A version of this post appeared on Freedom at Issue. The views expressed are the authors' own.
The euphoria that followed longtime Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata’s election as president in 2011 has given way to fear that the country may be returning to the dark days of its less-than-democratic past.
In recent months, President Sata’s actions have had damaging consequences for civil society and opposition parties. They have also caused increasing rancor within his own party, the Patriotic Front. It is in this intra-party domain that Sata faces the most imminent threat to his political survival, as the next elections are not due until 2016.
Sata emerged from relative obscurity to become governor of Lusaka during the 1980s, under strongman Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party regime. Following some deft political maneuvering in the 1990s, he secured a place in the government of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which had ousted Mr. Kaunda peacefully in 1991.
Winning a reputation as a ferocious public speaker and a shrewd political tactician, Sata eventually became close to President Frederick Chiluba and was appointed to several ministerial portfolios.
Sata broke away from the MMD and launched the Patriotic Front in 2001, after being snubbed in the race to succeed Mr. Chiluba. The PF remains his personal political vehicle, and no competitive elections have ever been held for the position of party president.
Propelled by its leader’s determination and revolutionary rhetoric, the PF gained traction with a disillusioned population that was weary of underdevelopment and blatant corruption under the MMD. In September 2011, the PF won national elections by promising more money in people’s pockets, a war against corruption, and a new people-driven constitution.
Although the Zambian economy has grown at a healthy annual rate of 6.8 percent since Sata took office, the PF has mostly failed to implement the reforms it promised while in opposition.
But this failure to meet the demands of the people is not the most serious threat to Sata’s political future. That comes from tribalism.
During his decades in power, Mr. Kaunda made it his mission to eradicate tribalism from Zambian politics. His “one Zambia, one nation” invocation is still commonly heard today.
But tribal politics seems to be creeping back under the PF, which draws the bulk of its support from the Bemba-speaking regions of northern Zambia.
Bemba tribes have been a powerful political force in Zambia for over 300 years. Their culture is deeply entrenched, and all sub-tribes owe allegiance to the paramount chief, also known as the Chitimukulu, who is appointed according to a long-established traditional process.
Unhappy with the incumbent and in a clear overstep of his presidential powers, Sata has appointed his own Chitimukulu. The president has even created a new province, Muchinga, in which to situate this puppet paramount chief.
Bemba traditionalists, many of them in senior positions within the PF, have been outraged by Sata’s meddling with a generations-old tradition of succession.
Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba, an influential Bemba leader and senior PF member, lost his job as defense minister after siding with supporters of the “legitimate” paramount chief, Henry Kanyanta Sosala. Mr. Mwamba now seems likely to be expelled from the PF, and his departure could cause lasting damage to the party, as he carries substantial influence in Northern Province and is one of the PF’s principal financial backers.
Sata seems oblivious to the repercussions of his actions, and in late February he confirmed the appointment of "his" personal choice for Chitimukulu, Chief Chewe. The Bemba traditional establishment is not impressed, stating that this course of events could have “deadly consequences.”
Traditional leaders in Zambia wield strong influence over the voting patterns of their subjects, a fact that is not lost on the PF, which may no longer be able to rely on blanket Bemba support.
Many argue that Sata’s actions are self-destructive and have already guaranteed that another party -- most likely the United Party for National Development --will assume power in 2016, if not earlier.
Senior PF officials and functionaries have repeatedly alleged that tribal nepotism, regionalism, and a growing intolerance of intra-party dissent on key issues have engulfed their party, leaving several prominent members estranged.
For the time being, however, Sata is solely focused on retaining power within the party and in the country. This is damaging democracy on three main fronts: the strength of opposition parties, civil society, and the media.
Opposition parties have fallen afoul of the notorious Public Order Act and an overzealous police force. The leaders of at least four prominent parties have been harassed and arrested over the past year, largely for criticizing the government. Most infamously, Alliance for a Better Zambia president Frank Bwalya was arrested and charged with insulting Sata, having referred to him as a crooked potato during a radio interview.
Nongovernmental organizations are also under attack. After loudly opposing a dangerous NGO law introduced by the MMD in 2009, the PF has now decided to implement it in full, requiring civil society groups to obtain registration from a government-controlled board.
The law allows for wide ministerial discretion, and operating without registration can result in significant fines and jail time for leaders of critical organizations.
Perhaps most worrying, however, is the fact that Zambia’s traditionally boisterous media environment has been deliberately subdued by the PF.
All three of Zambia’s main print dailies -- the Times of Zambia, the Zambia Daily Mail, and the Post -- now pander to the ruling party. As documented in a previous post on this blog, journalists have been physically attacked and online news sites shut down in a further attempt to silence critics.
Some in Zambia continue to argue the country is no worse off than it was during the 20 years of MMD rule. While widespread corruption and an allergy to strong institutions of democracy have been hallmarks of every Zambian government -- not since Kaunda has Zambia seen a leader as intolerant of criticism as Michael Sata. With dissent continuing to fester, the only response in his playbook seems to be to close ranks and close democratic space.
For those who seek to salvage the democratic progress made since 1991, uniting around basic principles -- not personalities -- is crucial. Sata has sought to personalize the attacks against his critics; those who want to put Zambia on a different path must seek higher ground.
Having lain dormant for the first two years of PF rule, civil society has reawakened and is beginning to build a movement for change, involving a diversity of groups. Their efforts must be supported, both diplomatically and financially, by Zambia’s international partners. Foreign donors including the United States and the European Union should take a stronger line with the PF regarding its clear violations of basic freedoms and democratic principles.
For change to occur, progressive leaders within the PF must also come to the fore. If the party is to survive and Zambia is to turn a corner, they must find a way to speak out and support the movement for change from within the political establishment.