Zambia’s President, Michael Sata, was elected in 2011 on a populist ticket, and has been scrambling to address some of the inequality which so offended Zambians at a time when the mining sector was generating massive profits and when the wealth of foreign capital and the conspicuous consumption of the domestic upper class were so much in evidence. His administration has taken aim at tax-dodgers and upped the minimum wage. It also cut fuel and maize subsidies, painful measures which are hurting the working classes very badly at the moment, but which the government is counting on yielding some long-term benefits.
And yet policy debates aside, all is not well within Zambia’s political culture. Sata quickly grew prickly, intensely sensitive to criticism, intolerant of opposition, and almost comically quick to demand quiescence from the citizens who elected him.
It does not help that rumours abound about his health, and that these rumours are dealt with in a ham-fisted fashion by his government (where else could you see the headline, “Minister insists president not dead”?).
It’s a little bizarre to see the manifestations of the efforts to create a leadership cult of sorts. If you’re stuck in traffic, you can purchase a portrait of His Excellency to place on your wall (these are ubiquitous in shops, hotels, restaurants, etc). And I suppose if you’re a glutton for punishment and need a roof over your head, you can speak ill of the president in public and spend a night in the cells on the government’s kwacha.
One day in the archives I was startled from my descent into a state of bliss atop of a pile of riveting bureaucratic files by the roar of a series of jets close overhead. I was puzzled until some friends later told me that there had been an air force display in honour of Sata’s birthday. The pomp and pageantry wasn’t the only display of loyalty. Obsequious companies took out ads in that day’s paper, wishing the President a happy birthday in the most nauseatingly fawning tones.
But things have taken an even more disturbing turn recently, with the jailing of journalists. The individuals in question allegedly wrote for the Zambian Watchdog. This news outlet went underground, some of its leadership supposedly fleeing overseas, and now operates primarily online. I don’t know whether it was once a quality production, but it is now a bilious electronic rag, its attacks on the government frequently incoherent, usually un-sourced, and more knee-jerk than considered. The quality of writing and logic varies considerably, the predominating lower end reducing the credibility of everything else, and the venom of the comments below articles—both those attacking the government and those attacking the Watchdog—is truly spectacular and gives the impression of Zambia as a social tinderbox (an impression which I think is greatly exaggerated by the tendency of hatred to congregate at the bottom of news articles).
However, quality and coherence are not thresholds for press freedom, and the government’s harassment of the Watchdog—which went from allegedly blocking the website in-country (it was definitely shut down for some time) to arresting journalists—is dangerously out of hand, and indicative of a broader attempt to intimidate opponents and squash dissent (efforts which are particularly disconcerting to the government’s opponents given the experiences of the Zimbabwean opposition to the south). The censorship and arrests made international news and drew a strong rebuke from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Guy Scott, Zambia’s hard-charging Vice-President (he once waxed lyrical about his dislike of “backward” South Africans), expressed satisfaction on the Watchdog’s travails, and said he “would celebrate” the day that the publication was no more. Such criticism of the government, Scott said, damages international investors’ “confidence” in Zambia. And while he might be correct in noting the too-frequent disinterest of international governments and corporations in democracy and press freedom, he should be aware that statements of this authoritarian nature, and the intolerance and paranoia which they illustrate, can be equally deterring to people abroad.
More importantly still, they are damaging to Zambia.