VICE-PRESIDENT Inonge Wina says police have not stopped members of the opposition from organising political meetings, provided this is done under the Public Order Act. During the Vice-President’s question time in Parliament last Friday, Monze Central UPND member of parliament Jack Mwiimbu asked Madam Wina to explain whether political parties would be allowed to engage members of the public following the guidance by the Electoral Commission of Zambia, that all political parties should go flat out to sensitise the public regarding the forth-coming registration of voters.

To this, Vice-President Wina said: “The police have not stopped members of the opposition from organising political meetings, provided this is done under the public order act. This has been said before, and to defy laws of the country will not be allowed. We can undertake these activities with the blessings of the police. So the meetings will continue. Some meetings do not need big public meetings, especially under COVID-19. But some of the meetings can be arranged in such a manner that we do not compromise the health of Zambians.”

We wonder why the Vice-President likes to misguide herself so often when she is asked to provide guidance to the nation through the National Assembly. What the Vice-President is saying, in other words, is like saying members of the public are at liberty to speak freely, as long as they don’t say anything that we do not agree with. If you grant people the liberty to hold public meetings, you cannot, at the same time, impose restrictions that go as far as taking away the very liberty that you have granted.

We also don’t understand why the Vice-President is being hypocritical over this matter. Madam Inonge knows that there is no way her police officers will allow members of the opposition to conduct election related public meetings. She knows that only her party is allowed to hold mobilisation activities and she is happy that this abuse of the Public Order act is giving the Patriotic Front an advantage, but she decides to lie. We find this to be a mockery of the Public Order Act victims, who are the opposition and civil society organisations.

It has been said, time and again, that the duty of the police is to simply provide security, they do not have the power under the Constitution to stop citizens from holding public meetings. What we are seeing in Zambia is a sham of democracy now because the police service has gained control of political activities, much to the advantage of the ruling party.

There is no democracy that we can talk about where the Public Order Act is an impediment to the opposition in conducting political campaigns as well as NGOs attempting to organise public debates. There is overwhelming evidence that State House, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Patriotic Front secretariat mounts pressure on the police not to apply the Public Order Act fairly.

This Act was amended in 1996 with respect to public meetings to delete the word “permit” and replace it with “notify,” but the police arrogantly and deliberately apply this law to serve as a “permit process” due to political influence, and the citizens have accepted that as a norm. How can that be tolerated in a democracy? The opposition have been complaining that, in practice the police have given themselves the power to determine who may conduct and organise public meetings at the ward level, constituency level, district level and provincial level.

If the police were fair in the application of this law, as Madam Inonge Wina claims, they would spare no one, regardless of political affiliation. Constitutionally, the Public Order Act only exempts the president and vice president from informing the police, but in practice it has been extended to apply to all PF officials and the thugs who run bus stations and markets.

The Public Order Act is supposed to be a good instrument for ensuring law and order during campaign periods, but the manner in which it is abused promotes mistrust in the police whose role it is to enforce the law. If elections were held in a fair and transparent manner, institutions such as the Electoral Commission of Zambia would be helping in ensuring that we have a level playing field during campaigns.

We need an Electoral Commission that is thirsty to deliver credible elections; a Commission that eager to promote co-existence among the political players; a Commission that will take steps to publicise the intent and provisions of the Public Order Act in the newspaper, television and radio, and provide civic education to the police so that we can have adherence by all political actors, not just the opposition.