The Zambian president’s “desperate plan” to stay in power? A response
We assess the same evidence as Sishuwa Sishuwa and come to different conclusions.
On 1 June, 2023, Sishuwa Sishuwa published an article entitled “Zambia: The president’s five-point plan to stay in power at all costs” in African Arguments. In it, the academic characterises the situation in Zambia as one of shrinking democratic space, mounting corruption, political intolerance, and government desperation. The use of the phrase “at all costs” suggests the government is no longer playing according to the rules of the democratic game.
We applaud Sishuwa’s willingness and ability to engage on key and often complex issues of governance in Zambia. But engaging with his analysis, we do not arrive at the same conclusions. We find that he draws sweeping conclusions from anecdotes, engages in conjecture, and, in some cases, reveals a gross ignorance of the facts (or at least deliberately distorts them).
To stimulate a positive intellectual discourse, we look at the issues raised by Sishuwa’s article, in the same order.
1) Contain the Catholic Church
Sishuwa argues that President Hakainde Hichilema has hatched a plan to contain and undermine the Catholic church by dividing it or by finding incriminating information on some bishops or priests. To substantiate his argument, he asserts: “Unlike its religious counterparts, the [Catholic] Church enjoys financial independence, protecting it from state intimidation and patronage.” This is incorrect.
Over the years, resources coming to the Zambian Catholic Church from missionaries or their home bases have significantly reduced. Local priests no longer have the resources they did when missionary priests and nuns were dominant. Today, an average local-diocesan clergy in a rural parish gets less than K1,000 ($50) for his upkeep from his bishop and/or parish community. Bishops and priests have become financially vulnerable, creating a fertile ground for co-optation by political elites. For example, Archbishop Alick Banda (whom Sishuwa’s article clothes in heroic regalia) has been a recipient of several donations from the former government of Edgar Lungu. The Lungu administration supported the construction of a secondary school in the Archdiocese of Lusaka. Meanwhile, when in charge of Ndola Diocese, Banda received K750,000 ($37,000) from the same former government towards the construction of priests’ houses whose official handover was officiated by Lungu.
More broadly, some works of the Catholic church are still heavily reliant on government funding through grants. Church hospitals and schools, except those run on a commercial basis, receive government funding and employ staff whose salaries are funded by the state. This funding has actually more than doubled since the current president assumed office. It is incorrect to claim that the Catholic church is financially independent, or that its priests and leaders are immune from political patronage.
Sishuwa also claims the president has a plan to divide the Catholic church’s hierarchy. We are not interested in such assertions, but we do note that divisions in the church pre-date Hichilema’s presidency. For example, some priests and bishops openly supported the Patriotic Front (PF) while it was in power, contrary to official church policy of neutrality. There were many instances during Lungu’s rule in which the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB) openly criticised the government only for Archbishop Banda to take a contrary position – such as regarding the 2019 constitutional amendment bill, the detention of then opposition leader Hichilema, and the reception of funds during Covid-19. The divisions Sishuwa “predicts” in fact pre-date the 2021 election and were primarily occasioned by the PF.
We have not observed any signs of government trying to divide the Catholic church. What we have observed is President Hichilema engaging with the Church’s hierarchy and attending its major events. He was present, for example, at the episcopal ordinations of Bishops Raphael Mweempwa and Gabriel Msipu Phiri. And, early this year, he hosted all the Catholic Bishops at State House, except for Banda who chose to stay away. We do not find coherent evidence to support the assertions Sishuwa makes. In fact, the evidence leads us to contradictory conclusions.
2) Co-opt civil society
Sishuwa’s article next argues that President Hichilema has a plan to co-opt critical voices by appointing them to public positions. He asserts that “the co-optation of so many experienced figures has weakened civil society to the point it is now largely unable to challenge the executive on governance”. By this, he seems to suggest that there is a mass recruitment of outspoken individuals into government and those who have stayed away, like himself and Brebner Changala, will be targeted for social media attack. We agree that a free and independent civil society is key to democracy, but we do not find evidence to corroborate Sishuwa’s assertions.
First, the numbers of those recruited from civil society into government is negligible. We only know two such people: Pamela Chisanga, who has been given a fulltime job as a High Commissioner; and Chama “Pilato” Fumba, who was appointed Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Sport. A few more have been appointed into part-time positions at quasi or independent public institutions. Here we can only think of: Laura Miti (Human Rights Commissioner), Pamela Sambo (Vice Chairperson of the Human Rights Commissioner), MacDonald Chipenzi (Electoral Commission of Zambia), O’Brien Kaaba (ACC Commissioner), and Fr. Emmanuel Chikoya (Human Rights Commissioner).
There is clearly no clean sweep of leaders from NGOs or academia as Sishuwa asserts. Actually, one of the often-reported complaints by Brebner Changala (who Sishuwa lists for social media targeting) is that Hichilema has not appointed the people who helped him to ascend to power and that he is still largely working with the civil service left by the PF. Also, it is important to mention that all the people listed above appointed to quasi-government institutions have remained active advocates of good governance and critics of government policies.
Second, the “co-opt” label is unhelpful as a tool of analysis. It does not reflect the circumstances under which individuals may have been appointed and denies them agency. The public appointment of civil society leaders is not at odds with good governance, nor is it unique to Zambia. To the contrary, it is common across the world and rarely interpreted as “co-optation”.
Third, to demonstrate how civil society has been weakened, Sishuwa cites the example of government allowing mining to proceed in a national park. He argues that had civil society organisations (CSOs) been as strong as they were prior to 2021, they would have held the UPND government accountable and stopped the mining. This is based on conjecture. No individual from any of the environmental CSOs that fought the mining case has been appointed to a government position. Moreover, the Zambian government on 31 May 2023 (before Sishuwa published his article) granted an appeal by CSOs and ordered a halt to the mining.
Fourth, we suggest that Sishuwa’s arguments are inconsistent with his previously published positions. In several articles before the 2021 election, he predicted that Lungu would secure a third term, partly because CSOs were weak. Looking even further back to the presidency of Frederick Chiluba, he also discounts the role of civil society in preventing the president securing a third term in 2002 and instead gives credit to behind-the-scenes intervention by the military. If it is true that CSOs were weak before 2021, then it cannot be true that they are weak today because of what has passed since. It can only be one or the other.
3) Capture the ECZ and pack the courts
Sishuwa argues that the government has a plan to capture the Courts and the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ). He gives the impression this is new and fails to put it in its proper context. In our view, Zambia’s institutions have long been overshadowed by the Executive. This has prompted various calls for constitutional reform. Hichilema should play a central role in these reforms, but he cannot be blamed for the historic situation.
The establishment of the Constitutional Court in 2016 is problematic and further undermines the credibility of the judiciary. It must be abolished, and a diffused model of constitutional adjudication adopted. There are some judges who should not be on the bench. However, that does not mean every appointment is part of a “scheme” to pack the courts. For example, the appointment of the Chief Justice Mumba Malila was widely acclaimed across the political divide.
With regards to ECZ, Sishuwa points to the exclusion of two opposition candidates from recontesting two recent by-elections as an example of its bias. What he doesn’t mention is that, at that stage, the Commission was still governed by those appointed by the PF. Hichilema only appointed two new commissioners after those by-elections. It is yet to be seen how the ECZ will function going forwards, but the new chairperson seems to understand the weight of public expectations as her recent public engagements showed.
Another thing Sishuwa does not put in perspective is that the Commission has five commissioners. Since the president only appointed two to fill vacancies, the ECZ is still led by a majority of commissioners appointed by the PF.
This does not mean there is not an urgent need to reform public institutions. We simply refute Sishuwa’s logic for suggesting there is a discernible UPND plan to win an election at any cost or his suggestion that the institutional weaknesses of the judiciary and ECZ arise from Hichilema’s recent actions rather than Zambia’s democratic history.
4) Weaken opposition
The fourth part of the plan to win the next election, according to Sishuwa, is to weaken the opposition PF and Socialist Party (SP).
In relation to the former, his article claims the government wants to do two things: 1) de-register PF; 2) charge and convict the successor to former President Lungu to disqualify him from standing (Sishuwa seems to have inside information about PF succession plans). These claims lack merit and legal sense.
With regard to de-registration, the empowering law is the Societies Act. As the Registrar of Societies indicated in the notices to the PF, the party had not been compliant with the requirement to furnish the list of office bearers. Although the Societies Act is a colonial piece of legislation and has some undemocratic requirements, the need to furnish office bearers is not one of them. In fact, the modern trend is to require parties to disclose more information, including sources of funding, bank account details, and campaign finance expenditure. There is no explanation from Sishuwa why the PF did not comply with this. Instead, he transposes the problem to the government. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite of what Sishuwa claims. By law, the Registrar could have de-registered the PF once they failed to respond to the first notice. Instead, they sent another notice with a deadline of seven days. This too was reportedly not heeded, yet the party was still not de-registered. This suggests a great amount of tolerance from the government. This can be contrasted with the way the PF government acted towards the losing MMD when it came to power in 2011. It de-registered MMD outrightly for not submitting annual returns to the Registrar.
Sishuwa argues that the other way of weakening PF is to charge the successor to Lungu with specifically tailored charges to have him convicted and disqualified from contesting the next election. Charges in law can only stand if the offense was committed or there is reasonable suspicion. Considering that the successor is not yet known, how could the charges be determined in advance? The correct position is that many former PF leaders are appearing in court for various corruption charges, and it is possible that some of them might be convicted before the next general election. This has nothing to do with the conspiracy Sishuwa is projecting.
With regard to the SP, Sishuwa starts by arguing that the ruling party has been losing popularity and that the SP has been winning a “string” of by-elections. He suggests this may be the reason it is being targeted. We have limited space to demonstrate how Sishuwa draws incorrect inferences from hyperbole. We can only point out that the Socialist Party has so far only won two local government seats (hardly a “string”) and these were all in areas previously dominated by PF. If any reasonable inference can be drawn, it seems to be that the SP is benefiting from the slow death of the PF, though data is inadequate to make that conclusion for now. The recent Afrobarometer survey results seem to suggest that the approval rating for the current government has actually gone up.
Regarding the targeting of the opposition party, Sishuwa alleges that the government plans to arrest the SP leader, Fred M’membe, on trumped up gun charges. This is misleading as M’membe was already arrested, in the course of a by-election campaign in Serenje, for allegedly for discharging a firearm at UPND supporters. In a press statement, M’membe confirmed that he discharged the firearm but said it was in self-defence. These facts, regrettable as they are, do not suggest any pre-conceived plan to block M’membe from contesting elections. In fact, in February 2022, the Supreme Court handed down a judgment favourable to the SP leader, essentially reversing the liquidation of his famous newspaper, The Post, which had met its demise under the PF regime. If the Supreme Court had been co-opted to fix M’membe, as Sishuwa purports, this would not have been the case.
5) Cover corruption
Finally, Sishuwa argues that part of the strategy to retain power is to hide corruption. However, he does not point to a single case in which Hichilema blocked investigations, apart from vague generalisations. The Ministry of Finance scandal that Sishuwa draws upon to make a sweeping claims is still an active case and, as the Anti-Corruption Commission Director General indicated in a press statement, full details shall be made public when the investigations are concluded.
This does not mean there is no corruption under the current government. Our contention is that there is no evidence the president is shielding his officials from being investigated.
In responding to Sishuwa, we do not intend to suggest the current government is perfect. On the contrary, we applaud Sishuwa’s efforts to stimulate public discourse. Our interest, to be clear, is to promote a public discourse based on coherent logic, fact, and rigor. As we have demonstrated, we do not believe in using anecdotal evidence to back up pre-conceived conclusions. As leaders in academia and public policy, we are eager to promote open discourse on national matters. We do not seek homogenisation of thinking among political and policy commentators, but we are eager to promote fact-based analysis.
Our observation is that this government does have several serious shortcomings. These include poor information flow and citizen engagement (the ministry of information is either totally dysfunctional or incompetently run); the government has not given a clear road map on constitutional and institutional reform; and some promised legal reforms are yet to materialise. However, using a standard governance yardstick, it is our view that the positive, so far, outweighs the negative. Some bad laws have been reformed; sanity has, to a large extent, returned to bus stops and markets; political violence has substantially reduced; funding to local government has drastically improved; free education has been introduced; a large number of youths have been employed into public service; fiscal discipline has been reinstated and there are serious steps to address the debt crisis; funding to oversight institutions has increased; and independent institutions are free to do their work without interference from the Executive. Scrutiny on powerholders should continue to keep them on track.