The African Union (AU) will host a heads of state summit in Mauritania on June 25, under the theme Winning the Fight against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation. Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu will also be at the summit, showing support for its cause.
Yet on the very same day his country will be moving further away from the anti-corruption ideals of the AU. As Lungu sits down with other African leaders to talk about possible ways to eradicate corruption, six Zambian activists will sit in a dock in Lusaka to be prosecuted for protesting against corruption.
On 29 September 2017, Lewis Mwape of the Zambia Council for Social Development, Laura Miti of the Alliance for Community Action, Sean Enock Tembo of Patriots for Economic Progress, activists Bornwell Mwewa and Mika Mwambazi and musician Fumba Chama staged a protest outside the Zambian parliament to highlight the abuse of public funds, particularly the procurement of 42 fire trucks by the state for an alleged cost of $42m.
They were immediately arrested and charged with “disobeying lawful orders”. After being arrested for over 10 hours, they were released on bail. Since their arrest almost nine months ago, the six have suffered judicial harassment, appearing in court several times only for the trial to be postponed to a later date.
Their trial, which is commonly known as ”42-for-42”, in reference to the fire truck purchase they had been protesting, is now expected to start on Monday.
While awaiting trial, one of the accused, musician Chama, was forced to flee to South Africa after receiving threats for his song Koswe Mupoto, which carries a strong anti-corruption message. Lyrics that seem to have riled the authorities include: “A rat has entered our house/ It is busy stealing, thinking we will not question it/ It’s never in one place/ The rat does not do any work but stealing”. He has since returned home.
This trial is taking place at a time when civic and democratic platforms and rights associated with them are in steady decline in Zambia. CIVICUS Monitor, a tool that tracks threats to civil society globally, rates the state of Zambia’s civil space as being ”obstructed”. This means that although some freedoms exist, the state undermines civil society and citizens are vulnerable to the use of excessive force by the authorities for organising.
On global and regional levels, little attention is being paid to the violations in Zambia. Because it is not a country currently at war and has been peaceful and stable for some time, few outside observers notice the squeeze on civic rights. Some Zambian citizens are also not concerned much with the actions of the state because, at least for now, the violations are being felt mainly by activists.
But the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the AU have ample reason to be alarmed about oppression and corruption in Zambia.
There are enough cases of corruption reported in Zambia’s media in the last couple of months to show that the state is not committed to anti-corruption measures.
In May 2018, it was discovered that medication and medical kits, donated by international aid agency Global Fund, worth $1m vanished from government custody. Zambia has since committed to reimbursing the Global Fund.
In June 2018, Zambia’s Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) released a report that found some cabinet members and presidential aides had siphoned billions of Zambian kwacha from government coffers through money laundering. Instead of acting against those named in the findings, the state has chosen to go after the FIC chairperson saying the report was released in an irregular manner.
Measures can be taken to reverse this negative slide. Civil society groups, social movements and individual human rights defenders that are speaking out need solidarity and support from others in the region.
Zambia has long been receiving humanitarian aid from international donors, and their help proved to be crucial for the basic survival of the most disadvantaged groups of the Zambian society.
But it is now also vital for the international community to additionally direct funding and other support to governance and civic space work in Zambia. Opening up spaces for dialogue between the state and civil society is also crucial and can help reduce tensions in the country.
Often those leading the pack in violating rights on the continent argue that international bodies such as the United Nations do not offer “African solutions” and should not interfere in Africa’s affairs. However, there are African institutions that can and should help Zambia’s civic society in their fight against corruption and persecution.
The arrest of six Zambian activists goes against the spirit of the AU’s Agenda 2063, which is an African solution crafted by African leaders, with no outside interferences. The third aspiration in Agenda 2063 is to achieve an “an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law” by 2063. Zambia right now is not working towards this aspiration. It is time for the AU to take action.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.