Mwai Daka says the Zambian penal code has so far served as a tool to silence the voices of those who are either alienated or disenchanted by the current Zambian government.

Zambia’s penal code points out that those who defame the president of Zambia may be held on charges of treason. Understandably, it is unpatriotic to unduly defame the character of the Commander in Chief of a democratic country. However, since the election of President Edgar Lungu, this peculiar feature of Zambian law has been used to arrest those who are openly critical of the president and other senior government officials. In modern-day democracies, it is accepted that citizens of a given country have the freedom to freely express views they hold, about those who govern them. It is essential that people have the right to freedom of speech because being able to speak freely on important issues in society plays a vital role in the healthy development process of any democratic society. This is particularly important for Zambia as it is a fairly new democracy, which is still in the process of solidifying its democratic institutions and principles. Thus, one might ask the question, “Is Zambia, a country touted as one of the most stable democracies in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, turning into an elective dictatorship?”

Freedom of speech has been slowly eroding since the Patriotic Front (PF) political party came to power in 2016. For example, Zambian police arrested an engineering student for criticising president Lungu on Facebook this year and in another incident reported by Lusakatimes, a medical doctor was arrested for ‘defaming’ president Lungu via Facebook. When the Arab Spring took place, social media was applauded for acting as a democratic tool which ordinary citizens could use to hold their leaders accountable. In Zambia, it would appear that using social media to vent your frustrations about the current government is a one-way ticket to jail.

A more controversial case in point is the arrest of Hakainde Hichilema (HH) in April this year and other United Party of National Development (UPND) members on petty treason charges. The former was released in August 2017, after the Lungu administration faced backlash from Zambian citizens, senior political figures, and the international community. Though it is not very clear whether the actions of HH warranted such an arrest, the current government is not afraid to use tactics designed to intimidate those who do not fall in line, such as arresting those who oppose or criticise the current government.

These events coupled with the state of emergency in Zambia which was passed in July 2017, and Lungu’s authoritarian leadership style, present serious threats to Zambia’s long-term democratic stability.

Zambia President Edgar Lungu. Photo credit: GCIS

The roots of the political crisis in Zambia that acted as a catalyst to the arrest of HH can be traced back to the controversial election of 2016 in which Edgar Lungu won by a narrow victory. A victory which has since been a hot subject of contestation by the main opposition party The United Party for National Development (UPND). The UPND leader HH and its supporters have in the past refused to acknowledge Edgar Lungu as the legitimate president of Zambia, which has created further tension between the two leaders and their respective political parties. In other examples across Africa, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga has also made the decision to challenge the election result after Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner by 1.4 million votes. Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh also rejected the outcome of an election to in which he lost to opposition leader Adama Barrow. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Kabila was allowed to remain in office until the end of 2017 despite the fact that his second and final presidential term expired in December 2016. President Lungu’s decision to run for the office of president in 2021 has also led to people calling him a dictator.

Therefore, there is still a need to promote good governance in Zambia, as the current government is using intimidating tactics to those who do not fall in line with their authoritarian leadership style. Holding the government accountable for interfering with people’s freedom of speech should be a priority by the Zambian judiciary because it is a crucial feature of a liberal democracy.  However since the Zambian president wields an immense amount of power, it is difficult for institutions such as the judiciary, to act as effective checks and balances on the president’s power.

Additionally, it is essential that governments observe democratic principles such as the freedom of speech. The penal code law does state that defamation of the Zambian president warrants an arrest. However this law needs to be carefully reviewed and if need be reformed, because it has so far served as a tool to silence the voices of those who are either alienated or disenchanted by the current Zambian government. Furthermore, previous Zambian presidents such as President Mwanwasa, who was publicly criticised (labelled as a cabbage) did not resort in arresting his critics.

In conclusion, the Zambian penal code has displayed a weakness which the current government has exploited in order to silence those who oppose its leadership style. Zambian lawmakers need to ensure that the penal code is reformed and that it protects the rights of ordinary Zambians from a government that oversteps its bounds. The current Zambian government has adopted an authoritarian leadership style, but it is still too early to say whether Zambia has become a dictatorship. The release of HH in August suggests that the current system in Zambia does listen to public opinion and that measures have been put in place, to act as a check on the government. The next presidential election will be key in understanding Zambia’s democratic path.

Mwai Daka is a Politics Postgraduate from the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His research interests are elections and democratisation, land tenure, food security, forced labour, human rights and the agrarian political economy in sub-Saharan Africa, with previous publications in Forge Press and Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute.


The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.