Last Friday, Hakainde Hichilema, leader of Zambia’s main opposition, the United Party for National Development (UPND), accused United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Zambia, Janet Rogan, of having helped the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) to manipulate the disputed 2016 elections. Hichilema argued that Rogan, who is also the UN Resident Coordinator in Zambia – the highest UN official in any country and the designated representative of the UN Secretary General – worked with the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) ‘to manipulate voter registration and the printing of ballot papers in Dubai’ ahead of the elections: ‘We have been very much aware for a long time of Janet Rogan’s manoeuvres. We are aware that Janet is hosting the [Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue] ZCID and encouraging them to say “you take the lead” so that she can participate in the manipulation of the dialogue process as she participated in the manipulation of the elections in our country’.

As well as condemning Rogan for ‘fraternising with PF ministers almost on a daily basis’, Hichilema further alleged that the leader of the UN in Zambia has concealed a post-election report commissioned by the ECZ in conjunction with UNDP that revealed the deep-seated divisions that followed the 2016 polls and emphasised the need to heal the divide. The report, he said, also disclosed that several key state institutions with the mandate to prevent conflict, including the judiciary, were seriously compromised. ‘She [Rogan] has not released the results even now because she doesn’t like the contents of that report…[which] are confirming that…the elections were not managed properly, I challenge her to release that report.’

Hichilema’s claims followed Rogan’s ‘courtesy call’ visit to State House two days earlier where she ‘wanted to ascertain President Edgar Lungu’s stance on talks with the opposition’. Lungu, in response, declared that he will only take part in the talks, aimed at diffusing tension, preserving peace and resolving the key differences between him and the opposition ahead of the 2021 elections, if they are driven by the ZCID, ‘not external players who should only participate as observers’. ‘Historically’, the President said, ‘Zambians have come out of very difficult situations on their own. It is wrong for external forces to lead the process of dialogue with set conditions in sovereign nations like Zambia when the country is not on fire’. By external forces, Lungu was referring to the Commonwealth, the international body that he initially encouraged to get involved and which until now has spearheaded the political talks between him and Hichilema, talks that the two leaders committed themselves to after Hichilema’s release from prison in August last year.

Hichilema’s allegations are extraordinary and have grave consequences, especially on the reputation and credibility of the UN in Zambia. I am personally not persuaded that the UN was involved in rigging the 2016 elections both because the opposition leader did not proffer any evidence to that effect and also because Zambia’s politicians are perfectly capable of rigging elections without external assistance. In any case, if the UPND have proof of Rogan’s involvement in swaying the outcome of the 2016 poll, they would do well to bring their concerns to the attention of the UN Secretary General António Guterres, whom Rogan represents here. The UN Secretary General is a busy man and Zambia is unlikely to be high up on his agenda, if it even features at all. He is certainly unlikely to be aware of the actions or inactions of the UN Resident Coordinator in Zambia beyond what she possibly tells him. The opposition should consider writing to Guterres explaining their distrust in Rogan and the consequences of a party that represents nearly half of Zambia’s voters losing confidence in the UN’s local representative. Appeals to Rogan herself are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Even if they are untrue, however, Hichilema’s claims have serious implications. The real danger is to the UN’s credibility as a neutral body. At a time when Zambia is so deeply polarised that possibly serious conflict in future cannot be ruled out, how will the UN prevent or arrest the slide into chaos when their Resident Representative and Coordinator has clearly lost the trust of a major stakeholder in Zambian politics, who see her as taking sides in controversies of a political nature? Neutrality may appear as a difficult concept to maintain in a politically polarised society like Zambia, but it is important to consider that the UN has successfully maintained its credibility in societies with violent and enduring divisions, such as Afghanistan, by being seen to be neutral. This makes it all the more incredible that Rogan appears to have managed to achieve in Zambia what none of her many predecessors did: to bring the position of UNDP Resident Representative into disrepute and compromise the credibility of the UN as a neutral, independent and impartial body.

Why is the UN allowing Rogan to tarnish its reputation in Zambia? An impartial and independent UN Resident Coordinator should never find themselves at the centre stage of a county’s escalating political tension and divisions, as Rogan has done, unless as a trusted mediator. Although Hichilema limited himself to discussing Rogan’s alleged involvement in fixing the outcome of the 2016 elections, I know many Zambians who find the conduct of the current UNDP Resident Representative in the country extremely unsatisfactory – Zambians who easily mistake Rogan for a ruling party functionary because of her closeness to the levers of power. They look with nostalgia to the old days of Kanni Wignaraja, Rogan’s predecessor, who truly embodied the core values of the UN, was genuinely interested in upholding peace and defending human rights, and did much to raise the profile and reputation of the global organisation in Zambia, a reputation that Rogan is now squandering. Other former UNDP Resident Representatives who enjoyed the trust of key stakeholders and for whom Zambia was more than a duty station include Macleod Nyirongo, whom Wignaraja succeeded in August 2010, and Aeneas Chuma, who served in that role from 2003 to 2008. What offences has Zambia committed to now be punished with such an ineffective and lacklustre UNDP Resident Representative as Rogan? Have we unknowingly upset Secretary General Guterres? Or perhaps it is Ban Ki-moon, Guterres’ predecessor who sent Rogan here in March 2014, whom we had inadvertently displeased?

Any impartial observer, as the UN supposedly is, would recognise that the last three years – that have coincided with Rogan’s tenure in Lusaka – have witnessed Zambia’s descent into authoritarian rule with democratic institutions eroded, human rights frequently violated, independent media suppressed, opposition politicians jailed for minor offences and others arrested on trumped-up charges. Rogan has remained loudly silent throughout these deeply worrying developments and one would be forgiven for thinking that the UN deployed her to Zambia to implement them. Rogan may easily claim that the UN is neutral, but her unsatisfactory conduct as the organisation’s top leader in Zambia undermines that neutrality. In 2017, for instance, the leader of Zambia’s main opposition was the victim of the most high-profile human rights violations the country has known in the last two decades when he was imprisoned without trial for treason over an alleged traffic offence. Rogan said nothing public about this, even as the country descended into heightened tension. Well-placed UPND sources have revealed that she is yet to meet Hichilema, who claims to have suffered serious human rights abuses while in detention, since his release from prison last August. Earlier, in August 2016, immediately after the ECZ chairperson announced the outcome of the presidential election, Rogan, who was at the Totalling Centre, declared the results ‘free and fair’ on national television – even before any assessment was made – and insisted that losers should immediately concede defeat and begin preparing for the 2021 elections. This conduct reinforces the perception that the UNDP Resident Representative is a proud partisan.

It is telling that the ruling party, not the government, leaped to the defence of Rogan following Hichilema’s attacks on her. The PF are not normally fans of international institutions or actors, so there is probably something about Rogan’s presence that they find politically convenient. Suspicion over the UN’s lack of neutrality threatens to taint the excellent work that UN agencies do in Zambia. These include UNICEF, which has been a tireless advocate for and defender of the rights of children, UNECA, which is helping to strengthen Zambia’s economic policies as well as UNAIDS, whose continued work in Zambia has been vital in stemming the spread and devastating effects of HIV and AIDS. Despite this contribution to Zambia, the UN now finds itself in danger of being seen by many Zambians as increasingly biased and partisan, thanks to the polarising conduct of its Resident Coordinator. A top UNDP official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity revealed that Rogan is unwanted even within the UN circles in Zambia and many cannot wait to see her back.

It may be that Rogan is unaware of the magnitude of her failures or the achievements of her predecessors, especially given that Zambia is her first major duty station. However, UN career diplomats are supposed to learn on the job about how to apply and uphold the principles of neutrality, humanity, independence and impartiality in diverse settings. Rogan has publicly shown little interest in doing so. Adding to suspicion that she is actively taking sides in controversies of a political nature was her recent visit to State House. While it is of course entirely sensible for the UN Resident Coordinator to meet with the President, it should also be noted that she has hardly met with prominent opposition figures since the disputed 2016 elections. What was suspicious about this particular visit was that it was followed by an announcement from Lungu criticising the Commonwealth for trying to initiate political dialogue, claiming that Zambia has its own institutions. This is pure opportunism on the part of Lungu, who repeatedly ignored attempts by local institutions to resolve the crisis caused by Hichilema’s imprisonment and encouraged the intervention of the Commonwealth in the first place.

It is also possible that Rogan encouraged Lungu to make this criticism of the Commonwealth, which has been performing the role that she, as the UN Resident Coordinator in Zambia, should have performed in the first place. It could be that there is mutual interest here: Rogan’s suspicious ‘courtesy call’ on State House may have been motivated by a desire to undermine the efforts of Commonwealth Special Envoy to Zambia Ibrahim Gambari and reclaim her role, resulting from a belated recognition that it was her inactivity that provided a fortuitous opening for the Commonwealth, one which proved a convenient pretext for releasing Hichilema from prison. Lungu, in turn, needed Rogan’s presence to express exactly what he subsequently said – that the Commonwealth, an institution that he had not previously criticised until his recent meeting with Rogan, should ‘leave us alone to resolve our problems’. For the Commonwealth, this is an embarrassing episode. The organisation, a relic in desperate search of a function, allowed itself to be used by Lungu when convenient and has now been discarded since it is no longer required.

Lungu’s support for local intervention is expedient because he refused the same efforts when the Catholic Church, a large and well-established organisation that commands the allegiance of several millions of Zambians, led the exercise. Even his new-found faith in local institutions and actors is very particular. The ZCID, which he wants to lead the discussions, appears not to command the respect of many outside the PF. Lungu’s preference for the questionable local body as a mediator, probably motivated by a desire to irritate Hichilema into quitting the talks, may have encouraged the UPND leader’s public attacks on Rogan, if only to discredit the ZCID and frustrate the beleaguered UN Resident Coordinator’s attempts to reclaim her relevance through it.

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