The Secretary General of the Socialist Party of Zambia, Dr. Cosmas Musumali, who was detained while participating in a meeting with party workers on the morning of Thursday, August 20, was released a few hours later. Dr. Musumali, along with nearly 30 party workers, was arrested reportedly on charges of violating the prohibitions against public gathering under COVID-19.
Following the arrest, the party’s president, Fred M’membe, said these charges “don’t make sense legally or otherwise.” With parliamentary by-elections set to begin in less than a month, he drew attention to the unequal playground on which the opposition is contesting against the ruling party.
“Those in the ruling party are all over holding meetings without regard for any restrictions and with total impunity. And they are even boasting and mocking the opposition about… (them) being the only ones mobilizing.”
The ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), he said, was “going into a boxing ring with.. (the) opponent’s hands tied behind his back. Can you really claim true victory in such an unfair and unequal contest?”
He cautioned President Edgar Lungu that such abuse of power will have consequences. “Governments come and go. Even this President, no matter what he does, he will not be president forever,” he warned.
Zambian journalist Sheik Chifuwe told Peoples Dispatch that the COVID-related prohibitions have become a convenient tool for the government to stifle the opposition ahead of the polls, while the ruling party continues with large scale mobilizations. “This was not even a public gathering, but a meeting with party workers in the region,” he said.
Ever since its inception in 2019, the Socialist Party has been subjected to harassment in the form of raids, arrests, denial of permission to hold gatherings etc.
Archbishop Emeritus Telesphore Mpundu had previously warned about the heavy repression faced by the political opposition in Zambia and warned, “The intolerance by the government has reached such a dangerously high point that if not checked could easily lead to widespread bloodshed. This country cannot claim to be a democracy; it is a perfect dictatorship in all but in name.”
He told Zambian publication The Mast that “Speaking the truth about corruption, demonstrating against government corruption has landed some of our human rights defenders in jail. Even opinions on social media criticizing the political establishment are treated as libel and defamation. Citizens expressing critical and therefore divergent opinions are arrested and often also detained for protracted periods without being tried in courts of law or granted bail,” he said.
“We can no longer gather and demonstrate against government impunity, corruption or inefficiency. Opposition parties are prevented from holding public meetings or rallies. When they do, they are promptly arrested and charged with contravening the public order Act enacted by the colonial federal government under the auspices of the Imperial British government and was designed to limit Zambian political agitation for independence,” he added.
The Zambian presidential elections are scheduled to be held in August 2021 and the Socialist Party’s candidate, Fred M’membe, is a leading contender. The party has promised universal education and healthcare, as well as the expansion of housing and sanitation facilities for the masses
The arrests were met with rejection and outrage from movements across the world.
Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement wrote in a statement, “It is more than clear that these arrests are pre-election political persecution against the opposition of the current government. MST and the people of Brazil demand the immediate release of Dr. Cosmas and the people arrested with him! There is no real democratic election based in political persecution of opponents! We stand in solidarity with the Socialist Party of Zambia!”
The platform Social Movements of ALBA denounced “the arbitrariness of the detentions” and declared that they “demand immediate freedom for Cosmas Musumali and all the detained comrades.”
(An earlier version of this article referred to parliamentary elections taking place in September 2020. It is in fact by-elections for two seats which are taking place next month. The error is regretted)