Following a period of democratic backsliding, President Edgar Lungu stands accused of seeking to extend further control over civil society and repressing critical discussion – even when it is not focussed on the question of his leadership.
Church leaders in Zambia are used to playing a fairly high profile role in political discussions, especially where the budget is concerns. The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection is well known for conducting the “Rural Basket”, a quarterly survey that measures poverty and social service delivery in rural parts of Zambia. The Catholic Church also has a history of speaking out in favour of “pro-poor policies”, for example through the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. Clergymen in Ndola were therefore taken aback when a meeting to discuss the government’s proposed 2009 budget, which had been organized with the Centre for Trade Policy and Development, was disrupted by police on 19 October. Not only was the meeting abruptly ended, but Pastor George Palo, who had helped to put the event together, was detained.
The meeting was held at the Ndola Central Baptist Church, but was attended by church leaders from different denominations, and so has been interpreted as an infringement on the rights of Christian groups more generally. According to Pastor Brian Chanda, the actions of the police were unjustified: “how are we as the clergy going to particular in national development. If we shun such meetings, we will be called names. Now we come so that we can contribute, the police arrest us and disrupt our meeting. Then what role should we play in the governance of the country? We are stakeholders”.
However, despite considerable public criticism including from other religious leaders, the police were unrepentant. Speaking the day after the incident, Charity Katanga, the Copperbelt Police Commissioner, stated that five pastors and three officials from the Centre for Trade Policy and Development would be charged with the offence of unlawful assembly. The charges were justified, she claimed, on the basis that the meeting had been “political” and the group had not applied for a police permit. While it is common – though not necessarily democratic – for partisan political events to need police clearance, this has not been applied to discussions of national development.
While the initial disruption of the meeting might have been a simple mistake – over eager police men and women jumping the gun in the context of a charged political atmosphere – the decision to charge the eight individuals is strong evidence that the harassment of the clergymen is in line with government policy, which is becoming increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent.
Criticism of the budget is particularly sensitive for the government this year, as the state of the country’s economy remains highly controversial. On the one hand, the Patriotic Front ruling party has been accused by opposition leaders of contributing to an unsustainable debt burden through corruption and economic mismanagement. While the government would normally attempt to dismiss this as rhetoric, doing so has become considerably harder after four of the country’s most important international donors suspended their support of government projects when it was revealed that almost $5 million in donor contributions are missing. The funds, which were given to the departments of health, education and local government, were intended to provide assistance to 632,000 people.
On the other hand, the stated priority of the Finance Minister with this budget – namely bringing expenditure under control and balancing the books – seem implausible given than one-third of the budget is scheduled to be raised from foreign funders. According to economist Trevor Simumba, this will “will lead to even more debt and fiscal deficits”. A growing consensus is emerging that the country’s economy is only likely to get back on track if a proposed rescue package with the IMF said to be worth $1.3 million can be agreed. But that seems further away than ever as a result of the government’s profligacy and economic mismanagement. In August, an IMF spokesperson told Reuters that: “There are no discussions on a possible Fund-supported programme given that the authorities’ borrowings plans compromise the country’s debt sustainability, and undermine its macroeconomic stability”.
This backdrop helps to explain why President Lungu is so sensitive about criticism of the budget. As a result of the corruption accusations and the repeated failure of the government to secure IMF support, a debate over the budget is, in a very real sense, a debate about the quality of the president’s leadership. As a result, public criticism of the budget process threatens to undermine his ability to secure a third-term – a controversy that some have argued will trigger regime change – and win re-election in 2021. In this sense, Lungu is caught in a Catch 22 situation; he does not want to agree to the conditions laid out by the IMF because the reduction in government expenditure this would involve would undermine popular support for the his leadership. But by allowing the economy to die a slow death, he is driving voters into the arms of the opposition.
For his part, United Party of National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema has done his best to take advantage of the Lungu’s economic woes, and to position himself as standing shoulder to shoulder with the victims of government repression. Following the detention of the clergymen in Ndola he released the following statement: “To the church, we say remain strong because history records show that you, together with all of us gave hope when our country was under siege by such elements … And to the civil society organisations, as a party we would like to encourage you to place the interests of our country first and ensure those plundering both public and donor funding in this case the PF are held accountable.”
He continued: “We condemn the arrest of members of the clergy and some from the civil society organisation on Friday 19th October, 2018 in Ndola. This was after they had gathered to discuss the budget and the debt crisis, and corruption. We call on the PF to stop abusing the police in hiding their corruption and debt crisis.”
While this may be good politics – and an important step in resisting the trend of autocratization – it is also dangerous for civil society. The more that those who speak out on issues such as the budget are seen as UPND sympathisers trying to bind the president’s hands, the worse the repression is likely to get.