It is really a tough job to be an opposition leader in Zambia. You have to daily face the police, risk being teargased or even locked for doing the job that you must do — meeting potential voters even when elections are five years away or performing the most important function, that of providing checks and balances. Opposition Members of Parliament are equally poached at will by the head of state.
If there is a cliché that applies in this situation is that of “history repeats itself.” The process of harassment, for that is what it is, tends to bake the leaders for when they take over government and apply the same methods to those who fall in the unfortunate role of being opposition leaders especially if they are popular.
Like most African liberation leaders, Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda was once jailed up for opposing the colonialists in the period leading to the 1964 independence. He himself perfected the art so well no opposition was allowed for the 27 years he was head of state. Any sign of opposition even in his ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP) was ruthlessly dealt with to an extent where he even jailed his childhood friend who once served as his vice president.
The three very serious coup attempts on his watch were like-wise dealt with the perpetrators locked away for years — well until an amnesty that resulted from the pressure to change the political system from the one party system to a multiparty dispensation.
During that period, effective opposition to Kaunda’s government came through the trade union and student movements whose leaders were equally not spared. The most high profile victim of “opposition” harassment of that period was that of the then Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Frederick Chiluba who later soundly defeated Kaunda in the 1991 elections when Zambia embraced plural politics after 17 years of a one party system.
As a democrat, as he used to call himself, Chiluba as head of state should have learnt a lesson of harassing opponents. But, incidentally, he went guns blazing, revenge-like, sending police to harass his predecessor for allegedly stealing a presidential palace library book, and once locking him up for weeks for allegedly plotting a coup and bombings that rocked the capital city, Lusaka. When Kaunda was jailed in a maximum prison, a 150 km north of Lusaka, it took former President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to have him set free by convincing Chiluba on the folly of locking up the statesman.
Chiluba himself never escaped the wrath of the person he personally anointed to take over from him after his failed attempt to go for an unconstitutional third term, Levy Mwanawasa. Chiluba had his immunity removed and left him vulnerable to prosecution for which he frequented the courts of law for most of his retirement life until shortly before he died when another head of state, Rupiah Banda, influenced his acquittal.
The current President, Michael Sata, as an opposition leader never escaped the wrath of Mwanawasa who locked him up for alleged theft of motor vehicles, an unbailable offence at the time. That aside, Sata never enjoyed his peace as an opposition leader as he, at times, was beaten up and teargased by the police for conducting his political activities under both Mwanawasa and Banda.
Sata, in opposition, was never given any positive coverage by the taxpayer-funded Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation and the two state-run newspapers, the Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia. The man who became Zambia’s president after the 2011 national elections after losing the previous three had his own way of hitting back for the unfairness he encountered on the route to the nation’s top-most and most influential job.
Soon after taking over the mantle, his administration quickly moved to remove the immunity of his immediate predecessor, Banda, accusing him of abusing the office of president, allegedly enriching himself and his family. More than two and half years after leaving office, Banda is a frequent customer at the Lusaka Magistrates Court.
Banda is, however, not the only victim of Sata’s vindictiveness of the previous political system that had disadvantaged him. Shortly after ascending to power, he proclaimed “love” for the Public Order Act, the law that severely restricts political activities of people but more so those from opposition parties.
Sata even sacked a permanent secretary in the ministry of information for extending to national coverage the licences of some private radio stations which had given him a fair amount of coverage as an opposition leader. His administration has also tried to block some independent news websites that are deemed too critical against his administration. Some journalists have been arrested for their work and face jail sentences if convicted.
Leaders of major opposition parties, the former ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Nevers Mumba, and United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainde Hichilema, have been arrested, and in some cases still appearing in court, for activities relating to party meetings and interacting with citizens like traditional leaders and not having permits for them.
In the case of Hichilema, Sata has even gone farther to release his personal bank details accusing the wealthy businessman of mismanaging the privatisation process which the MMD embarked upon when it took over power from Kaunda. Paradoxically, Sata was at some point the third most high-ranking government and party official in the MMD during the privatisation process.
Opposition leaders are lucky to be covered by state-run media organisations, they are in and out of police stations and make regular trips to court for offences they have been arrested for in relation to their political activities. The long and short of it is that President Sata is doing exactly the same things that his predecessors did to him as an opposition leader.
Zambia will need a magnanimous leader in future elections to break this unhealthy cycle which has gone on from since before independence in 1964 otherwise, the nasty tendency for history to repeat itself will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.