If passed into law, the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill Number 10 of 2019 would weaken institutions like elections and the constitution that offer the long-term hope for democratic consolidation, University of Zambia lecturer Sishuwa Sishuwa has warned.

Commenting on the imminent presentation of Bill 10 that would follow the reopening of parliament on 9 June 2020, Dr Sishuwa appealed to opposition and independent MPs to vote against the proposed changes to the constitution.

“The Bill is the gravedigger of Zambia’s democratic tradition because it is primarily designed to weaken institutions – such as elections, the judiciary and the constitution – that offer the long-term hope for democratic consolidation. Should it pass, it would consolidate the Patriotic Front (PF)’s stay in power, make it effectively impossible to remove President Edgar Lungu from office, and serve as the ultimate executioner of Zambia’s democracy. Voting against Bill10 would constitute the highest expression of patriotism and respect for the basic structure of the constitution”, he said.

Dr Sishuwa, who is also a Senior Researcher at the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR), stated that the PF have severely dented Zambia’s democratic tradition.

“Even before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in March 2020, Zambia’s flight from being a model of democracy in Africa to a disguised authoritarianism had already taken off. The erosion of democratic principles started under President Michael Sata, but worsened under his successor, Lungu. As well as successfully pressuring the Constitutional Court to allow him to run for a third term, President Lungu has presided over the shutdown of the main independent newspaper, removed the vestiges of autonomy in nearly all state institutions, almost succeeded in muzzling civil society, and created a general climate of fear”.

The UNZA academic said the outbreak of the coronavirus disease has only accelerated the country’s slide into chaos and repression.

“Amidst this changing political character of Zambia’s democratic tradition, the arrival of Covid-19 proved, for the authorities, to be a blessing in disguise in two main ways. The first was that it threw a lifeline to Lungu’s power push ahead of the 2021 elections. At the time, when the first few cases of Covid-19 were reported, Parliament was debating the deeply problematic Bill 10. After failing to raise the two-thirds majority required to pass it, the PF, fearful that the Bill would be defeated, asked the Speaker to abruptly suspend Parliament using the coronavirus as the pretext”, said Dr Sishuwa.

“Since then, the confirmed number of Covid-19 cases in the country has soared to about 1000, but the authorities now plan to resume parliamentary sittings, presumably after having had enough time to mobilise the required support. Should the Bill pass, the PF would have succeeded in establishing the administrative, legal and constitutional framework that would almost certainly guarantee their re-election and enable them to perpetuate their stay in power. Conversely, the collapse of the Bill would provide the opposition with a better chance of unseating the ruling party and strengthen the voice of those in PF who are calling for the replacement of Lungu with a better candidate ahead of the 2021 election. In fact, if the PF want to rid themselves of Lungu, it is in their interest to make sure that Bill10 fails, as it must”.

Dr Sishuwa further noted that the government has manipulated the coronavirus disease to curtail the activities of the media, opposition parties, and civil society.

“The PF have manipulated the pandemic to bury authoritarian abuse under the guise of fighting it. In April, the broadcasting license of Zambia’s leading private television station was cancelled, days after it declined a government request to broadcast Covid-19 adverts for free. Radio stations that host opposition figures who highlight the government’s failings have also been violently attacked by ruling party supporters, who insist that no form of campaigning should happen until the pandemic is past. Meanwhile, public meetings by civil society and opposition parties remain proscribed on health concerns, even when the PF continues to hold theirs. A series of repressive measures that curtail civil liberties have also been enacted. In the words of one government minister, ‘when it comes to fighting Covid-19, human rights are suspended’!

The SAIPAR Senior Researcher argued that in Zambia, Covid-19 has mainly claimed democracy, not human life.

“With the official death toll standing at seven since the onset of the disease, the major casualty of the coronavirus in Zambia is not human life but the country’s democratic tradition. Only the election vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic, as the standard vaccine (soon) to be recommended by the World Health Organisation is unlikely to cure our strain of the virus!”, observed Dr Sishuwa.