JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
ON THE night of Wednesday, January 28, 1976, Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda declared a state of emergency.
In a radio and television broadcast, Dr Kaunda said the move was to counter a “grave security situation in the nation”.
This was at the height of the civil war in Angola, and Zambia was beginning to suffer the consequences due to proximity.
“We as a nation must prepare for the worst. We are at war. Make no mistake. There is foreign interference in our country,” Dr Kaunda told the nation.
He added: “A plundering tiger and her deadly cubs is coming in through the back door. The effects of foreign intervention are now being felt in Zambia.”
In particular, President Kaunda was concerned that a number of foreigners and citizens financed by outsiders had infiltrated the country.
He said unidentified armed gangs were roving the country and that Zambia’s police was being reinforced as a result.
Dr Kaunda’s state of emergency would last until 1991 when he was removed from office through democratic elections.
As a young boy growing up in Lusaka in the late 1980s, I have a few recollections of what it was like to live under Kaunda’s state of emergency.
I remember how, when travelling to Chipata in Eastern Province to visit my grandparents – which I did regularly – I would always get scared when the bus reached Luangwa, because of the treatment that passengers suffered at the hands of stern-looking military officers.
At Luangwa, all passengers would be ordered out of the bus with all their luggage, and then uncompromising military officers would go through each bag.
Adults would be asked to produce their national registration cards while, in some instances, students travelling across town for holidays had to obtain a pass from school authorities.
In short, security checks were a common feature, and certain strategic areas were forbidden after hours.
Walking near the main post office in Lusaka’s central business district after 18:00 hours was unthinkable, as one would get into trouble with the paramilitary officers who guarded the premises.
When Frederick Chiluba won elections in 1991, he lifted the state of emergency, but he, too, later imposed it in 1993, after an alleged plot to overthrow his government was unveiled.
Twenty-three members of the former ruling United National Independence Party’s central committee were jailed, but later released because the State could not find any evidence against them.
And on October 29, 1997, following a failed coup to topple his government by junior army officers led by Captain Steven Lungu, alias Captain Solo, President Chiluba imposed a state of emergency.
It was the third time that emergency powers were used in Zambia since independence from Britain in 1964, although basically the country was under state of emergency from the colonial days.
But following pressure from both within and outside the country, with concern of possible human rights violations, President Chiluba lifted the state of emergency on March 17, 1998.
Almost two decades later, that part of the law is being visited again, albeit differently this time around.
On July 4, President Lungu invoked Article 31 of the Constitution in order to deal with what he termed “planned chaos”. His move follows a spate of suspicious events threatening the peace of the nation.
Chiefly, the country has since the August 2016 polls experienced suspicious burning of public buildings in various places.
And President Lungu’s proclamation comes at the back of a fire that gutted nearly 2,000 stalls at the country’s biggest market, Lusaka City Market last Tuesday.
For some, the President’s proclamation brought back memories of Kaunda’s state of emergency.
But lawyer Makebi Zulu, who is also Eastern Province Minister, said by invoking Article 31, which is the declaration relating to threatened emergency, instead of Article 30, which is the declaration of public emergency, the President has asked for extra powers to deal with the situation without actually declaring a state of emergency.
“We are not in a state of emergency, and it may not be necessary to declare a state of emergency because Article 31 is an end in itself, it is not an introduction to a state of emergency,” he said.
He said Article 31 is a provision that is invoked to avoid a state of emergency.
“Article 31 exists to avoid Article 30,” he said.
He added: “Article 31 provides that if there is a situation that exists, which, if unattended to may lead to a state of emergency, the President can proclaim that there is a threatened state of emergency, in which the Preservation of Public Security Act comes into force.”
“When the Preservation of Public Security Act comes into force, there are regulations that are promulgated by the President to determine what should happen during that period when there is a threatened state of emergency. In that period, the idea is to stop anything that may result into a state of emergency,” he said.
He said there may be selective curfews in certain places such as around some public buildings or sensitive installations.
Mr Zulu said the current situation in the country does not warrant a state of emergency.
“A state of emergency would entail a situation where there is a break down in law and order, but there hasn’t been. There is no breakdown in law and order, there are just some happenings, acts of sabotage that if left unattended can result in a state of emergency,” he said.
Mr Zulu said the President’s decision is meant in part to raise public alertness in order to stop those perpetrating any acts of sabotage.
He said the fires that have broken out in various places cause a lot of apprehension among citizens, but they should now feel safe with the invocation of Article 31.
“When there is a state of emergency, the powers that are invoked is not the Preservation of Public Security Act, it is the Emergency Powers Act, which is a different act all together and gives blanket powers to deal with any situation that may be existing at that particular time,” he said.
Mr Zulu said many countries around the world have constitutional provisions for a state of emergency.
He gave an example of France, which has been under a state of emergency since November last year following jihadist attacks that left 130 people dead.
He said the provision is democratic and is necessary for good governance, rule of law, and law and order to prevail.
“It is absolutely necessary,” he said.
So, how long will the declaration of threatened emergency last?
According to Mr Zulu, the declaration has a span of three months, subject to extension once it is determined that the threat still exists.
And political scientist Dr Alex Ng’oma said Kaunda’s state of emergency was all embracing and denied people civil liberties, and cannot be compared to the current situation.
He described the President Lungu’s move as “very friendly and targeted at a specific situation that we face as a country.”
At a press conference on Friday, the President assured the nation he meant well for the country and citizens must not be afraid.
“I am not going to disrupt ordinary life in the manner that we are used to, I will only go for those who are posing a danger to public security; I am very tolerant by the way,” he said.
But even a serious matter has its lighter side and state of emergency has become a subject of social media banter.
A girlfriend asked her boyfriend: “Sweetie, what will you get me for the State of Emergency?”
While another posted: “Happy State of Emergency”.
And while it is easy to get lost in legalese and interpretation of law, President Lungu borrowed an old adage “A stitch in time saves nine” to sum up his decision.
One can only hope that the nation’s peace and security will not rend further.