Zambia’s Public Order Act 1955 and its impact on political participation

Whatever the Public Order Act’s role in maintaining the rule of law, it has also served as a tool to undermine the human rights that are essential to a democracy.

Mwai Daka
9 April 2018

Zambian police forces patrol the street after riots in Kanyama township of Lusaka, Zambia, on Jan. 12, 2018. Chanda Mwenya/Press Association. All rights reserved.Since gaining its independence from Britain on October 24, 1964 and the reintroduction of the multiparty system in 1991, following an authoritarian one-party state between 1973 and 1991, Zambia is regarded as a fairly consolidated democracy in the southern region of Africa; a region that has historically seen its fair share of conflict. Two key comparatives are Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s 37 year rule and Kabila’s Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kabila is refusing to hold an election and cede power and attacking anyone who calls for him to stand down.

However, a persistent failure by the current and previous governments to observe key human rights such as the freedom of speech and assembly threaten to undermine Zambia’s democratic reputation. In addition, a failure to reform and implement much needed change to a largely defective Constitution and electoral rules means that Zambia is having a tough time adapting to the changing democratic realities in the region and indeed, across the continent and the world.  

Since 2011, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation has released two reports detailing human rights abuses in Zambia. Firstly, human rights abuses in the mining sector and secondly, the failure to protect the rights of those living in poverty against all forms of exploitation such as land displacement and police brutality.

With regards to the latter, the fact still remains that police forces in Zambia constantly use what many have described as the vague and overly broad provisions of the Public Order Act (POA) 1955 to limit rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It was observable that in the months leading up to the election in which president Edgar Lungu was re-elected in August 2016, a marked decrease of any kind of political dissent or freedom of expression was to be witnessed. This in turn raises a number of questions. What impact, if any, does the Public Order Act 1955 have on ensuring the civil liberties of ordinary Zambians? Does the failure to reform a largely defective Constitution and electoral rules threaten the consolidation of Zambia’s democracy? 

One feature of the current and historical record of events and problems that shape everyday life in Zambia is the oppression of student protests which are prominent in public colleges and universities in Zambia – protests triggered as a result of an inconsistent water supply and poor sanitation at learning institutions; delays in payment of student allowances by the government; and the hiking of tuition fees by the government. On almost each occasion, these protests have attracted the attention of a police force intent on the excessive use of force leading to the deaths of students and other citizens.

In June 2016, one of the country’s oldest daily newspapers, The Post was shut down after it was accused of owing taxes. Its owners were also said to have suffered abuses, including harassment, beatings and arrest at the hands of the police. These examples demonstrate the negative role excessive police force action has on human rights and democratic life in Zambia. 

On September 29, 2017, a group of human rights defenders, including Laura Miti, Lewis Mwape and singer Pilato were arrested after they marched to parliament demanding answers about the procurement of 42 fire trucks that cost $42 million.

Thus the Public Order Act 1955 is widely abused in Zambia under the pretext of protecting public order. Permission to hold a rally, peaceful march or public gatherings can be denied pursuant to the act. This, mixed with corruption, has a significantly negative impact on democratic consolidation in Zambia. Is there then a causal relationship between the exercise of civil liberties by ordinary citizens (such as freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly) and police force action. 

Whilst acknowledging that the Public Order Act has a role in maintaining the rule of law, which is essential for a liberal democracy, this provision has to a large extent been used to undermine the rule of law and indeed, threaten to regress the consolidation of Zambia’s democracy in a region that has been historically characterised by conflict, civil war, corruption and human rights abuses. 

Whatever the Public Order Act’s role in maintaining the rule of law, it has also served as a tool to undermine the human rights that are essential to a democracy, and has done this under successive governments that wish to hold on to power or wish to silence any opposing ideas. Reforming Zambia’s constitution is an important part of ensuring that Zambia’s democratic consolidation does not regress in this way. 

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