Democracy and Justice: A Case of Zambia’s Predicament on Political Victimization

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The current government in Zambia has placed the fight against corruption among its top priorities. To this end, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Financial Intelligent Center (FIC) and the Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC) have all strengthened their corruption investigation efforts. This move has been viewed by some political actors, as a political witch-hunt and an effort to victimize opposition parties. In this case, one can ask: what happens to justice in a democracy when corruption and abuses of power become political games? What is the best way to promote the rule of law?

In this piece, I explore the functional and intrinsic relationship between democracy and justice. In doing so, I argue that the fight against corruption and all forms of abuse of power in Zambia ought not to be compromised by politicisation. Learning from Levy Patrick Mwanawasa and Michael Chilufya Sata’s treatment of corruption and judicial reforms, I consider that justice, as a fulcrum of democratic political institutions, plays a significant role in shaping political morality.

Fighting Corruption: Democracy and Justice or Witch Hunt?

It is generally viewed that the application of justice ought to be blind. However, what constitutes the blindness of justice is always debatable. In a democracy, to ensure respect for the rule of law, institutions such as the judiciary play a significant role. Other oversight institutions such as the ACC, FIC, DEC help to facilitate the process of justice through investigations and prosecution. Nevertheless, in most African countries, the application of justice is sometimes viewed as a “witch-hunt”, especially when political actors are involved.

Witch-hunts date back to Salem in the 17th century where nearly 80,000 people suspected of witchcraft were killed. In a political context, it is used as a metaphor for unfair persecution when describing a politically motivated and vindictive action aimed at silencing opposition political actors.

The term “witch-hunt” has become prominent in political rhetoric to label investigations as politically motivated. For example, when Donald Trump’s impeachment was evident, he called it the “greatest witch-hunt in the history of America”. The investigations of African leaders by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible crimes against humanity were called by some leaders as witch-hunts. Similarly, the Ex-State House Press Aid in the Patriotic Front (PF) regime accused ACC of conducting a witch-hunt.

In Zambia, witch-hunt rhetoric comes after the government promised to reinforce efforts to fighting corruption. Other than asset recovery from proceeds of crimes, the government, through gazette no 1123 of 2021, placed the ACC, the Anti Financial and Economic Crimes Commission and Office of the Public Prosecutor under the office of the president. This could suggest that the president will have a strong hand in their functions, potentially compromising their independence. 

The fight against corruption in Zambia was well marked during the reign of former President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, who led Zambia from 2002-2008. A man credited for his anti-corruption commitment, he constituted a Task Force on Economic Plunder, designed a Corruption Prevention Strategy, and reinforced institutions such as Auditor General and ACC. Following the same trend, former President Michael Chilufya Sata (2011-2014) also condemned corruption and pushed for the removal of obstacles to the implementation of the National Anti-corruption Policy. The Anti-corruption bill 2012, which included the re-introduction of the abuse of office clause, meant that the fight against corruption in Micheal Chilufya Sata’s administration was of great importance to rebuilding the integrity of state institutions.

This trend of an increased focus on tackling corruption and judicial reforms is not limited to Zambia alone. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission in Kenya has taken a partnership approach to fight corruption. The National Prosecution Authority (NPA) in South Africa is prioritizing the recovery of assets. The late John Pombe Magufuli in Tanzania fired corrupt and negligent government politicians on many occasions. All these examples point to the fact that the fight against corruption is seen by African leaders as fundamental for the wellbeing of the country.

Strengthening Anti-Corruption Efforts in Zambia

Zambia’s previous decade witnessed a high level of corruption and misappropriation of funds. Transparent International’s 2020 corruption overview identified numerous examples of abuse of power and bureaucratic corruption in Zambia’s public service. Accordingly, the 2018 FIC reported that the public procurement sector was significantly affected by corruption. Furthermore, the FIC report adds that a trend of “companies not registered with the Patent and Companies Registration Agency (PACRA) were awarded public contracts. Most of these companies were connected to Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs)”.

The gravity of this corruption has become evident in the eyes of the Zambian citizens. For example, the 2016-2018 Afrobarometer online data analysis on Zambia found that, of the 1200 participants, 48% of them believed that some government officials (GOs) were corrupt. While 28% stated that most GOs were corrupt, 9% said that all GOs were corrupt. Only 7%, responded “none” of GOs were corrupt, 1% refused to answer and 8% don’t know about the corruption of GOs. These findings bring to our attention the importance of citizen perception regarding corruption. Indeed, corruption has the potential to weaken public confidence and inspire citizens with the desire for a change in political leadership. 

When President Hakainde Hichilema (HH) took office in August 2021, many expected that he would strenuously tighten the fight against corruption. With what looked to be waning public confidence over the fight against corruption, HH promised to establish fast-track courts for economic crimes. This raised public hope that he was equal to the task. Nevertheless, as Ernest Chanda observes, in the past 100 days and even more, there has been displeasure that HH has been too soft. This view is shared by Sishuwa Sishuwa who argues that “Hichilema has shown worrying contradictions in his approach to former officials accused of corruption.” Sishuwa Sishuwa further explains that the pronouncement of amnesty to former officials accused of corruption not only undermines the independence of ACC but also compromises justice in the face of ‘all people equal before the law’.

While the institution has indeed been moving at a slow pace, between December and February 2022 there has been an encouraging number of significant investigations and property recoveries. The case of Industrial Development Corporation CEO,  arrest of former Zambia Postal Service Corporation Postmaster General, the recovery of 57,350 dollars and 65,330,00 kwacha from Faith Musonda, and other investigations involving former ministers are some worth mentioning moves made by ACC, DEC & FIC. Nevertheless, they are yet to make significant moves for prosecution.

Taking Politics Out of Corruption Investigations    

The current corruption and abuse of power investigations involving political actors in Zambia ought not to be politicized with witch-hunt rhetoric. While some investigations may have been politicised where the judicial independence was not respected, it is important to allow institutions charged with delivering justice on behalf of the people to execute duties within the laws in order to protect the interest and welfare of the people. The investigation of corruption ought to be understood as an intrinsic and functional process of restoring institutional order, justice and healthy democracy. Consequently, the government will have to profoundly respect the institutional and judicial independence of organs entrusted with that mandate. Similarly, such institutions will need to raise the standards of professionalism and ethics.

Mwansa Rodgers (@Mwansa3Rodgers) is a Junior Fellow at IAJU’s Global Citizenship Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Peace Studies and International Relations from the Hekima Institute.

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