He’s struggling to make a positive impact. His administration is plagued by scandal. His legitimacy is in question. And today, his opposition began impeachment proceedings. The President of Zambia, Edgar Lungu, stands accused of multiple crimes and constitutional violations, including: refusing to properly transfer power when his 2016 electoral victory was contested; interfering with the judiciary in pursuit of a potentially unconstitutional third term; purchasing clearly overpriced emergency vehicles, and burdening the Zambian economy with unreasonable amounts of debt. Though a spokesman dismissed the charges as “defective” and “a continuation of the UPND’s failed court challenge of President Edgar Lungu’s election victory,” the measure earned the backing of a third of parliament, and will be debated on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Lungu and his party, the leftist Patriotic Front, control the majority of the National Assembly, making impeachment, which requires support from two-thirds of lawmakers, unlikely. Nonetheless, Lungu’s behavior preceding the motion, as well as in the hours after it, reveal that Zambia is at risk to experience substantial democratic erosion under his rule.
Interestingly, though the proposal was drafted by Lungu’s main opposition, the UPND, it was seconded by a member of his own party, Chishimba Kambwili, who once served as the administration’s information minister. On March 22, 2018, a day before the motion was introduced, Kambwili was arrested and charged with 37 counts of “being in possession of properties suspected to be proceeds of crime” and two counts of “obtaining pecuniary advantage.”One day later, leaders of the NDC, another opposition party, were arrested while conducting candidate interviews ahead of local elections. Senior UPND member Patrick Mucheleka had previously offered to join with the NDC to “come together and fight bad governance” just one month earlier.
The arrests aren’t unprecedented; Lungu’s frequent opponent Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the UPND, was arrested and held for four months on treason charges for refusing to yield to Lungu’s motorcade. Indeed, Lungu’s administration has been troubled since its inception, revealing a troubling underbelly when pressured. When PF founder Michael Sata, then Zambia’s leader, died, a byelection determined that Lungu would finish the term. Curiously, Lungu was chosen as the PF candidate without a formal vote; unofficial delegates simply raised their hands. Winning against Hichilema by fewer than 28,000 votes in a nation of 16.59 million, Lungu began his presidency in January of 2015. He’d later campaign for his first full term in 2016, when he’d face Hichilema once more. By winning 50.32% of the vote, Lungu avoided a runoff to claim the presidency outright; Hichilema would later protest the result. Though the Constitutional Court, Zambia’s final legal authority, dismissed the case shortly thereafter, Lungu did not transfer power to the National Assembly speaker—which, according to the UPND, violates Zambia’s constitution, though the ignored provision remains ambiguous.
Lungu’s pursuit of a third term, however, may directly violate the Zambian constitution, which holds that “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Constitution or any other Law no person who has twice been elected as President shall be eligible for re-election to that office.” Because he has been elected twice, albeit only once to a standard term, many assert that Lungu cannot legally stand for election. Lungu, however, has pressed on undeterred—and perhaps emboldened by his victory. In November of 2017, days before the Constitutional Court would assess the matter, Lungu directly attacked the judiciary, saying “To my colleagues in the Judiciary, I am just warning you because I have information that some of you want to be adventurous, your adventure should not plunge us into chaos please.” The Law Association of Zambia launched a broadside, saying the statement “undermine[d] the authority of the judiciary and erode[d] public confidence in the institution.” UNPD Vice President Geoffrey Bwalya noted that, with his “warning,” Lungu violated constitutional provisions outlining separations of power, saying that “Under the Constitution, the Judiciary ought to be an independent arm of government free from interference or direction from anyone.” The Court, however, remained silent. however Days later, Zambia’s Judicial Complaints Commission made public charges of gross misconduct and incompetence against the Court’s chief justice, and the trial has been postponed “until further notice.” Though the election takes place in 2021, it is concerning that Lungu’s legitimacy cannot be assessed in a timely manner, and telling that the judiciary has seemingly bent to his will.
Lungu’s behavior matches at least three of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s indicators of authoritarian behavior, revealing a dangerous pattern of antidemocratic behavior. In accordance with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s second indicator, Lungu has frequently denied the legitimacy of his opposition, characterizing their fears as unfounded and characterizing them as unwilling to compromise. He later invoked emergency powers to contain “acts of sabotage” by his political opponents, though the actual role played by opposition parties in relevant incidents remains unclear—meeting the fourth indicator, “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents.” Most importantly, however, he violates the first indicator: “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.” Lungu has shown little regard for Zambia’s constitution, threatening the judiciary and seeking a potentially illegal third term. He has jailed his opposition—and now a member of his own party—for daring to question him. In short, it seems that Edgar Lungu is determined to remain in power by any means necessary, and that nothing—neither courts nor countrymen, nor even the constitution—will convince him otherwise.