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ZAMBIA: Violence Threatens Polls

Lewis Mwanangombe

LUSAKA, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - Prisca Musonda is an ardent supporter of Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata and his party. She has travelled with him to most parliamentary constituencies campaigning in elections.

The ECZ has failed to drag offenders of election violence to court. Credit: Lewis Mwanangombe/IPS

The ECZ has failed to drag offenders of election violence to court. Credit: Lewis Mwanangombe/IPS

But now she fears Zambia’s general elections set for 2011 could turn violent and go wrong for most voters, unless the latest spate of violence can be curbed.

Musonda has dropped out of the PF cavalcade, as her friends were brutally beaten by ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) cadres, and admitted to hospital suffering from multiple injuries.

This was during the November 19 by-election to replace the late local government minister and MMD member of parliament for Solwezi Central, Benny Tetamashimba.

Musonda, though also beaten, was lucky to escape with minor injuries. But colleagues who were with her – Faron Mbao and Elias Kamanga – were not so lucky. They were badly beaten by MMD cadres armed with stones and iron bars, and suffered multiple head and body injuries.

Two-and-a-half months earlier Zambians woke up to a rude spectacle on the front page of the Post newspaper, in which the deputy minister in the vice-president’s office, Gaston Sichilima, was pictured indulging in ‘fists of fury’ with an opposition United National Independence Party (UNIP) cadre, identified only as Kaziko.

In that incident in Serenje town, Central Province, as later in Kasama where there was also serious inter-party violence, election monitors from civil society organisations like the Anti-Voter Apathy Project (AVAP) fingered MMD campaigners as the main culprits, who when faced with possible failure in a by-election resorted to violence and thuggery.

“The MMD, as the party that is ruling us, must lead by example. I don’t know why they cannot follow the law, especially the Electoral Code of Conduct,” Bonny Tembo, who witnessed the fracas in Solwezi and is leader of elections watchdog AVAP, observed in Lusaka.

Under the Electoral Code of Conduct the Zambian government set out guidelines of what candidates can and cannot do. Under regulation seven it is an offence for political parties and their candidates to engage in ‘violence or use any language or engage in a course of conduct which leads to violence or intimidation during election campaigns or elections’.

The rules also prohibit candidates from carrying or displaying ‘arms or weapons, be they traditional or otherwise’. For offenders the law has set a penalty of one year’s imprisonment. Police too have their own guidelines in this law.

On paper, critics say, the Electoral Code of Conduct looks solid, but in practice it has been undermined by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), that has failed to drag all offenders to court.

For example, under Regulation 10 it is an offence to use government vehicles, money and other resources in political campaigns, but the MMD has broken this law without punitive action.

In addition Zambian police have been accused of favouring MMD cadres against campaigners from opposition parties. In the Solwezi by-election, PF and United Party for National Development (UPND) leaders were teargassed as though they were the offenders, when their side fought running battles with MMD campaigners after both parties wanted to address a public rally at the same time.

The MMD were not supposed to be there, but went anyway despite being advised against it by police. North-Western Province police commanding officer Fabian Katiba later admitted the mistake of police firing teargas, but said this had been necessary to prevent serious public disorder.

He agreed with the opposition that violence erupted between cadres of the MMD and the two parties of UPND and PF (which had entered a pact to contest elections as one entity), after MMD supporters abandoned their venue and went to where the PF and UPND were due to hold their meeting.

“We need protection from the police. They should not act like a wing of the ruling MMD,” opposition UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema complained to Katiba after the fracas.

But police are particularly vulnerable. It is not uncommon for commanding officers who insist on being fair to all parties to end up out of the job.

The latest victim of this bullying tactic is former Inspector-General of police, Ephraim Mateyo, who in the run-up to the presidential by-election last year tried to act fairly to all candidates.

In Lusaka two days before the by-election that picked Rupiah Banda (MMD) as president of Zambia, Mateyo decided to set aside areas to enable all political leaders in the election to have their rallies simultaneously.

The MMD were given Lusaka north, UPND Lusaka west and the PF Lusaka south-east. This arrangement did not please the MMD, as it allegedly split the attention of voters.

After Banda won the vote Mateyo was promptly out of a job, under the pretext that he was going abroad as a diplomat. He is still languishing in Lusaka.

ECZ spokesperson Chris Akufuna blames political parties for the upsurge of violence, insisting that though there is the Electoral Code of Conduct, MMD party leaders have chosen not to obey it.

The ECZ has been heavily criticised after their credibility was severely eroded in 2001, when they allegedly allowed the government of former president Frederick Chiluba to rig the presidential election in favour of late president Levy Mwanawasa.

PF president Michael Sata again made this claim against the ECZ at the end of the 2008 presidential by-election, which he lost.

“We need fairness from the leaders of political parties. Let them tell their members to abide by the Electoral Code of Conduct. That is our Bible. That is what guides all of us during the conducting of elections,” Akufuna declared.

In the wake of the Solwezi incidents, the Zambia Centre for Inter-Party Dialogue (ZCID), an umbrella grouping for major political parties, has turned its concerns into action by holding talks with the leaders of all major political parties.

“We need to hold elections that are free of violence in 2011, and that is why as the Zambia Centre for Inter-Party Dialogue we will continue discussions with party leaders,” declared Langton Sichone, ZCID spokesman.

“We don’t want to go the Kenya or Zimbabwe way,” remarked Alfred Mwape, a third-year political science student at the University of Zambia, in reference to the fatal violence that paralysed and tore apart the two nations two years ago.

Prisca Musonda agrees, pointing out that uncontrolled political violence in 2011, when Zambia will hold presidential, parliamentary and local government elections, can very easily spark civil war.

This would not only affect ordinary voters but even the occupant of State House – home of the Zambian president.

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liz tomforde