UN Resident Coordinator Coumba Mar Gadio
Diplomats are international citizens. For the period they are in Zambia, they are actually Zambians. They are the eyes and ears of the world in Zambia. Their job is to objectively shine light on what is happening in the country. If they keep quiet, the world will think everything is fine in Zambia. Notwithstanding their diplomatic postings and their need to respect local politics, diplomats have a responsibility to maintain an international order that respects democracy and human rights. At the top of this responsibility are United Nations (UN) diplomats, led by the Resident Coordinator, the leader of all UN agencies in any country.
In recent years, Zambia seems to attract only the same kind of UN Resident Coordinators, akin to a married person who escapes a very abusive partner only to end up with a worse one. Many Zambians welcomed Coumba Mar Gadio when she arrived in the country in May 2019 to take up her appointment as UN Resident Coordinator, not least because they were happy to see the back of her predecessor, Janet Rogan. Rogan, who was seen locally as too close to the levers of power and easily mistaken for a PF functionary, had so lowered the bar of UN leadership in Zambia that Gadio did not need to do much to raise it. Remarkably, the new UN Resident Coordinator did the opposite and last year lowered the bar so low that it is literally on the floor now. One of the primary roles of a Resident Coordinator is to protect and defend the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In practice, this means condemning violations of human rights, defending freedom of speech, safeguarding the integrity of democratic processes and, most importantly, preventing and reporting early signs of internal conflict in a country.
As civil and political rights deteriorated in Zambia across 2020, Gadio remained a disinterested spectator, choosing invisibility and irrelevance as her strategy. When police shot dead two unarmed citizens as they dispersed supporters of the main opposition party who were exercising their rights of movement and public assembly, Gadio remained silent. When critical media outlets such as Prime Television were shut down while several others were harassed by ruling party cadres for simply doing their job, Gadio remained silent. When civil society organisations and opposition parties were curtailed from conducting public meetings even as the PF held theirs without any inhibition, Gadio remained silent. When several activists were prevented from protesting against the erosion of civil liberties and one government leader urged the police to “break their bones” if they went ahead with the procession, Gadio remained silent. When the Electoral Commission of Zambia scrapped a valid voters’ register and decreed that everyone must re-register within a month, Gadio remained silent. When state institutions harassed President Lungu’s political opponents by restricting their freedom of movement, Gadio remained silent. When rampant corruption endangered the lives of Zambians through the supply of expired drugs, Gadio remained silent.
Why did UN Secretary-General António Gutteres, a person of high integrity and a fearless defender of human rights, send such a hapless envoy with zero interest in doing her job to this country? Any Resident Coordinator as inactive as Gadio would resign if they had any conception of the importance of their job or the magnitude of their failures. Precisely what Gadio has been doing over the last year is unclear. It may be that Gadio lacks motivation since Zambia is her last duty station before the Senegalese retires. But Zambians deserve better, especially from organisations where public money goes every year to support our membership. The silence of an international body that is supposed to be the custodian of human rights in the world cannot be inconspicuous. How many people must be killed in Zambia before the UN begins to talk?
By remaining quiet when human rights are being strangled, the UN is, in effect, sanctioning the violation of international treaties on human rights and diluting the international culture on the importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights. The UN’s apparent inability to recognise the inadequacies of its coordinator in Zambia, especially given the positive record of its past coordinators prior to the arrival of Rogan, is a serious indictment of the organisation. What is the purpose of the UN if not to intervene in situations of escalating political tension and violence that threaten to descend into chaos? Is the UN waiting for large-scale conflict or violence to break out so that they may send peacekeepers and tents?
UK High Commissioner to Zambia Nicholas Woolley
If Zambia descends into large-scale political unrest after the 12 August 2021 elections, at least three major factors would have driven the country to that outcome. One is the public’s increasing lack of trust in and outright contempt for formal institutions – like the Judiciary, the Electoral Commission of Zambia and the police – as arbitrators of the contest between those who wield state power and those seeking to acquire it. Another is a high-stake election featuring two ruthless groups of political elites. One wants to perpetuate its stay in power in order to continue accumulating and escape possible prosecution and imprisonment. The other group seeks to win power to prevent a crushing end to its political career. Leaders and supporters of both groups see the August election as a matter of life and death and are likely to rebel against an outcome that does not favour them – especially if it lacks credibility. What has emboldened these two factors is the third: the alarming silence of international actors.
If Zambia’s march towards violence seems inevitable, it is partly because it has been aided by the incriminating silence of Western diplomats who previously exercised some kind of leverage on the actions of the looting political elites in power. Once upon a time, Zambia was so respected in international circles that it attracted leading and experienced diplomats from countries like the United Kingdom who supported a governance agenda that included speaking out when democratic backslides and human rights violations occurred. Today, few take Zambia seriously in international relations. With the exception of the United States and until recently Germany, major world powers now send trainee diplomats to Lusaka for internships. A great example in this regard is the United Kingdom, who, in August 2019 sent to Zambia a spineless individual, Nicholas Woolley, as High Commissioner. Like the UN Resident Coordinator, Woolley appears to consider his appointment as a kind of gap year or extended holiday. Unlike several of his predecessors who were outspoken on human rights violations and murderous attacks on democracy, the current British envoy in 2020 remained largely uninterested in political and human rights questions.
It is no wonder that when police shot dead two unarmed citizens in December, not far away from the British High Commission offices in Lusaka, Woolley expressed ‘shock’ at the incident. His expression of shock demonstrates how totally disconnected and oblivious he had been to his surroundings. British intelligence officials in his office must be shocked by his shock because they must have known that the shooting was neither surprising nor an isolated incident. It was a pattern and part of a growing culture of impunity and sustained crackdown on the opposition and human rights by the government. In any case, the government had warned the people against enjoying their freedoms; that any attempt by supporters to give solidarity to the main opposition leader who had been summoned by police for questioning would be met with full force. Woolley would have known all this if he had not been too busy admiring our poverty, cooking nshima, dancing with musicians, and posting evidence of these activities on his official social media pages. Given the heightened political tension ahead of the August election, and the continuing silence of diplomats like Woolley, there will be nothing shocking if large-scale violence breaks out at some point this year. What will be shocking is if there will be peace.
It is extremely disappointing when much is expected from a person, but very little or absolutely nothing results. Whereas the intrepid American envoy, David Young, sent condolence messages to the families of the two innocent Zambians who were killed by the police, Woolley said absolutely nothing. Perhaps he is confused by the earlier British history of nasty dictatorial colonialism, strangely contrasted with the new foreign policy of democracy and human rights. With these opposed concepts whirling around in his wooly mind (no pun intended), the top UK diplomat in Zambia could possibly think of nothing better than to hide under his desk and say nothing.
By doing nothing about Zambia’s deteriorating human rights situation, diplomats like Woolley are emboldening the culprits, are complicit in whatever terrible things might happen and paving the way for what might turn out to be a bloody election. While they most probably use diplomatic, backdoor channels to deliver a quiet word to Lungu, such as the need for him to ‘go easy’ on the opposition, they should consider giving public expression to their positions when governance excesses begin to appear. Otherwise, ordinary Zambians may take it for granted that their silence means that they are quite content with what is happening. To be fair to Woolley, though, Zambia seems to be his first major duty station, so he is probably still learning on the job. A close look at his diplomatic career so far shows that much of it has been served in countries that have no known tradition of protecting human rights and democracy. These include Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. Given this background, Zambians who cannot wait to see the back of the British envoy should perhaps bear with him.
President Edgar Lungu
“I laugh and chuckle when I hear people say that things are bad in Zambia like they are better anywhere else”, said President Edgar Lungu in December 2020. This statement says much that one needs to know about the Head of State and the tragic mediocrity of his leadership.
It demonstrates how removed Lungu is from the plight of many, from the historic social and economic crises that are dragging Zambia towards the abyss. It shows a President who is extremely unaware of the hunger, poverty, disease and death, unemployment, inequalities and squalor which are the daily life experiences of the majority of Zambians. It reveals how Lungu is insulated by the comforts of State House and his questionable wealth from the hard life of the majority of Zambians. It tells us that the Head of State is a cold, sadistic leader incapable of sympathy, empathy and showing solidarity with suffering, pain and death which are the conditions of the majority of Zambians. It suggests that Lungu is surrounded by a personal choir which has proved incapable of transmitting to him the everyday realities of the majority of Zambians.
With his sadistic insensitivity to the plight of Zambians, it confirms that Lungu is not fit to be President in such a singularly poor country. Here are some damning official stats about his “good country”, from the CIA World Fact Book, UNDP World Development Index, and several relevant institutions in his own government:
Zambia is among the four hungriest countries in the world, one of the most heavily indebted and impoverished countries in the world, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the first African country to default (fail to pay its debt) during the pandemic;
Zambia is now ranked number 146 on the Human Development Index (HDI) of 189 countries (which measures longevity and healthy life, access to knowledge and decent standard of living);
less than three per cent of Zambia’s population is expected to live to 65, with the rest of us condemned to very short miserable lives at a time in human history when some countries have a problem of too many old people;
Among those Zambians able and willing to work, 56 years into our “independence”, 86 per cent still rely on some agricultural activity to survive, only 6 per cent have an industrial job, and a mere 9 per cent are employed in services;
8 out of 10 Zambians who want work cannot find it. We are quite capable of carrying a high unemployment rate, especially among the youth, and somehow pray and hope that a miracle will cure our social ills.
As a result of the above, thousands of Zambians are overcrowded in prisons meant for far fewer people. Poverty is endemic and most widespread and acute in Zambian villages. To escape this poverty, millions of Zambians have run away from their villages and are squatting in overcrowded, equally impoverished Zambian towns and cities. This situation has unleashed truckloads of orphans and street children, and Lungu’s government is now planning to violently sweep them off the streets and imprison them in underpaid and poorly equipped Zambia National Service Camps.
Zambia has a proud history of sheltering millions of refugees during Southern Africa’s struggles for independence. Millions of Zambians welcomed refugees into their homes. There was no violence. Under Lungu’s government, we have seen Zambians rise and savage foreigners with xenophobic violence. Extreme poverty in Zambian townships is the cause of this xenophobia. Lungu has contributed hugely to this poverty. One is either a cruel, cold and insensitive individual to fail to see this hard brutal reality if he or she is an ordinary person, or a sadistic and cruel person if they are president of Zambia and have the resources to have this reality made visible to them but refuse to see it. Lungu is both. The President should not be laughing. He should be angry with himself and anguished at the subhuman existence his mediocre leadership has reduced many Zambians to. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Everything. Lungu would do well to internalise this point.
As if the above statement was not terrible enough, the President declared, a few days later, that those who wish to lead Zambia should wait until 2026 or 2031, when he will finally be out of power. This is another most disappointing remark from the President, one that he repeated in different forms through 2020 and into the new year. This thinking is deeply problematic because it shows that Lungu mistakes the presidency for some sort of inheritance. His are not ideas that are consistent with electoral democracy. If anything, they underline his total contempt for elections and Zambians. They do not affirm the process by which elected representatives find themselves in positions of authority. The contempt he shows for voters is not accidental. It is based on the idea that he has absolute control of the electoral machinery, the Judiciary and other crucial institutions such as the police and the intelligence services. To Lungu, we are not a republic. We are a monarchy whose king recognises that periodically there must be sham elections to legitimate their stay in power.
Given that he won the last presidential election with a slender margin, where does Lungu get the confidence to predict the outcome of not just the 2021 election but also future ones? He is very confident of not being removed because he knows what he has done to make sure that he gets the result he wants. He now has a voters’ register that favours him. He controls the police. He has previously shown that he can intimidate judges into submission. He has terrorised the opposition and is exploiting the pandemic to deny his political opponents the space they need to mobilise and conduct their activities.
Having effectively blocked the opposition from democratically opposing him and created a climate of fear in much of the population, the implication of Lungu’s statement that he will rule until 2026 is that only death or God can remove him from power. Otherwise, he will remain in office until 2026, at the earliest. Even then, there is no proof that Lungu’s appetite for power would have waned, so he might decide to change or even remove term limits altogether. Health permitting, Lungu could emulatehis mentor Yoweri Museveni and perpetuate himself in power for many, many years. After all, there arevery few constraints in his path – timid citizens, weak institutions, and the confluence of forces that have shaped us into who we are: a strange, pacified and frightened lot that has allowed politicians like Lungu to trample on us with impunity.
Lungu is short of declaring himself life president because doing so would be a cumbersome process. In practice, however, that is what he is. He has effectively declared that he alone will decide when to leave office. Zambia’s present predicament, including the collapse of formal institutions, derives from him. He is the energy that feeds the rot, and for this reason was the most disappointing public figure of the year 2020.
…to be continued