By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE
GLOBALLY, the coronavirus (Covid-19) has already overwhelmed medical services, grounded flights and halted economic growth, but one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in a political age in which soft authoritarians have to turn harder, and the surveillance state have to become a way of life even in some democracies.
By now, most countries across the world have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle Covid-19.
In Zambia, the opposition UPND flagged off a nationwide distribution of hygiene products in a veiled bid to help in the fight and prevention of Covid-19 pandemic. Its president, Hakainde Hichilema, who kicked off the self-hyped distribution of essential products from his home in New Kasama admitted that the coronavirus was real and should be taken seriously. He added that this was his personal contribution of hand sanitisers, face masks and hygiene soaps but avoided making his donations through the Ministry of Health like everyone else was doing – stoking the ire of many PF officials.
These irate and suspicious PF officials did not mince their words. The UPND leader, they said, intended to make the Covid-19 pandemic a nationwide problem with some of his boxes deliberately laced with the deadly virus.
They in turn called on the Zambia Police and Ministry of Health officials to intercept and inspect the real contents of what the UPND leader intended to distribute countrywide.
Given that the UPND has a history of causing countrywide mayhem such as: suspected 2017 post-election arson attacks on public markets and other state infrastructures; recent criminal acts of chemical gas attacks; scores of killings of suspected-gassers by instant justice mobs in which most of the suspected culprits, if not all, were UPND cadres that got arrested and arraigned on charges of criminal acts of terrorism and murder.
These factors greatly complicated mutual trust of the UPND-requested permission to go-it-alone in distributing anti-coronavirus essential products by those responsible for the upheavals of the past months/years.
Ordinarily, that would have been the end of intentions of going-it-alone, and Mr Hichilema would’ve begun thinking about cooperating with government entities in this matter.
Besides, he bluffed that the donation was his own personal contribution to the fight and prevention of Covid-19 pandemic, yet his party was but among opposition parties that had benefitted from funds released by the Brenthurst Foundation to raise awareness against the pandemic. The Brenthurst Foundation released funds to partner opposition parties in Africa.
The accusation of Mr Hichilema’s self-bluffing political posturing had deep resonance in the neighbouring countries where the Brenthurst Foundation, has increasingly released huge chunks of resources to regime-change opposition parties such as the MDC in Zimbabwe, UPND in Zambia, Raila Odinga’s the National Super Alliance (Nasa) in Kenya, Uganda’s Bob Wine and his People Power Movement Party and to Zito Kabwe of Alliance for Change and Transparency in Tanzania.
But, by bluffing that the Covid-19 donation was from his deep pockets, the UPND leader now looks like a dubious partner in any future business deals with the Brenthurst Foundation.
Whichever way you look at it, the UPND leader’s actions in refusing to make the Covid-19 donation through government agencies for onward distribution to the intended end-users were pretty brazen. Although he was free to do so but the fact that he exercised that right after wrangling with the ruling party PF over his determination to score political points against it was telling.
Prior to this, his bid to have the government remove low-risk prisoners from jails and police holding cells to reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreaks in the prisoner and guard populations had precariously put the country’s ministries of Justice and Home Affairs in a sticky situation.
Looks like his request for the release of prisoners were politically motivated. So what exactly was his plan?
Analysts said that it was obvious that he was trying to get those incarcerated UPND cadres facing charges of criminal acts reprieved.
Lest we forget, the Constitutional Court’s ruling of 2017 in which it stated that prisoners in Zambia should be allowed to vote as it was a human right. Politically, Mr Hichilema in his mind thought that he had held most of the cards to his chest and that he would succeed in establishing an electoral-pulling base in the country’s correctional facilities by championing the inmates’ right to vote and secure police detainees’ reprieve due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But it is doubtful whether he will have enough support from voting inmates and detainees to actually win the 2021 polls. Besides, said some, he had shown himself willing to ignore the country’s apex court’s 2018 judgement on President Edgar Lungu’s eligibility for the 2021 presidential race and the wishes of his lawmakers to support Bill 10 in parliament – why should he start abiding by the rule of law and due procedure now?
What Mr Hichilema perhaps overlooked is that Zambia is on a war footing – albeit not exhibiting any expected real sense of national unity against Covid-19 pandemic.
Managing a public health crisis in a democracy involves striking a balance between measures protecting citizens and the social and economic impact of those decisions – meaning democratic politics cannot be suppressed.
The jury is still out on whether Zambia has successfully struck the right balance. It may not be long before other nations need to decide if the Zambian response to the coronavirus is a model to follow or a lesson to be learned.
Of further concern for the country is the economic fallout from these coronavirus-related events as the government took Covid-19 mitigating measures that enabled the Bank of Zambia (BoZ) to provide a K10 billion line of credit to commercial banks that may face liquidity challenges. Government also released K2.5 billion to reduce domestic arrears owed to local suppliers and pensioners.
It also released K140 million to pay local contractors in the road sector and removed claims of VAT on imported spare parts, lubricants and stationery. But what happens when the pandemic is over?
By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE