In some African countries, democracy is proving to be a real challenge. Even where great strides have been made to make way for democracy to flourish, a lot is being perpetrated to undo this. And this is the case which Zambia's opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema is afraid will happen to Zambia.
Zambia has been a beacon of democracy in the region, but with the recent developments under the rule of Edgar Lungu, this hard-won reputation is being ripped into shreds. So much has the situation in Zambia deteriorated that the leader of opposition party United Party for National Development, Hakainde Hichilema fears Zambia "will turn into another Zimbabwe" or even the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It simply means Zimbabwe and the DRC have become the benchmarks of a failed system, a failed democracy, where flagrant human rights abuses is a typified phenomenon. Hakainde Hichilema fears that no one is listening to the woes that Zambia is facing right now, and for the situation to be left unchecked is utterly detrimental for the region.
When he spoke to the Mail and Guardian, he shed some light into his arrest on trumped up treason charges last year. He spent 127 days in the deplorable conditions of Zambian cells, a reality he described with clear revulsion.
"Our detention centres are death traps ... In a room like this, [hotel room] you have 200 inmates spending nights. So you really don’t go to sleep. You take a nap by sitting, and someone has their body inside your legs. There is very poor ventilation — something very simple to fix but it’s not there. Food, there’s no food. And when it’s there, it’s rotten beans, rotten kapenta [sardines]. Medical services are very poor. People go into prison and come out with diseases. During my stay we saw bodies being taken away, dead," said Hichilema when he spoke to the Mail and Guardian at an upmarket hotel in Johannesburg.
It is clear that the situation in Zambia is one which needs urgent attention. But how, when Edgar Lungu and his state apparatus are stifling freedom at unprecedented rates all in an effort to ostensibly quell dissenting opinions and tighten his grip on power? Because on the overall, there is a heavy sense of intimidation in the country. Talk of countless arrests on purely flimsy charges.
"The abuse of human rights and freedoms in our country ... has gone unnoticed beyond our borders," said Hichilema. "Even to have peaceful demonstrations is almost impossible if you are not associated with the ruling party. If you see the sort of demonstrations you have around here [in South Africa], they don’t occur in Zambia ... If you try to do that you will be met with brute force, where the police discharge live ammunition along with teargas wantonly."
Well, that's just how it is in Zambia. Which is even hard to comprehend when you try to think of Zambia as one of the peaceful democracies in the region and the whole continent at large. As seen here, this is all being gradually undone. And the words from Amnesty International corroborate this sad story.
"The authorities cracked down on critics, including human rights defenders, journalists and opposition political party members," said Amnesty. "The Public Order Act was used to repress rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The police used unnecessary and excessive force against peaceful protesters and failed to address violence by groups close to the government. The judiciary came under verbal attack from the president. Levels of food insecurity in rural areas remain high."
The economy is not performing at its optimal best, or even the minimal best, and debt levels are skyrocketing seriously. Hichilema believes that the debt levels being in the official reports of the country are false as the government is hiding the accurate figures. Official stats put the debt levels at more than $8 billion, but Hichilema believes this figure hovers around $16 billion.
There's low-performing economy, abuse of human rights, disintegration of democracy and an overwhelming climate of intimidation in Zambia. An interplay of these problems is worsened by the fact that even the international community is not paying enough attention to these challenges.
So, could Zambia be another Zimbabwe or DRC? And, if there are any benchmarks to be used in measuring true democracy, what's to be said of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo?