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As Zambia votes, US threatens sanctions against those who undermine the election

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Thursday, 12 August 2021 19:14

Opposition UPND party's presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema casts his ballot in Lusaka, Zambia, 12 August 2021. REUTERS/Jean Ndaisenga NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES - RC2P3P92N4TJ

The United States has warned of financial sanctions, visa restrictions and travel bans against Zambians who undermine the country's elections. It's an unusually strong statement, but will it set the trend for future elections?

Zambia’s democratic space has been narrowing in the past few years, following a close election in 2016 during which President Edgar Lungu was elected with a slim margin over the other main contender, Hakainde Hichilema – leader of the United Party for National Development.

Hichelima has been imprisoned 15 times. In 2017, he spent 127 days at the Mukobeko Maximum Prison in Kabwe on treason charges; and over the past weekend, Lungu threatened to have the businessman arrested, once the election is done. The president decried Hichilema’s role in the privatisation of Zambia’s mines, as the governing party – the Patriotic Front – has been pushing for greater state control over the excavation sites.

Battle between ruthless elites

Observers and commentators have been expecting a tight race between these two main contenders in the presidential elections. There will also be National Assembly and local government elections, which will raise the stakes even higher on the ground.

Zambian historian and political commentator Sishuwa Sishuwa says the election “features two ruthless groups of political elites“. The group led by Lungu “wants to perpetuate its stay in power to continue accumulating resources and to escape possible prosecution and imprisonment”. The other, led by Hichilema “seeks to win power to prevent a crushing end to its members’ political careers”.

‘Democratic backsliding’ has occurred under Lungu…

Hichilema has indicated that this will be his last stab at power and he is planning to quit politics if he loses again. In the past 15 years, he has lost in all the elections in which he vied, but Sishuwa reckons that his statement indicates confidence rather than expectation of another defeat.

“The leaders and supporters of both groups see this election as a matter of life and death and are likely to rebel violently against an outcome that does not favour them, particularly if the electoral process lacks credibility,” Sishuwa says.

Violent outcome feared

Dozens of people were killed in the wake of the 2016 elections after people took to the streets in Hichilema’s strongholds, and there are fears that this scenario could play out again in a worse form.

Last week, after two party members were killed in pre-election violence, Lungu deployed the army and the Electoral Commission of Zambia suspended campaigning in three areas.

Sanctions threat

Four days ahead of the Zambia elections, US embassy chargé d’affaires in Lusaka, David Young, issued a statement saying the American government “will hold accountable any individuals who promote violence, undermine electoral processes, engage in fraudulent or corrupt behavior, or otherwise violate democratic rights and the foundations of free elections”.

Young also reiterated that the US “can and does apply visa restrictions, travel bans and financial sanctions” when “fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms are violated”. The US applies these measures “because we are serious about our commitment to human rights and democratic principles,” he said.

This was followed by a security alert in which the embassy prohibited US government personnel – except observation missions – from personal or official travel outside of Lusaka from the day after the election, “until further notice”. The embassy said “spontaneous demonstrations may occur throughout the country in the days before and after the election”.

Last week’s campaign restrictions were lifted shortly after the US statement, although it’s not clear whether the two events were related. None of the other representatives in the diplomatic or donor community issued a similar statement.

Diplomatic friction

Although Young said the US has cooperated well with the Zambian health authorities to provide healthcare against diseases like malaria and Covid-19, the country has not appointed a replacement for Ambassador Daniel Foote, who was recalled in December 2019 after a diplomatic row following his criticism of the imprisonment of a gay couple.

Lungu declared him persona non grata and Zambia’s foreign minister Joseph Malanji told the BBC: “You cannot ask a government to make a decision at gun point – ‘because we are giving you aid, we want you to do this’ – you can’t.”

In the context of democratic erosion across the continent, this seems to be a signal of a more engaged US foreign policy.

Young said the US did not take sides in an election, but said the country was supporting “a free, fair and transparent democratic process” which is also peaceful. He said there were four “tools” in his country’s “democracy toolkit“:

  • Private diplomacy with political leaders, church groups and other interested parties;
  • Public diplomacy in the form of media statements and dialogues;
  • Financial contributions with other donors for technical assistance to strengthen the electoral commission, as well as to help civil society observation missions; and
  • Sanctions against individuals who violate human rights or undermine the democratic process.

In April, the United States imposed visa restrictions against Ugandan government officials believed to be responsible for or complicit in “undermining the democratic process in Uganda” following its elections in January.

Young said the measures could involve lifelong travel bans and financial sanctions that could be applied to government officials, quasi-governmental bodies, security and police forces, political party members, party cadres (a Zambian term referring to party activists and organisers) or leaders of such groups or front groups, business financiers, election managers, or any other individuals involved in or instigating violence.

Visa sanctions could also apply to spouses and children of officials “engaged in inappropriate behaviour”. Under the Magnitsky Act, the US government can sanction foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world. The Act was passed in 2012 to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky inside a Moscow prison. It was extended in 2016 when Congress enacted the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

This could be an indication of the USA, and possibly other donor countries, drawing a line in the sand on Zambia…

While US officials said the embassy’s statement wasn’t necessarily an indicator of a new foreign policy position, Senator Bob Menendez – chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee – issued a strong political statement about the Zambian elections this week, saying “democratic backsliding” has occurred under Lungu.

He said the elections are happening “under [a] cloud of growing authoritarianism with troops in the streets, protesters in prison, and dissenting voices muzzled by censorship” and that Zambians had “good reason to be dissatisfied with their present government”.

He also expressed the fear that elections would be rigged by the incumbent to such an extent that voters will not be able to “reject President Lungu’s bid for reelection”.

Entrenching PF interests?

Dr. Nicole Beardsworth, a lecturer in politics at the University of the Witwatersrand who has been studying Zambian elections, says Young’s statement “is the strongest pre-election statement we have seen in Zambia”.

She says this could be “an indication of the USA, and possibly other donor countries, drawing a line in the sand on Zambia. In the context of democratic erosion across the continent, this seems to be a signal of a more engaged US foreign policy.”

However, she adds that the statement could pose the risk of entrenching the interests of PF hardliners who seek to win the election, no matter the cost. “They may think that their interests are better served by forcing a ruling-party win, and riding out the post-election crisis,” she says.

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