The Public Order Act: An ignite for political violence

Police trying to calm the situation

Police trying to calm the situation

By Hope Nyambe

As we edge towards the general elections in August, there is a noticeable increase in incidences or near miss incidences of political violence. In my previous articles such as “A Dissection of Political Violence” ( I have substantively discussed the causes of violence that have mainly hinged on political and economic backgrounds. But more recently, I have noticed that the use of the ‘Public Order Act,’ although arguable, a piece of legislation meant to maintain law and order, is in itself an ignite for political violence.

Note worthy is the fact that the public order act was introduced as an ordinance for public order by the then colonial government in 1955. The colonial government argued that the aim of the ordinance was to “circumvent those who wish to create a breach of the peace, or to take into themselves powers of control which rest property in the hands of government.” The truth however was that the public order ordinance was passed to control the indigenous Zambia who at that time was fighting for independence from the British Colonialists. The ordinance was also an assurance to the mainly white settlers that the colonial government would firmly deal with African nationalist responsible for pro-independence, pro-human rights demonstrations.

Ironically, 50 years after independence, the colonial intended purpose of the public order act hasn’t changed. It has become any ruling government’s favourite apparatus for depriving individuals, groups and associations of their alienable rights to information, free association, assembly and speech. Through the police force, it is used to intimidate political opponents and parties solely for the pursuance and furtherance of government’s political objectives. Of course there are no absolute liberties. There is need for legislation to ensure the prevention of serious public disorder, criminal damage or serious disruption to public life. In the same vein, there is need to protect the rights of individuals from infringement by other individuals or groups.

The contention whoever is the interpretation and application of the public order act.  The government on various occasions using the police force has misused the powers bestowed to it through the public order act. It is common knowledge that the government has denied individuals and opposition parties permits to hold meetings or rallies even when the concerned parties have given notice way in advance. In most cases, there is no plausible reason for the cancellation. And yet the party in power can hold meeting and rallies without police permits and with impunity.

Is it a coincidence that opposition political party leaders are everyday paraded in courts for breaking the public order act and yet nobody from the ruling regime is ever cited for violating the same? There are many instance where the police have interrupted peaceful processions, sparked violence and arrested persons with uncalled for brutality.

Furthermore, there appears to be continued harassment of public figure carrying out everyday activities such as shopping in their private capacity.  By virtue of being in the public eye, obviously people will recognise them and their adoring fans/supporters will mob them wanting to say ‘hello.’ In 99 % of the cases, these are very peaceful encounter. Note that violence only insures when the police try to get involved. It’s actually the police that ignite the violence. Should Silvia Masebo, Chishimba Kambwili or Muliokela apply for a permit to go buy vegetables at the market or go clothes shopping at Levy mall? The likes of Poor People’s Party (PPP) president, Muliokela, can walk in the town and bring the entire city centre to a standstill and police has never arrested him for unlawful assembly.

Does the law only apply to people viewed as political opponents, as Muliokela is seen more of a comedian that a serious political opponent.

It would be a folly to think that the government is not aware that the application of the public order act should be implemented in consideration with other inalienable rights, which include freedom of movement, speech, expression and assembly. Instead of un-unilateral politically induced cancelation of police permits or outright refusal, the police should instead advice/impose reasonable conditions on public processions that political parties and indeed individuals should adhere to. These could include stipulated time for the meeting and route. As long as the public order act remains in its current form and is used as the ruling party’s apparatus for oppressing divergent views, it will remain an ignite for political violence.

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