In Zambia, the right to assemble is guaranteed under the consitution but the reality is often different. Police are accused of infringing civil rights by withholding permits. But what needs to be done to change this?
Protestors in Zambia were last month prevented from demonstrating against the high cost of living amid soaring inflation and a severe economic crisis in the southern African country.
Zambia’s constitution recognizes its citizens’ entitlement to freedom of assembly.
But youth activist Nawa Sitali told DW that when his group of 500 people wrote to the police informing them of their intent to protest, they received a reply stating that their group was too big to stage a protest.
Despite this, Sitali’s group gathered for the demo, but police officers cornered them on private property and prevented them from protesting.
“We believe the actions of the police contravene the law,” Sitali said, adding that he intended to take the matter to court to establish whether the police action was constitutional.
Permits for political rallies and protests are usually withheld by police who often give the excuse of not having enough officers to maintain peace.
Protesters have even accused authorities of using lethal force to disperse certain groups, such as opposition political parties — and even ordinary citizens who express anti-government views. But the tone is somewhat different when supporters of the ruling party gather.
Thabo Kawana, a spokesperson for Zambia’s information ministry, told DW that the opposition are free to hold political activities but should ensure that they respect the law.
“Anything outside those boundaries, has got its ramifications and if people dare infringe the law with impunity, they will be met with equal and necessary measures to correct the situation,” Kawana explained.
Using the law as a political tool
For some Zambians, the country’s Public Order Act has long been one of the most contentious pieces of legislation.
The act states that authorities may stop a procession for which a permit has not been issued. However, some activists argue that it is frequently used as a political tool to prevent opposition supporters and citizens with dissenting views from gathering.
Zambians have in the past advocated for repealing the act. The current government has indicated its intention to replace the legislation with the Public Gatherings Bill, a friendlier alternative.
The Zambia Law Development Commission, a statutory research body that advises the government on law development and reform, submitted a proposed draft bill early this year.
The proposal was welcomed by Jack Mwiimbu, Zambia’s home affairs minister.
“The new dawn government wishes to demonstrate its commitment, towards undertaking several legal reforms aimed at enhancing the rule of law in the governance of this country,” said Mwiimbu.
No rush from the ruling party
Constitutional lawyer John Sangwa told DW that when a party is in power, it does not feel the impact of the Public Order Act.
“When you are in the opposition, you cry about the Public Order Act, but when you are in government, you see the benefits of the act,” Sangwa said.
“Always remember that today you may be in the opposition, tomorrow you’ll be in the ruling party, but you may also stop being a ruling party and go back into opposition.”
“So you have to create an environment where you can function, whether as a ruling party or as a party in opposition,” Sangwa suggested.
It remains to be seen when these legal and practical obstacles will be dealt with. For now, activists say that as long as this the public order law remains intact, protests and other political gatherings in Zambia could continue being thwarted.
This article has been adapted by Okeri Ngutjinazo from a report on DW’s AfricaLink, a daily podcast packed with news, politics, culture and more. You can listen and follow AfricaLink wherever you get your podcasts.