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Zambians reel after emergency powers declaration

Glory Mushinge
July 14, 2017

It's been a week since Zambian President Edgar Lungu invoked emergency powers. Parliament has now approved an extension to 90 days. Analysts say this mini 'state of emergency’ could negatively affect the economy.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu
Image: picture-alliance/P.Wojazer

The imposition of emergency powers left many Zambians concerned that they could be used to abuse people's rights, despite an assurance by President Edgar Lungu (pictured above) that it would be business as usual.

MacDonald Chipenzi, executive director for the Zambia Foundation For Democratic Process (FODEP), sees political motives at work and says those who associate with the powers that be may be exempted from certain measures.

In an interview with DW, Chipenzi said he expected that ordinary citizens would be affected in a number of ways, including being randomly searched by police and subjected to curfews.

"Also, if someone has accused you of something, they may come and search your house without a warrant and detain you for a longer period," he added.

Read more: Zambia's once-proud democracy faces litmus tests

President Lungu declared the emergency powers in early July by invoking Article 31 of the Zambian constitution, in a move to address what he termed "acts of arson," a reference to the burning of part of the country's largest market in the capital Lusaka. The fire, which affected some 1,900 traders, was the latest in a series of infernos that have seen a number of public buildings in the country reduced to ashes.

The government claimed these were acts of revenge by the opposition, following the arrest of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema on treason charges, after his convoy allegedly blocked the presidential motorcade at a traditional ceremony earlier this year. 

A crowd of young supporters of President Lungu celebrate his victory in 2016
President Lungu's Patriotic Front has many young supportersImage: Reuters/Jean Serge Mandela

Constitutional confusion

Many people were left confused by the president's declaration.  Article 31 of the Zambian constitution provides for a milder declaration of a ‘threatened emergency,' while Article 30 can be triggered to declare a state of public emergency. ''The invocation of this particular article only gives limited powers to the president to put in place measures that are likely to curb what he sees as a threat to the state of public emergency,'' Chipenzi said. ''We have a state of public emergency but on a very low scale.”

For Chipenzi, the fires that had prompted the invocation in question were not reason enough to resort to such an action, because the country has sufficient laws to address the situation, such as the Preservation of Public Security Act, the Terrorism Act and the Public Order Act, among others. Chipenzi said he did not understand why the leadership would rush to invoke an act that gives more powers to the president, saying,"it makes people wonder what the motive behind it is."

Chipenzi pointed out that Zambia has experienced a number of fires since last year, and despite the police promising to release reports about the cause, nothing has come forth to date.

Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, seen casting his ballot in the August 2016 election
Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema (center) is accused of treasonImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Xinhua/Penglijun

"We have so many acts which are supposed to help the police to do their work without invoking the constitutional provision that gives more powers to the president. I don't think it was the right time to invoke these powers because there is no situation that endangers public security at the moment, what is there is just a symptom of inefficiencies in the law enforcement agencies,” Chipenzi told DW.

In the meantime, Zambians have been taking to social media to express their feelings about the invocation of Article 31.

 Zambia has long been regarded as one of the most stable democracies in Africa, with a record of having been the second country on the continent to peacefully retire an incumbent ruler through  the ballot box in 1991. This reputation was reinforced in 2011, when the late former president, Michael Sata, won the election to replace the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD)'s Rupiah Banda.

But in recent months, since the August 2016 general elections that saw Edgar Lungu retain his seat and the opposition UPND refuse to accept the results, negative events have unfolded that have led some citizens and foreign observers to cast doubt on the strength of the country's democracy.