LUSAKA — With almost a month to go before Zambia holds its general elections, concerns have risen on whether the country will uphold the peace it has enjoyed for over 50 years since gaining independence.
Zambia will hold presidential, parliamentary, local government and mayoral elections on August 11 as well as a referendum on the amendment of part three of the constitution which deals with people’s rights. But politically-motivated violence has continued in the run-up to the general elections despite calls by stakeholders for leaders to urge their supporters to stop the violence.
Political Violence on the rise
Apart from inflicting injuries on each other, rival supporters of the two parties have also gone to the extent of pulling down campaign posters. Violence has been a major sticky point in the ongoing campaigns despite church leaders holding meetings with political leaders to urge them to renounce violence.
There have been accusations and counter-accusations between supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) on who was behind the vice.
Despite a number of arrests from both sides, violence has continued unabated and analysts fear this could mar Zambia’s good name of being a beacon of peace in Africa. Pictures of people hacked in electoral violence are the order of the day on social media and national newspapers while unconfirmed reports say some people have been killed.
“Please, do not put our peaceful Zambia on fire. We strongly condemn the attitude of promoting violence and using the youth as tools to fan violence,” former chief judge Justice Lombe Chibesakunda said in a statement.
The former chief judge, who is chairperson of the Pillars of Peace Zambia, a local organization established to promote peace, said the country’s electoral body should expeditiously deal with candidates promoting violence and that the government should establish a fast-track court to deal with individuals perpetrating violence during campaigns.
Other stakeholders have called on Zambian President Edgar Lungu to do more to end the violence, adding that as head of the defense chiefs, he is the only one who could put a stop to the vice. Lungu indicated that he will not enforce the state of emergency despite the political violence, adding that he will not yield to the temptation as he believed the problem could be solved without resorting to the drastic step of imposing a state of emergency.
“I cannot declare a state of emergency in an election era. We have to tolerate certain infringements but I am watching the situation very closely,” he told reporters when asked whether it was true that he intends to declare a state of emergency.
Lungu said he had confidence that the police will deal with the problem of violence and bring to book all culprits.
Police fail in curbing violence
But some stakeholders have questioned the police’s ability to curb violence as they have failed to do so despite repeated promises since the campaigns started. The stakeholders are concerned that repeated calls by the police to political leaders to urge their supporters to stop engaging in violence have not yielded any positive results.
Opposition political parties have also accused the police of bias as they seem to pay a blind eye to the violence perpetrated by the ruling party supporters and were quick to swoop on opposition supporters.
But the police have dismissed the claims, saying it has the mandate of enforcing the law irrespective of the political party supporters involved. “If anybody commits a crime, what we have decided to do is to arrest them and we have been doing those arrests. So far we have arrested political cadres from both the ruling party and opposition,” Rae Hamoonga, the Zambia police deputy spokesperson, told local media recently.
Last month, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) warned that it will be forced to suspend the campaigns and suspend any party or candidates from participating in the elections for engaging in violence.
Cris Akufuna, the electoral body’s public relations manager said the constitution empowers it to suspend or prevent a political party as well as candidates from participating in elections if it concludes that party supporters have engaged in acts of violence.
“The commission has observed with dismay the rising levels of intolerance and violence and to that effect, the commission has condemned the behavior, the intolerance and violence. And it is for that reason that the commission has reminded political parties that they should conduct their campaigns peaceful,” he said.
However, despite the threats, the violence has continued. Last week, the main opposition party alleged that one of its supporters died after he was attacked by ruling party supporters for putting on a T-shirt bearing the portrait of main opposition contender Hakainde Hichilema. Efforts to end the violence seem not to be paying any dividends so far.
For instance, on March 29, 18 political parties agreed to end violence after a meeting convened by church leaders. After the meeting, the party leaders committed to stop their supporters from engaging in violence and that they would institute measures to deal with issues that results in violence. But so far, the opposite seems to be true as violence as continued despite the promises from the leaders.
As the country heads to the polls, it remains to be seen whether peace will prevail or whether Zambia’s tag of being a peaceful nation be broken.