerous cases of gross misconduct, exemplified by his problematic directive to the state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines-Investment Holdings to discontinue a legal suit against First Quantum Minerals Limited that sought to recover a huge debt from the Canadian multinational corporation. The UPND also cited the suspicious newfound wealth that Lungu has amassed ‘during the short period that he has held office as President’, his failure to rein in on the suspected ‘corrupt activities’ of his aides, and his support for the acquisition of public debt to unsustainable levels as possibly impeachable offences.
Since the filing of the motion, many within and beyond Zambia’s borders have accused the UPND of wasting their time on a motion they know cannot pass since the main opposition party does not command a clear majority in Parliament. To better understand why critics think the opposition is pushing a motion that has no chance of success, it is worth quoting the essential sections of Article 108 of the current Constitution that provides for the process of impeachment of the President:
108. (1) A Member of Parliament, supported by at least one-third of the Members of Parliament, may move a motion for the impeachment of the President alleging that the President has committed a violation of a provision of this Constitution or other law; a crime under international law; or gross misconduct.
(2) The motion, moved in accordance with clause (1), shall specify the particulars of the allegation.
(3) Where a motion, moved in accordance with clause (1), is supported, in the National Assembly, by a resolution of two-thirds of the Members of Parliament—
(a) the Speaker shall, within forty-eight hours of the adoption of the resolution, inform the Chief Justice of the resolution; and
(b) the Chief Justice shall immediately inform the President of the resolution, whereupon the President shall cease to perform the executive functions and the Vice- President shall perform the executive functions, except the power to—
(i) make an appointment; or
(ii) dissolve the National Assembly.
The process of impeaching a President goes much further than the above provisions suggest, but of particular importance for now is that the opposition clearly complied with the law in so far as commencing the impeachment motion is concerned: they properly filed it, received the required support of a third of MPs in Parliament and specified the particulars of the allegation against President Lungu. What remains is for the motion to be tabled before Parliament for debate and for the UPND to persuade at least two-thirds of MPs to support it. Of the total 166 lawmakers in the National Assembly, 89 (including 8 nominated ones) belong to the PF, 57 to the UPND, 14 are independents, 4 belong to the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), while the opposition Forum for Democracy and Development has a single seat. The remaining seat, for Chilanga constituency, previously held by the UPND, is currently vacant after incumbent Keith Mukata was convicted and sentenced to death for murder.
This composition of the National Assembly effectively means that for the motion to secure a two-thirds majority needed for it to pass in Parliament, it would require at least 110 MPs to vote in its favour. In addition to their 57 MPs (assuming that they all back the motion), the UPND would need the support of at least 53 MPs from other parties or independents to successfully remove President Lungu. This is a tall order and recent claims by UPND functionaries that they have raised the required support from amongst PF MPs, independents and other opposition parties are unconvincing for two reasons. The first is that many independents (a majority of whom were PF members who successfully stood as independent candidates after they were overlooked for adoption by their party ahead of the 2016 elections) and opposition MMD and FDD MPs have previously tended to vote with the ruling party in Parliament. In the absence of clear incentives, such as upward political mobility, it is entirely implausible that they would switch sides on this occasion. The second explanation is that even in the unlikely scenario that all independents and other opposition MPs supported the motion, the UPND would still require the backing of at least 34 PF MPs for it to succeed. Apart from a few renegades (not more than five, to be generous), I do not see any strong reason why other PF backbenchers would seek to unseat Lungu. Revulsion against him in the PF is not as rife as outside it. Most importantly, impeaching Lungu would mean that Vice-President Inonge Wina, an extremely unpopular figure in the ruling party, would consequently become the new President. Even if sufficient disaffection about Lungu’s inept leadership exists among PF backbenchers, the prospect of a Wina presidency is enough in itself to frighten them into opposing the motion.
Recent claims by some PF-aligned observers that the UPND may have bought several PF MPs to support the impeachment motion are as insulting to the affected lawmakers as they are unconvincing. Although his ability to buy the support of MPs in Parliament has been constrained by the new Constitution that has abolished the position of Deputy Minister – previously used by incumbents to build patronage support networks – Lungu is still able to generally meet the patronage expectations of his supporters using other incentives. Thus, in taking the impeachment motion to Parliament, the UPND is not, at least in the short term, seeking to unseat Lungu. No one, not even party leader Hakainde Hichilema or the most ardent UPND supporter, seriously believes that the motion of impeachment against Lungu can succeed. To explain why Zambia’s main opposition party would push heavily for a motion with no chance of success, we have to consider the issue as a matter of strategy, one that has two broad objectives.
First, the UPND’s impeachment motion is part of a wider and ongoing strategy aimed at delegitimising Lungu’s administration in the eyes of the public and international community. Since the disputed 2016 election, one that the UPND believes was stolen by the PF, the main opposition has consistently sought to question and undermine the legitimacy of Lungu and his government. Initially, its strategy was limited to the use of legal challenges built around the presidential election petition that was dismissed on a technicality by the Constitutional Court in September 2016. The PF had quietly hoped that as the elections receded into the past, the question of Lungu’s legitimacy would fade away. The latest move by the UPND suggests otherwise. If anything, it indicates that the opposition is diversifying its strategy of delegitimising the Lungu regime. Hichilema’s party knows that the impeachment motion will fail and that it will not unseat Lungu. This is not the point of the motion. The UPND believes that Lungu has repeatedly and seriously violated the Constitution. The objective of the motion therefore is to publicise this point, to prompt enough Zambians to think about the unconstitutional behaviour of the current government, to sustain the discussion around the issue of Lungu’s contested legitimacy, to sap the energy of the PF, and to cause festering divisions within the ranks of the ruling party.
In employing this latest strategy, the UPND may have been inspired by the example of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a small opposition party that nevertheless has functioned as a constant thorn in the side of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Over the course of the last two years, the EFF brought repeated no-confidence motions in President Jacob Zuma. Without the support of the ANC, which holds the large majority seats in the South African Parliament, these motions were initially unsuccessful, but they served to constantly keep questions of Zuma’s legitimacy, fitness to hold office and competence for the job in the public eye. Over time, they helped establish a momentum against Zuma that eventually led to his unceremonious exit in February this year when ANC MPs finally bought into the EFF narrative that he was unequal to the task. The UPND are probably aiming to replicate the EFF’s success in Zambia and it is not unreasonable to expect more impeachment motions to be tabled in Parliament in the future even if the current one fails.
By constantly bringing questions of Lungu’s legitimacy to the fore, the UPND hopes that the PF MPs may soon begin to ask themselves whether Lungu should remain President or, in the face of his increasing unpopularity, be allowed to drag the party down with him. This strategy is effective because it creates and heightens divisions within the PF. If the response of the ruling party to the UPND’s impeachment motion is anything to go by, the strategy is already bearing fruit. The orchestrated delays by the Speaker in tabling the motion in Parliament and the emerging accusations within the ruling core that some of the party’s lawmakers may have received bribes from the UPND in order to support the impeachment proceedings indicate that, suddenly, the PF is no longer sure of the loyalty of their own MPs towards Lungu. That the PF are uncertain about the number of renegade MPs in their midst, especially when considering that voting on the issue of impeachment might be through a secret ballot, explains their underhand moves to postpone the tabling of the motion before Parliament to a later date, when they hope to be more confident in the support of their own MPs or will have devised a better strategy of dealing with the recalcitrant UPND MPs. Needless to say that this intra-party discord has the potential to further alienate more PF MPs from the central leadership and play into the hands of the opposition.
Second, the UPND is seeking to use the impeachment motion to discredit Lungu’s capacity to fight corruption and defend the constitutional order. By raising questions about the sources of his newfound wealth and drawing public attention to several allegations of corruption against him, his aides or his Cabinet, the main opposition is positioning itself as better placed, ready and willing to take on the good governance mantle than Lungu. This is in fact the substance of the UPND’s motion. The recent attempts by Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya to discredit the impeachment motion on the grounds that it is frivolous and that the UPND does not command a clear majority in Parliament only serve to reinforce the public perception that the charges against Lungu are credible. Why not wait for the right time and platform – Parliament – to debate the merits or demerits of the motion or to respond to its outlined grounds?
Whatever happens next, it is clear that Zambia’s main opposition party is now widening its strategy of contesting Lungu’s misrule and repositioning itself as the defender of the Constitution and rule of law whilst painting the PF as a party that can no longer be trusted to exercise state power in a sensible manner, uphold the supreme law of the land or protect the fundamental tenets of good governance. The UPND’s overall goal is to call into question not just Lungu’s legitimacy but the entire agenda of the PF government. Whether or not the opposition party succeeds in this undertaking remains to be seen. What is apparent for now is that its newly developed political strategy, built around the idea of lawfully unseating Lungu, appears to have put the PF on the defensive and into a state of panic.
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