The Nordic Africa Institute


A Creeping Tendency Towards Violence in Zambian Society

Woman with children walking down a road

Woman with children in Petauke, Zambia, December 2016. Photo by Yeowatzup, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Date • 4 Apr 2017

By: Patience Mususa

In the months since Edgar Lungu’s inauguration as president of Zambia on 13th September 2016, life in Zambia has returned to a strange sort of ‘normal’, characterised by the attempts External link. of the state to undermine the critical press and voices, incidences of police violence, and the unsolved serial murders External link. in Lusaka. A sharp increase in the cost of living amid an economic downturn, and the prospect of worse (a looming IMF ‘bailout’), has many Zambians simply want to return to trying to make a living. The death of eight Lusaka residents in a stampede External link. for free food offered by a religious organisation has brought home just how desperate the economic situation is. Having experienced prior dramatic declines in living conditions, particularly in the 1990’s following the implementation of IMF sanctioned austerity policies, Zambians have also become disillusioned in the ability of the state to significantly improve their lives. The opposition which could be outlining alternatives to bolster the economy and tackle the country’s growing inequalities is curtailed by a ruling party that is increasingly intolerant of opposition. The largest opposition, the UPND is mired in various constitutional battles, challenging, not only the outcome to last year’s election which was marred by various electoral irregularities, but also countering the possibility of Lungu standing a third term External link., an option he is said to be exploring.

The unprecedented level of violence seen during the elections has made supporters of the leading opposition party scared of protesting the election outcome. The Zambia Police ‘Service’, often acting in the interests of the ruling party has a history External link. of criminalising peaceful assembly. A repressive public order act, and the police’s brutality External link. in enforcing it, have made protest a potentially dangerous activity. The recent killing External link. by police of a Lusaka resident who tried to turn up for a rally organised by the opposition UPND underlines these fears. This has left much of the contestation on the electoral process and outcome to legal technocrats, who themselves are being suppressed External link. through state sanctioned counter legal machinations.

Also, the fractious ethnicised political rhetoric that characterised recent elections have made Zambians wary of further fragmenting a country that was built on the motto of “One Zambia, One Nation”. Indeed, it appears that Lungu and the PF team well aware of these concerns reinstated External link. this mantra to precede news on the national Zambia National Broadcasting Service. With declining living standards, Zambians are concerned of tipping the country into outright conflict. As one taxi driver told me in March this year on a recent trip to Zambia:

“As long as there is peace, I can figure out how to feed my family. If there is no peace, it is worse. What do you do? You leave even the little you have, running away to lands where no one wants you.”

Zambians are aware of a creeping tendency towards violence in their society, characterised by high incidents of violent crime, mob justice, as well as a careless disregard for the poor materialised by a preference for investments in consumer infrastructure like shopping malls, rather than public clinics and schools.

Some thoughts on the roots of this electoral and societal violence.

Rise of the opportunistic state

The electoral violence experienced in last year’s elections has its roots in the character of the politics that emerged during the country’s colonisation and resultant decolonisation struggle. The divisive nature of this violence was what was used as justification by the UNIP government led by Kenneth Kaunda to unify the country under the one-party state, which also served to consolidate Kaunda and his party’s rule. By linking the party to the state from local government upwards, Kaunda created a strong developmental association between party membership and state, in particular local government. Nationalising the economy in 1970, allowed Kaunda to fund this developmental and redistributive state. However, he over-extended the national coffers, and failing to diversity the country’s economy which depended on copper, meant a drop in its commodity price severely undermined these ambitions. This contributed to a decline in living standards and catalysed the end of his rule in 1991 with the ushering in of multi-party politics and the re-privatisation of the economy by the government led by Frederick Titus Chiluba of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy. With Chiluba, party politics at the local level became more competitive but less rooted in development projects. The state machinery also became corrupt. As local government budgets declined with the selling off their income generating assets, party mobilisation at the local level became less about being able to deliver on development projects, and more about being able to promise (at least for key supporters) opportunities to make money from the delivery of services – and hence spurring widespread corrupt practices. What this has meant in practice, has been the progressive privatisation and informalisation of local government services. Party cadres in the country’s main cities run the markets, the bus stops, garbage collection and allocation of land. Members of the leading parties compete for control of these services, often violently.

Erosion of trust

In tandem with this, the civil service, as with other state institutions in the country, such as the police, and the judiciary has been weakened by the persistent interference of the ruling party and the president. There is the tendency to appoint party supporters External link. to the helm of these institutions in lieu of technocrats. Such cronyism risks eroding the trust External link. that Zambians have in their public institutions. Political appointments to lead the police service and the judiciary undermine their ability to be seen as unbiased and fairly executing their duties. The police service is also seen as ineffectual External link. and in cases committing violent acts External link. themselves. Such ineffectiveness and collusion, the opposition said is the reason why during the elections they argued for defensive retaliation, a position that increased, rather than reduced tensions. What is even more worrying being the signs of the securitisation of the state. On 5th October 2016, the day that leaders of the main opposition UPND where arrested for allegedly inciting sedition, the still closed Post Newspaper reported that the Zambia police had just purchased modern anti-riot and paramilitary equipment.

Mobs and mobilisation of difference

At the same time as the state is securitising, Zambians are alarmingly also taking the law into their own hands. Last month, over fifty residents of the town of Luanshya were arrested for rioting and burning the property of a couple who were accused of Satanism. Last year, in April, two were people burnt alive in xenophobic External link. riots that rocked the capital Lusaka’s townships and targeted shop owners thought to be foreign. The protests apparently arose as a result of Lusaka residents frustration in the police failing to stem a wave of what were described as ritual murders, that people variously suspected where motivated by political and economic interest. Such kind of scapegoating of foreigners External link. for crime is not uncommon. The scale of the Lusaka riots, which were thought of by observers to be unprecedented can been seen as part of the manifestation of a divisive rhetoric that has been used by politicians with growing frequency to mobilise support along ethnic lines.

However, the highly ethnicised political rhetoric that characterised the elections and their aftermath points to other social and economic dynamics undermining Zambia’s reputation for peaceful co-existence. Just like during the colonial period when policies of divide and rule manipulated kinship affiliations and identity discourse to the service of a hyper exploitative capitalist regime, the emergence of exclusionary identity narratives in Zambia, need to be placed within their political economic context. One could trace the re-emergence and rise of these narratives along with the destructive effects untrammelled implementation of neoliberal policies of the 1990s. These policies which involved re-privatisation of state owned corporates and public assets and services, as well as promotion of free market policies not only weakened state institutions, they fragmented and broke community associations such as worker unions and cooperatives that built links across ethnic and familial ties. These policies have also broken families, as material support for immediate and extended kin amid massive job losses and precarious employment has diminished. Also, the growth of informal domestic enterprises has turned some households into mini-sites of capitalist exploitation, increasing familial conflicts. It is not uncommon to hear people recount stories of family members being turned out for being ‘lazy’, or about fraught and sometimes violent disputes over food.

Shifting social values, inequality and economic paranoias

As the speculative External link. economy has also widened (for example in activities such as money lending) this has overall led to increased suspicion and jealousy as inequalities within Zambian society are starker than usual, leading to accusations, popularised on the country’s social media, and by some fundamentalist Christian church leaders, of Satanism and witchcraft. The murders that precipitated the xenophobic protests were believed to have been driven by ritual practice to improve business prospects. In some rural areas in North Western Zambia External link., a growth in the number of witchcraft accusations, often resulting in violent mobs attacking the elderly has been in tandem with increased, highly unevenly distributed levels of cash coming with new mining investment. However, though unequal capital distribution could be blamed for the growing violence, it does not explain the subtle mechanisms through which it becomes the norm; and these would lie in the realm of symbols and myth.

Zambians, believe they are a peaceful nation. This belief lay was built as a core part of Kenneth Kaunda’s syncretic and humanistic orientation in nation building that drew on Ghandian non-violence, Christian, and Buddhist ethos of love. While not as conflict ridden, as some regions of the continent, Zambia is not as blemish free as many would like to believe. It has on its hands the massacre of the Lumpa External link. church followers in the dawn of the country’s independence, the Mushala rebellion in the late 1970s to early 1980s and the violent suppression External link. by the Zambian state of the secessionist impulses of Barotseland in January 2011. By not critically examining and addressing the traumas of these violent incidences, and instead sweeping them under the carpet, puts paid to Zambia’s reputation (built during the Kaunda years) as a regional broker for peace and justice.

In recent years, alongside the myth of the peaceful nation, has also been a fashionable rise in the symbolic display of wealth, referred to popularly as kulibonesha ta “to show off oneself”. This trend is growing within a context where ‘humbleness’ a trait promoted during the socialist/ humanistic Kaunda years continues to be seen as a social value. So paradoxically, as political leaders and those in their close networks amass wealth (usually by capturing the state via the public tenders which have increased with the privatisation of public goods and services), they also have to submit to the performance of being men or women of the people. This is what the late populist leader Michael Sata did with great effect, to win the votes. However, with no major structural changes to an economic structure that reinforces economic inequality, poverty, and alienates citizens from the state, the performance of humility does little to alleviate the symbolic violence that the conspicuous display of wealth wrecks on those excluded. Contributing to this, has also been the dominance of a prosperity gospel that preaches less about the redistribution of wealth, and more about the aspiration to accumulate wealth.

In addition to anxieties about making a living, Zambians are also increasingly paranoid about the effects of the spiritual and cosmological on their lives. This has been fed in part by alternative explanations to the high levels of inequality in the society, such as for example, the idea pushed by some millenarian preachers that those getting ahead are dabbling in black magic; or those that are poor have not sacrificed or prayed enough for redemption from their situation. Such explanations, drawing on divine intervention have been exploited even by the state controlled media External link. and politicians, and has contributed to a collective paranoia that occasionally spills over into mob violence or strange readings of reality. For example, when President Lungu called for the nation to pray External link. for the troubled economy and the unusual sighting of a rainbow External link. around the sun was seen to bode well for recovery of the country’s economy.

The combination of economic frustration, paranoia, magical readings of reality, distrust, unresolved conflicts, and a history of dealing with opposition and contrary views through repression, papered over by a fraying myth of peacefulness does not bode well for Africa’s flagship democracy. To re-imagine and realise itself as a peaceful country, it needs to critically examine and confront its history and re-imagine an inclusive rather than exclusive basis for citizenship. There needs to be an ideological shift towards an ethos to create a just, equitable and humane society. This means moving towards a cooperative and redistributive economy, and moving away from the corrosive neoliberal economic model that has promoted rentier politicians. There is a need for the critical examination of the social role of the church in a country where the majority are poor, frustrated and trying to imagine better lives. A rebuilding of trust in state institutions and its representatives should involve discussion on how to widen participation in democratic process beyond election cycles, and to make the relationship between the state and its citizens more meaningful.

(Note that many links since this article first was published has stopped working and has been removed)