Recent reports and video footage of the political unrest in Sesheke’s Parliamentary by-elections have brought to light the disproportionate use of force by Zambia’s police, who opened fire at the opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) and its supporters, during a political rally. These events have brought the uneasy relationship between President Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the UPND, back in the spot light once again and the nagging issue of police using a disproportionate amount of force has resurfaced. Zambia’s police force needs to refrain from using an excessive amount of force when attempting to quell public disorder because this causes more problems than it resolves.
Sesheke is a quiet district town located in the Western Province of Zambia and lies on the northern bank of the Zambezi River, forming a border with Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Video footage from local media in the country appears to show Zambian Police terrorising residents and supporters of the opposition party with what seems to be “live ammunition”. While residents were ruthlessly tear-gassed, some UPND supporters were seriously injured by police actions, and fierce clashes with ruling party supporters of the Patriotic Front (PF) further injured innocent bystanders. It is also alleged that the leader of the opposition party had police forces fire “live ammunition at him” during the rally in Sesheke, although the police spokesperson disputes the latter statement. On a separate occasion in April 2017, Hichilema was arrested on trumped up charges; however, after intervention by the Commonwealth the charges were dropped.
Fearing possible external intervention from the international community (including possibly the Commonwealth), it appears the actions of PF officials who are liaising with the police forces operating in Sesheke have now created what can only be described as a smoke screen in order to draw attention away from the disproportionate use of force by police deployed in Sesheke. Justification for the use of police forces in Sesheke appears to be rooted in Hichilema failing to adhere to a scheduled campaign timetable. This is evident, when the Minster of Home Affairs Kampyongo states that Hichilema failed to respect the campaign time table that had already been set out and Hichilema showed up on a date scheduled for President Edgar Lungu to rally support in Sesheke. Whether Hichilema adhered to the campaign timetable or not is another matter but the more troubling issue here is the disproportionate amount of force used by the police force to quell unrest in Sesheke.
The Zambian National Police operates under the Minister of Home Affairs, of which the Hon. Stephen Kampyongo is the Minister. The Minister was in Sesheke district supervising and directing the Zambian Police, when he released a statement warning the Hichilema not to spread lies to the international community about assassination attempts on his life. Whether the assassination speculations are false or not, what is questionable is the “neutrality “ of the Minister in handling the political unrest between the ruling party and opposition party, given that he is also the National Youth Chairperson of the ruling Patriotic Font party. Furthermore, the ability of the police to promote democracy and the rule of law in this case is significantly undermined due to its close ties with the ruling party.
Finally, the Electoral Commission of Zambia has failed to effectively manage elections and in particular, resolve electoral disputes between the ruling party and the opposition party. Moving forward, the police need to review their disproportionate use of force when dealing with the public because this causes more damage than it resolves.