Across 2019, Zambia experienced no shortage of disappointments and setbacks. Yet there are some individuals whose courage and principles made them inspiring figures in the political landscape.
In this and the next article, I list two sets of citizens of 2019: those who through their actions offered hope to Zambians and those who were huge disappointments. Today, I focus on those Zambians and individuals who inspired public trust. Next week, I will discuss individuals and institutions who disappointed.
Zambia suffers a deficit of genuine, consistent heroes. Perhaps there are many unsung heroes whose quiet and diligent work in our own communities goes unnoticed. I apologise for overlooking them in this article. The people I discuss below are drawn from those in public life whose actions are reported in the mainstream media – those who try to contribute positively to our political life and are willing to risk the ire and repression of the government in defence of the public good, or what is just, ethical and principled. The shortness of the list, which is not put in any order of importance, speaks for itself and points to the great absence of commendable figures in our public life who inspire.
UPND and Independent MPs: It is not very often that Zambia’s National Assembly, well-known for its supine character, acts in defence of public interest. Yet this is exactly what members of parliament from the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) and a significant number of independents did in 2019 when they rose to oppose the widely condemned Constitution (Amendment) Bill No. 10 of 2019, one that is primarily designed to consolidate the ruling Patriotic Front (PF)’s stay in power and make it effectively impossible to remove President Edgar Lungu from office.
When the PF realised that their manoeuvres to push through Bill 10 in Parliament were headed for defeat, they postponed its presentation for second reading to a later date. What the ruling party hopes to achieve in the meantime is to secure the support of those opposition and independent MPs who are open to bribery or overly motivated by money in order to enable it raise the two-thirds majority required to make any changes to Zambia’s constitution. Since most UPND and independent MPs have shown that they are resilient to bribery over this crucial matter, Zambians can be cautiously optimistic that the Constitution Bill will fall, as it must, when it is eventually presented for second reading in Parliament. It is their principled opposition that has the possibility to rescue the country from the abyss it is about to sink into.
Linda Kasonde: Most Zambians have now come to know Linda Kasonde as one of the country’s most courageous voices and a leading defender of human rights, civil liberties, the rule of law, constitutionalism, social justice and democratic principles. In 2019, Kasonde achieved two significant things that confirmed her reputation. First, she institutionalised the protection of human rights and the defence of the constitution by setting up Chapter One Foundation, an advocacy organisation also dedicated to the promotion of good governance and the protection of democracy. Second, she, alongside others in civil society such as Alliance for Community Action executive director Laura Miti and ActionAid country head Nalucha Nganga-Ziba, raised greater public awareness on the ills of Bill 10, the gravedigger of Zambia’s democracy and the country’s worst constitutional amendment since the achievement of independence in 1964.
While Miti and Nganga-Ziba removed the talk about Bill 10 from the confines of legal chambers into the public domain, Kasonde initiated a court action that challenged the constitutionality of the proposed law. When a prominent Bemba-speaking political strongman, previously a holder of important Cabinet positions and one of the key architects behind Lungu’s rise to power, approached and attempted to dissuade her from contesting Bill 10 on account that her campaign risked “undermining our hold on power as Bembas and installing a Tonga as [Zambia’s] president”, Kasonde made it clear that she was above ethnicity and that her political and human rights activism was as a matter of conviction – an inspiring response that reveals her ‘Zambia First’ nationalism.
Eddie Mwitwa: Zambia’s civil society is very weak. There are few organisations able to mobilise people against actions they see as illegitimate or illegal. At one point, the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) was an exception to this – exerting every effort to fulfil its mandate of defending the rule of law – but it now appears to have been captured by the PF following elections that saw one or two supporters of the ruling party assume senior leadership roles. After the departure of Kasonde, LAZ has been in the sway of the PF and the executive. In 2019, Eddie Mwitwa, the president of the association, stood up against this negative turn in the character of the institution and, to the displeasure of some of his colleagues on the executive, tried to give it some sense of duty and actual activity in defending the constitution.
As well as singlehandedly condemning violations in the rule of law, Mwitwa caused LAZ to join hands with Chapter One Foundation in challenging the constitutionality of Bill 10. In taking this principled position, the lone ranger effectively resisted the capture of LAZ and broke ranks with his colleagues in defence of Zambia’s constitution and the interest of the public. John Sangwa, the prominent lawyer who represented LAZ in the Bill 10 case, also deserves to be commended for taking up the case when few competent lawyers were willing to do so.
Margaret Munalula: When the Constitutional Court ruled that it was not its business to make a judgement on the contents of a bill, only a single judge, Margaret Munalula, dissented. In taking this position, not for the first time, Munalula confirmed her growing public reputation as the seven-member court’s most independent-minded judge who prefers to give a progressive interpretation of constitutional provisions at the risk of being seen as anti-executive. Zambia’s judiciary will be better off with justices like her – those with the qualities she possesses and which are admired and treasured by her colleagues: an active conscience, a keen mind, intelligence, fairness, devotion to scholarship, and a willingness to learn, to understand better, to judge better.
In a country in which many lawyers and judges will gladly serve out lies, corruption and injustice to advance their careers and the interests of a coterie of elite scumbags, hypocrites, kakistocrats and scoundrels of all sorts who somehow find themselves in power, Munalula’s consistent utilisation of these outstanding attributes in a way that lives up to fulfilling the mandate of the Constitutional Court – protection of the constitution – is inspiring and gives hope to many. Individuals like her sustain the struggle for sanity, for our mental health; they are the sane islands who are a constant reminder to all of us of what we must demand: an effective and impartial judiciary that is not susceptible to political and financial interests, and which is unafraid of asserting its constitutional power, even if this means ruling against the government and the ruling party. These individuals also confirm that human willpower does exist: we can overcome our poverty and uphold high moral and other human values.
News Diggers: Fiercely independent and not suffering from the stringency of partisanship that one sees in other private publications such as the Daily Nation, News Diggers is on the path to becoming the most influential and credible newspaper in Zambia. Given a better climate and a much more positive media environment with greater democracy, the paper would have earned top spot by now. In 2019, the publication continued its duty of holding power to account and providing an important platform for the discussion of issues that matter most to Zambians.
As well as exposing a number of scandals in government, it kept open the civic space despite operating under a political climate that is hostile to critical free press, provided a platform for political party leaders to share their institutions’ policies, and published stirring editorial comments whose depth and wisdom were truly inspiring. In conjunction with other institutions, it also organised a series of important public talks on different topics that increased public voices in the processes of governance.
A rare bright light in the country’s dysfunctional democratic institutions, a publication that many Zambians must use and support, and an inspiring example of a free press and the future we want, News Diggers has demonstrated that fighting for what is good was not unique to The Post. Many Zambians would love to do that. They simply have no opportunity and see the risk as too great to their lives. It is worth pointing out that to be a journalist in Zambia is risky, less rewarding, and requires a lot of sacrifice. That is the more reason why the editors and reporters of News Diggers deserve praise for their inspiring passion, dedication, commitment to work and running the paper so well on a shoestring budget.
Telesphore Mpundu: Retired Archbishop of Lusaka Diocese Telesphore Mpundu is a dignified individual and among a very small number of Zambian clergy who are incapable of finding peace in an environment in which human suffering is manufactured by politicians. Throughout 2019, Mpundu, as he has consistently done throughout his public life, raised his voice to speak out against injustice, abuse, corruption in government, the closing political space and the indifference of the country’s political leadership to the plight of many.
The man of God refused to be bullied into silence by the PF’s familiar tactic of accusing anyone who criticises the government, however well intentioned, of being a supporter of the opposition, mainly the UPND. A highly principled individual with the strength of convictions respected even by his adversaries, Mpundu is an inspiring example of the kind of clergy we need in the Zambia we should move towards – a country that is replete with people with a deep sense of responsibility and a conscience that is restless in the face of the misery and poverty that surround them.
Daniel Foote: Ambassadors accredited to Zambia have nothing to lose even if they do not speak out on the country’s ongoing collapse. They can easily take the diplomatic approach –praise the good things and pretend the bad things are not happening. Even when they know that the centre is rotten, majority of them continue to relate with that centre as if there is nothing wrong. Not Daniel Foote, the United States of America’s Ambassador to Zambia, who is included on this list not because he has taken up Zambian citizenship, but because he, in 2019, broke ranks with diplomatic protocol to speak out in defence of the interests of Zambians. Foote drew attention to the kleptocratic behaviour of the Lungu administration, openly rebuking it for lack of accountability, unbridled corruption and the grand theft of public resources. ‘The current government of Zambia’, he said, ‘wants diplomats to be compliant, with open pockets and closed mouths’, succinctly capturing what the PF demands from other states and mostly Zambians.
Foote also criticised the gross violations of human rights of a significant fraction of Zambia’s population, one that not even the country’s foremost human rights defenders will stand up for – those in same-sex relationships. The discrimination and mistreatment they continue to suffer, he noted, has no basis in the constitution. The most basic principle of the rule of law is that we are all equal before the law. Where is the justice, Foote asked, when two adults who are having a private consensual relationship that does not harm the public in any way are jailed for 15 years while those who are engaged in corruption, which is extremely damaging to millions of people, are walking scot-free? Even in rare instances where the plunderers are arrested and convicted, they spend only a few years in jail before their friends in the higher echelons of power pardon them at the earliest opportunity.
In a country that pretends to be Christian but is steeped in sin, including the sin of stealing public resources and of the fear of standing up to the ‘corrupt saints’ laughably known as our government, who are dragging Zambia down, Foote must be commended for opening up space for a healthy discussion on difficult subjects such as the idea of the state policing human sexuality, religion, morality and what it means to be human.
The recalled US ambassador has also shown that diplomats do not have to be reduced to lying and hypocrisy under the guise of not interfering in a country’s domestic affairs. They have the right to speak out – as the former British High Commissioner to Zambia Fergus Cochrane-Dyet and the current ambassadors from Germany and Sweden have previously, occasionally and commendably done. In this sense, Foote has left a lasting lesson for his colleagues: the need for diplomats, especially from those countries that are contributing millions in dollars to Zambia’s development agenda, to banish their incriminating silence in the face of corruption, the erosion of democracy and extreme social challenges such as those we are experiencing.
One hopes that in 2020, we will have more Zambians who care about the fate of this country doing everything they can to stand up for it.