On the night of 6 July 2017, Zambian President Edgar Lungu announced he had invoked Article 31 of the Zambian Constitution granting him special emergency powers for a period of seven days. Article 31 is titled “Declaration Relating to Threatened Emergency” and, as such, does not technically effect a state of emergency but it allows the President additional powers which result in a de facto state of emergency. These powers allow the President to ban meetings, close premises, impose curfews, and order media blackouts. Under these conditions, security forces are further permitted to arrest individuals and search properties without warrants.
Lungu justified the move by citing the 4 July 2017 fire at Lusaka’s City Market and similar recent incidents as politically motivated arson attacks that require and that the de facto state of emergency is essential to prevent further such attacks
Although the powers granted by Article 31 expire on the night of 13 June 2017, Lungu can approach parliament and request an extension of up to three months. Given the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) majority in the legislature, such an extension is likely to be granted. This is especially true as some MPs from the largest opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), are boycotting parliament in protest against the continued imprisonment of UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema on charges of treason.
It is Hichilema’s continued imprisonment that has led to heightened political tensions across Zambia, particularly in Lusaka. Hichilema was arrested for refusing to get out of the way of Lungu’s motorcade – an offense the state claims purposefully endangered the President’s life. Many of Lungu’s supporters claim that Hichilema’s supporters were behind the City Market fire as part of a destabilisation campaign.
However, Lungu and the PF have illustrated increasingly authoritarian leanings since before the August 2016 election. Opposition parties and critics say the President has used the instruments of the state to harass opposition parties and influence the media. The UPND, in particular, believes there were multiple irregularities in the 2016 election which helped the PF win the vote. Critics have warned for some time that Lungu might move to impose a state of emergency, which would enable him to effectively create a single party state with himself as the leader. Invoking Article 31 is a necessary first step to justify invoking Article 30 – Declaration of Public Emergency. Lungu currently has control over the country’s security forces and the Zambian parliament; with Article 31 in effect, any further major security incident will provide the President with sufficient justification to implement, enforce, and maintain an official state of emergency. The President would then be able to muzzle the press and essentially remove all political opposition.
The current situation will likely lead to further political tensions and increase the possibility of clashes between security forces and opposition supporters, especially if opposition rallies and meetings are broken up by police. Further, the Zambian economy could be negatively affected if parliament extends the seven-day deadline, or if Article 30 is eventually invoked. The heightened security environment and perception of increased authoritarianism could discourage investment and even prompt the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reconsider the US$1.3 billion three-year credit facility requested by Zambia in June 2017.
Despite the increased threats to the country’s economy and political stability, Lungu is likely to request an extension of his Article 31 powers beyond the seven-day deadline. Accordingly, an increased security force presence is anticipated in all major urban areas and further violence between security forces and opposition supporters, as well as additional arrests of opposition members, is possible in this period.