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THE ROLE OF PERCEIVED VICTIMHOOD IN ZAMBIAN POLITICS

By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE 

As the battle to define President Edgar Lungu’s legacy gradually gather steam as the nation approaches next month’s elections day, it appears there is a deliberate attempt in some quarters to taint it for evidently selfish purposes.

In a report by Amnesty International for East and Southern Africa, titled ìRuling by fear and repressionî, the organization detailed allegations on how the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly had come under increasing attack particularly over the past five years, with opposition leaders and activists jailed, independent media outlets shut down, and at least five people killed by police since 2016.

Like many other objective Zambians, the ex-Minister of Justice Given Lubinda deplored the “dirty tactics” the institution used in arriving at its findings which he said fell directly in the Zambian opposition’s realm. Adding that it was hypocritical for Amnesty International to do so, after all, it had been given a direct personal audience with President Lungu in the past five years, yet it went ahead to launch a report widely seen as biased by many analysts. It accused the current government of all manner of atrocities starting from extrajudicial killings to unlawful arrests including suppression of private media.

Obviously, the reason the imperialist-funded transnational and local NGOs that are keen to smear President Lungu’s legacy with filth is that, his self-portrayed pure and unadulterated form is a damning verdict on a shameful episode of imperialists’ discrimination against, and exploitation of, Zambians that unfortunately continues in different forms today.

President Lungu is the hero he is today for two outstanding Zambian features in his personality – patience, determination and humility on the one hand, and forgiveness and tolerance on the other. In both cases, and in the context in which he uses them, it is very likely imperialist-funded political leaders would have acted in the opposite way. In the upcoming presidential race, he faces more than a dozen other contenders but his main rival remains the UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema whom he consecutively defeated in 2015 and 2016.

It is unfortunate though, that since then, the UPND leader has perfected the dangerous politics of playing the victim – albeit of a provocative kind that firstly dares those in authority and later cries foul against their reactions for the international community’s attention. Amnesty International’s report shows that victimhood feelings can indeed be stoked by politicians, and are linked to supporting Hichilema and his political agenda. Victimhood is also related to the conspiracy theories, distrust and shootings displayed at police headquarters in Lusaka where hordes of unruly UPND supporters whilst defying police orders, disobediently gathered, to show their solidarity with him that led to arrests and fatalities, when he was summoned for questioning.

Despite growing recognition among journalists and political pundits, the victimhood concept has been largely ignored by many in Zambia. That begs the question: How many Zambians think they’re victims? Arguably, there are at least two victimhood types. Egocentric victims believe they’re getting less than they deserve. Systemic victims are different in that they identify a culprit and believe the government system is unfairly stacked against them.

The major distinction between egocentric and systemic victimhood is blame attribution. Systemic victimhood is a manifestation of perceived victimhood whereby the self-defined victim specifically attributes blame for their victim status on systemic issues and entities. They see governmental and societal structures designed to keep them down while potentially benefiting others. In other words, the blame attribution component is directed toward systemic oppression and wrongdoing. Does this begin to sound familiar with UPND’s blame game over the Public Order Act’s administration by the police?

Egocentric victimhood, on the other hand, is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the oppressor nor the blame attribution, are very specific. Both victimhood expressions require some entitlement level, but egocentric victims feel particularly strongly that they, personally, have a harder go at life than others.

All politicians, to some extent, utilize victimhood-cueing rhetoric in making their case to would-be voters in electoral politics. They portray the public as victims of all manner of policies and circumstances from the specifics like high taxes, income inequality, rising cost-of-living to the abstracts like climate-change, the media, and the establishment. These are the problems that candidates claim they are best equipped to address. In making victim-centered pleas, politicians are able to foster a sense of victimhood in their supporters and potentially gain new supporters by portraying themselves as uniquely capable of identifying and treating that which causes victimhood.

Just as individuals can be arrayed along a continuum ranging from no/weak perceptions of victimhood to frequent/strong perceptions, elements of the environment can impact these perceptions. Given the well-established impact of social media communications on public opinion formation, political rhetoric is a prime example of how feelings of victimhood can be inflamed.

It is argued that politicians can actually change the extent to which one feels victimized or alter the salience of previously-felt victimhood. Besides, it is explicitly attested that politicians can cue victimhood feelings in the voting public. Not only that, the perceived victimhood is malleable, but that individuals can be made to feel that way by political figures, such as Hichilema and Chishimba Kambwili’s perceived victims of tribalism.

Although perceptions of both victimhood manifestations can be found among PF and UPND supporters, they may still prove to be related to other partisan and ideological stimuli. If candidate rhetoric is designed, in part, to encourage feelings of victimization, it follows that perceived victimhood itself may be connected with candidate support. Given his frequent use of the language of victimhood in campaign rhetoric and ongoing road-shows, and the centrality of victimhood to the UPND’s “The Zambia We Want” concept, we expect perceived victimhood to be related to supporting Hichilema, for political orientations, even in the face of Covid-19 controls. It all sounds rather familiar.

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