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Zambians firmly defend democracy. But will they stand up against Lungu?

As featured in The Conversation-Africa
Boniface Dulani and Michael Bratton 23 Jul 2017 Zambia

Originally published on The Conversation-Africa‘s site. 

After a year of authoritarian backsliding under President Edgar Lungu in their once-proud democracy, Zambians face a choice of futures. Ordinary citizens are clearly disposed to stand by their democratic ideals and reject dictatorship.

A recent survey by Afrobarometer an independent research network that conducts public attitude surveys across the continent, leaves little doubt that most Zambians are dissatisfied as they see their country going in the “wrong direction” and their democracy beginning to erode.

To defend democracy, citizens require an open political environment, and Zambians see that political space closing. Between 2012 and 2017, the proportion of citizens who say they feel “completely” or “somewhat” free to say what they think has declined sharply, from 81% to 62%. On top of this, 72% of Zambians now say that they must “always” or “often” be “careful of what they say about politics,” a proportion that has risen by 10 percentage points over the past five years.

Since 1999, the proportion of citizens who say they enjoy “somewhat” or “much” more freedom of speech “compared to a few years ago” has dropped from 77% to 41%.

Zambia has gone from a country where most people felt free to engage in open political debate to one where most people have begun to look over their shoulders to see who is listening.

But are citizens prepared to stand up to defend democratic rights at this critical juncture? In Zambia, the answer is mixed.

Mixed feelings

On one hand, Zambians are fierce defenders of the right to personal privacy: Two-thirds (67%) reject government monitoring of private communications (on mobile phones, for example), even under the pretext of security.

Almost as many (58%) assert that they “should be able to join any organisation, whether or not the government approves of it”. On the other hand, Zambians fall short in resisting other real or potential excesses of presidential power. A slim majority (54%) says

“(the government) should be able to prevent the media from publishing things that it considers harmful to society.”

Fully 70% say they are willing to accept that,

“when faced with threats to public security, the government should be able to impose curfews and set up special roadblocks.”

It must be stressed that the April 2017 survey was conducted before Lungu seized extraordinary powers. At that time, few Zambians may have believed that security conditions actually existed that warranted infringements of rights. So these results should not be read as a direct endorsement of the president’s actions.

As in Burundi, where Afrobarometer traced a rise in support for term limits  as President Pierre Nkurunziza moved to undermine them, it may well be that there has been movement in public opinion since Lungu cracked down.

Figure 5: Popular resistance to emergency measures | Zambia | April 2017*

The questions the respondents were asked include: 1. Which of the following statements is closest to your view? Statement 1: Government should be able to monitor private communications, for example on mobile phones, to make sure that people are not plotting violence. Statement 2: People should have the right to communicate in private without a government agency reading or listening to what they are saying. 2. Which of the following statements is closest to your view? Statement 1: The government should be able to ban any organisation that goes against its policies. Statement 2: We should be able to join any organisation, whether or not the government approves of it.

Political attitudes

As Zambia’s own history demonstrates, a mobilised public can be a powerful force for democratisation. But who will lead public opinion in defence of Zambia’s democracy in 2017?

The data show few important differences between urban and rural residents, or between Internet and social-media users and non-users, when it comes to these political attitudes. Instead, educational achievement is the best marker of difference among Zambians in terms of their willingness to support and defend democracy.

Table 1: Political attitudes by level of education | Zambia | 2017 No formal education

For some political attitudes, a little education goes a long way. For example, primary schooling seems to sharply step up the likelihood that Zambians will support democracy, reject military and one-man rule, see a need to be careful about what one says about politics, and feel constrained about criticising President Lungu.

In other instances, political attitudes change by increments as respondents gradually attain higher levels of education, with respect to the likelihood that Zambians will, for example, reject one party rule, see the last election as less than free and fair and prefer to limit the president to two terms in office.

Finally, a post-secondary education seems to be required before individuals are able to take on the most demanding understandings of, and commitments to, democracy. For example, majorities of this group tend to recognise recent declines in freedom for the media, NGOs, and opposition parties; oppose efforts by the government to control the mass media and oppose moves by the government to ban independent organisations.

While Zambians strongly endorse democratic principles, less educated citizens may be prone to underestimate the threats inherent in government takeover of the legislature, courts and the mass media, or to acquiesce to specious arguments that law and order requires the sacrifice of individual liberties.

In that case, the defence of democracy in Zambia depends critically on active political engagement by educated citizens. They have essential roles to play in helping other Zambians to understand that the greatest risk to democracy in the country today comes not from the imminent threat of a military coup but from the gradual erosion of hard-won political gains at the hands of an elected civilian leader bent on expanding his own power.

Boniface Dulani

Boni is the director of surveys at Afrobarometer

Michael Bratton

Michael is a co-founder and board member at Afrobarometer