“And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.”
- Kahlil Gibran
- Kahlil Gibran
Well, not too long ago a journalist friend asked me what I think of the obtaining democratic space in the country. My answer was simply that, “perhaps, we don’t need democracy!” And this is because, when one comparatively observes the presently obtaining practice of democracy to that in the past, one is left with a cold chill up his or her spine. It is a parody of democratic practice!
The fact that one organized his or her party, campaigned and voted freely (or not so acceptably freely) in September 2011, is evidence enough that at least the government adhered to the fundamental principles of democracy. Respect for human rights, and in particular the right to choice (personal liberty) and, freedoms of expression, movement, assembly and association.
In arguing this, I am also aware of the fact that in 2011 there were instances of disrespect of freedom of expression, and assembly. Disrespect of freedom of assembly, being mostly through use of the Public Order Act by the police to deny assembly for political party campaigns.
Thus, for instance, the 2011 CSEC election Report observes that of a total of 770 political campaign events observed, only 4.3 percent cases of denial of freedom to assemble were recorded, with “no incidents of denial observed in Northern and Western provinces”.
But interestingly and ironically, the Report also notes, “As a proportion of the total observed political campaign events, the right to hold an event does not evidence any critical incidents, but for marginal incidents for MMD (1.9%), PF (0.9%) and UPND(0.9%).”
The party in power was also denied the right to assemble! A case of police non-partisanship and professionalism? Maybe.
Anyway, Plato, observes, “Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy”, and I cannot fault him. This is mostly because in our impoverished country, the most people know about democracy is “euphorically and sometimes dementedly shouting the need to vote for their candidates”, waiting to vote and voting.
That democracy, in addition to the holding of periodic elections by universal suffrage, is also founded on respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, is alien to most of our people.
This is unfortunate and a serious mockery of democracy. Perhaps, nobody (CSOs included) teaches the general populace of the link between respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and their ability to assemble and communicate the ideals of their preferred candidate or political party.
An election does not occur in a vacuum. That one is able to vote freely is evidence of one’s ability to express themselves on who should represent them and why. This is linked to the fulfillment of freedom of choice or the right to personal liberty. It is also linked to freedoms of conscience, expression, assembly and association, and movement.
Further, for there to be elections in a democracy there has to be groups of individuals (political parties) competing to be chosen by the people to rule on their behalf. To do this, they need to freely exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms. This is because they need to both organize themselves as a political party, and to communicate their ideals to their members and the general populace.
Clearly, the present government’s unequivocal resurgence of exercise of repressive colonial laws (in particular the Public Order Act) that negate fundamental rights and freedoms critical to a democracy is making citizens impotent with respect to participating in their own governance.
We must understand that human rights as proclaimed in the Constitution of Zambia and international instruments are simply a socio-political and economic contract between the citizenry and the government. In this contract, the government is compelled not do to something against its citizenry (like not to impinge on freedom of expression, assembly and association). The citizenry on the other hand is compelled not to do something that can likely constrain the government in its pursuits of its obligations, in so far as there is no State failure.
Today, we are in a catch-22. Media reports of people trying to hear a political party’s message, being beaten up; political parties being denied the right to assemble; and, international human rights observer Reports providing evidence of escalation in human rights abuses is certainly clear evidence that the government is not meeting its part of the human rights bargain.
Undoubtedly, the understanding that respect for human rights and democracy are mutually reinforcing, and are a precondition and foundation of democracy is not only lost on the current government, but also on us the people.
In hindsight, thus, like I said in the beginning, perhaps, we don’t need democracy. But we should know that the consequences can be terrible. There will be breakdown of acceptable democratic governance, and increased civil and political dissent.
Is this what we desire as a country? The answer is no. Our plea to the government of the day is that acts that are criminalising the right of a people to freely assemble or dissent should be stopped. We plead, as we also know that the most manifest dark side of democracy is legitimised illegal acts.
Ora pro nobis.
 Civil Society Election Coalition (CSEC) 2011 Election Report, Zambia, December 2011. Section 5.2.4 Freedom of Assembly).
 This is not the only ironical incident observed. The CSEC Report also notes, “.. observed incidents of use of Government resources for campaign purposes occurred in 31 constituencies. Fifty-eight point one percent(58.1%) of the incidents were observed at MMD campaign events, with those observed at PF and UPND events constituting 16.1% and 12.9% respectively.”
 Or individuals (independent candidates).