Maverick Citizen

CIVIL SOCIETY OP-ED

Greater unity through Pan-Africanism can help save Zimbabwe’s democracy

Greater unity through Pan-Africanism can help save Zimbabwe’s democracy
Zambians wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station during the general elections in Lusaka, Zambia, 12 August 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Zambia’s citizens and civil society were instrumental in opposing authoritarianism, helping to put the country back on the path to restoring democracy. It’s a lesson for Zimbabwe as it faces the threat posed by the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill.

I come from Zambia, a country in the heart of southern Africa that is linked to its many neighbours by not only its borders but also by a rich history of solidarity at a time when it was particularly risky for it to do so. Kenneth Kaunda, the father of our nation, instilled that legacy in us, but it really is something that is innately African. 

Ubuntu means “I am because we are”. I am here not only to offer solidarity to our comrades in Zimbabwe, but also to provide a message of hope.

Zambia is on a path to restoring its democratic credentials. Not so long ago, we were on a path towards authoritarianism and democratic decline. This period was marked by:

  • The state’s unwillingness to adhere to court orders, which had the effect of undermining the legitimacy and credibility of the judiciary and the rule of law;
  • Public threats against members of the judiciary;
  • The apparent partisanship of law enforcement agencies in securing peace and security and law and order in relation to public meetings of various political parties;
  • The harassment of journalists perceived to be antiestablishment in an environment where there appeared to be a decreasing tolerance for divergent views; and
  • Sowing seeds of division on the basis of tribal or political affiliation.

Fellow Africans, does this sound familiar?

In 2019 the former regime, led by the Patriotic Front Party with a large majority in parliament, began to make moves to make substantial amendments to the constitution in a bid to entrench its hold on power. 

The Constitutional Amendment Bill No 10 of 2019, or Bill 10 as it became known, became the biggest threat to Zambian democracy since the creation of a one-party state through Zambia’s 1972 Constitution. 

It proposed, among other things, removing the constitutional limit on the number of Members of Parliament, making it easier to dismiss judges and to remove the speaker of parliament, and allowing the leading candidate in a presidential election to co-opt another political party to meet the 50+1 threshold to win a presidential election. 

The threat posed by Bill 10 was the Zambian equivalent of the threat posed by Zimbabwe’s Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill. 

‘Unfettered power to interfere’

According to a statement by several African and international civil society organisations on 2 March 2022:

“If passed into law, the PVO amendment would provide the government with unfettered discretionary power to overregulate and interfere in non-governmental organisations’ governance and operations. For instance, its provisions provide the government with unchecked power to designate any PVO as ‘high risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ to terrorism abuse, thereby allowing it to revoke a PVO’s registration and remove or replace its leadership.

“In addition, to avoid civil penalties, PVOs would be required to receive approval from the government for any ‘material change’, including changes to its management and internal constitution. Furthermore, PVOs would be prohibited from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate.”

Non-governmental organisations, or NGOs as they are known, are the last bastion of democracy in Zimbabwe. Subsequently, the PVO Bill poses an existential threat to whatever little democracy Zimbabwe has left.

When faced with their own existential crisis, Zambian citizens and civil society organisations instituted a campaign against the runaway corruption in Zambia, and to also reclaim citizens’ right to effective participation in the country’s democracy. The campaign also raised concerns about bad governance in the country, with particular focus on the threat that Bill 10 posed. 

The campaign, which was christened the Yellow Card Campaign, was carried out largely via social media under the hashtags #YellowCard and #HandsOffOurConstitution. A peaceful Yellow Card protest against corruption and bad governance was held on 20 July 2019 outside parliament buildings. 


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Showing a #YellowCard

The #YellowCard campaign had a massive response from the public, which evidently had become very worried about the state of the nation. #YellowCard held the record for a hashtag on Zambian Twitter. 

Through the advocacy of civil society actors and the opposition, the government failed to meet the two-thirds majority required to pass Bill 10 — not once but twice, despite allegations of attempts to bribe members of parliament and propaganda to promote the bill. 

Thankfully, the former regime was voted out of office by a large majority in August 2021, and Zambia is once again on the path to democracy.

Dare to imagine a different future

Since the movement to restore multiparty democracy in the late 1980s to early 1990s, Zambia has had a rich history of opposing and resisting authoritarian rule. We did so because we dared to imagine a different future. 

More importantly, the foundation of our success was premised on the initial success of the restoration of multiparty democracy, which in turn led to the resistance to President Frederick Chiluba’s bid for a third term in office, and Bill 10, not to mention several successful attempts to unseat regimes that were inimical to our progress as a nation.

Africa continues to look outside of the African continent for solutions to the problems it faces, but what if the solution to our problems lies with our neighbour who faces similar challenges?

The call for greater unity through Pan-Africanism, which sounded when African countries were fighting for independence, is just as pertinent today as it was then. 

There is a saying in my native Bemba tongue: “A child who never leaves home thinks his mother’s cooking is the best.” Unless we venture out and learn from our fellow Africans, we will continue to be confounded by the problems of poverty, disease and poor governance that plague our respective countries. 

Pay attention

Here are my recommendations for addressing the shrinking civic space in any country:

  • Pay attention when the alarm is raised, particularly by civil society organisations. They are often branded “alarmist” or “unpatriotic” by their governments and even the public. However, the tell-tale signs of attacks on the media, the judiciary and human rights defenders must be heeded.
  • Get the Bar and other professional organisations to champion the cause of human rights and the rule of law. Bar associations should also try and work with civil society organisations.
  • The judiciary is not necessarily the last line of defence, as it was in Kenya and Malawi. Ultimately supreme power vests in the people of the country.
  • Reach out to civil society organisations and human rights defenders when these attacks are happening. Expressing solidarity can not only have a calming effect on those whose rights and freedoms are being assaulted, but many governments also respond to local and international pressure to desist from such actions.
  • Prepare for the next election immediately after the previous one. Look at the legal landscape and see which laws need to be reformed or challenged to create a more conducive environment for the next election.
  • Encourage civil society organisations to work together rather than compete with each other.
  • Local and international civil society organisations need to work with credible NGOs.
  • Provide technical and material support to civil society organisations and human rights defenders who are under attack. Most important is legal support to defend human rights defenders and to challenge retrogressive laws. I am happy to say that my organisation, Chapter One Foundation, is helping to fill this gap in Zambia.
  • Bring attacks on democracy to the attention of the international community.

Fellow Africans, I urge you to dare to dream. Beating insurmountable odds is a tale as old as the battle of David and Goliath. In his book Born a Crime, Trevor Noah says: “We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine.”

As someone once said, God would not allow you to imagine what you cannot achieve. So, I urge you all to pursue that which you imagine. DM/MC

Linda Kasonde is a Zambian lawyer and civil rights activist, and an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.

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