Over the last three decades, Zambia, largely flying below the international radar, has become something of a beacon of hope for democracy enthusiasts and Africa optimists alike. The country has avoided the kind of political violence that has plagued its neighbors, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. It has also conducted largely peaceful elections and is the only country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that has twice achieved a democratic transfer of power to an opposition party since independence. In fact, Zambia is one of only four SADC countries to ever experience a transition of political power at all, the others being Lesotho, Malawi, and Mauritius. Meanwhile, its economic performance has, at times, been impressive, averaging around seven percent real GDP growth per annum as recently as December 2015.
That doesn’t mean that everything in the country is going well, however. Absent the kind of negative headlines generated by its more repressive neighbors, leaders in Zambia have had tremendous leeway to implement more covert forms of control. In fact, the country has been backsliding on many indicators of democracy over the past decade. That reality has become especially stark in recent weeks, which have seen an increase in abuses by Zambian security forces and in outbursts of political violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by the ruling Patriotic Front (PF). Indeed, slightly over a month away from the country’s general elections on August 11, it seems that Zambia’s democratic façade, always fragile, is crumbling.
Perhaps no event captures Zambia’s democratic reversals more than the Zambian Revenue Authority’s decision, late last month, to shut down the country’s most popular independent newspaper, The Post, which has a reputation of giving equal—and, some would argue, favorably biased—coverage to the country’s main opposition movement, the United Party for National Development (UPND). The rationale for the closure was that the newspaper failed to pay some 53 million kwacha (around $5 million) in taxes, an allegation that The editor, Fred M’membe, has denied. The warrant used to shutter the newspaper also came under scrutiny, and for good reason: the newspaper had previously obtained a legal order allowing production of the paper to continue until the tax dispute had been settled in court.
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