LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Opposition political parties and non-governmental organizations in Zambia are criticizing the government's use of the Public Order Act to bar political rallies in the country, and some are now pushing for a repeal or revision of the colonial-era legislation
The law requires citizens to give authorities seven days notification to hold any public rally, demonstration or procession, but it is not a request for a police permit.
According to critics, though, this is how the government has treated notification by opposition parties since President Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) assumed power on September 23, 2011.
Over the last 23 months, opposition political parties such as the former ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy and the United Party for National Development have made several attempts to stage public rallies. They have met resistance from the police who say they cannot permit such public gatherings because of limited manpower and a volatile security situation.
Presently, the opposition is only able to have public rallies when there are parliamentary by-elections.
However, the United Party for National Development, the second largest opposition political party with 31 seats in Parliament, has recently taken the police to court so they can proceed with their rallies. Twice the courts have ruled that the party can hold its rallies.
Dr. Canisius Banda, vice-president of the United Party for National Development, says the public order act must be modified.
"Any law that is at variance with the interests of the people should be repealed, annulled or revised," he said. "The people are saying this law does not require that we get permission from the police. Even right now in its form the Patriotic Front government can enforce this regulation without having to take freedoms away from the people. But they are not enforcing it properly."
Elias Chipimo Jr., president of the National Restoration Party, which has yet to obtain a seat in the 150 seat National Assembly, feels any repeal of the Public Order Act will have to be accompanied by a new piece of legislation. A lawyer by profession, Chipimo believes past attempts to adjust the act have only re-enforced the bad behavior of those in power.
"We believe that we need a completely new kind of law," he said. "One that would set in place an independent mechanism and an independent and impartial body that would be able to determine what situations would constitute a breach of peace or a potential breach of peace."
Nevers Mumba, president of Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, Zambia’s largest opposition political party, believes President Sata’s Patriotic Front government has taken a position that is against the constitution.
The former televangelist says the Public Order Act does not exist to harm anyone.
"In its current form it can work very well, but unfortunately it depends on the driver, and the driver in this case is the PF government, which knows no democracy and wants to stifle any freedom of expression in this country," he said. "We are determined as a political party to fight it and we have started a process of [disregarding] what the police say concerning our liberties and freedoms to communicate with the electorate."
Edgar Lungu, Zambia's Minister of Home Affairs, who is in charge of enforcing the Public Order Act, was unavailable for comment. He has said in the past that the matter has already been discussed on the floor of parliament and the police are doing their job.
He has also insisted political parties are being allowed to hold rallies.