In defence of Zambian academic Sishuwa Sishuwa and the social responsibility of intellectuals

10 May 2021 - 10:30
Prof Jeremy Seekings, director of the Centre for Social Science Research in the Faculty of Humanities

Currently at UCT, Zambian academic Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa is a widely admired scholar, and one of the young turks of African political history. Credible reports indicate that the Zambian government intends charging him with sedition because of a critical article he wrote for the Mail & Guardian.

African despots – including those who were elected into office – do not take kindly to criticism by scholars, as the case of Sishuwa Sishuwa reminds us.

 

Active in both the world of scholarship and that of public debate, Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa is one of the young turks of African political history. After completing his PhD at Oxford, Sishuwa was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Zambia (Unza). He is currently on official leave from Unza in the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa.

It has been reported that Sishuwa is to be charged with sedition as the result of an opinion piece he published in the Mail and Guardian on 22 March 2021. Unza has succumbed to pressure and disassociated the university from its employee.

 

In response, a growing number of academics from southern Africa and further afield have written an open letter in defence of Sishuwa. They point out that Sishuwa did not incite popular rebellion (as the term “sedition” implies) but rather examined the underlying causes of societal tension in order to reduce the prospect of violence. In their open letter, the academics declare that they “believe it is both his right and his patriotic duty to bring such concerns into the public eye”. The signatories point out that Unza was happy to celebrate Sishuwa’s academic achievements last year. The letter is attracting ever more signatories.

In other work, Sishuwa has analysed the growing abuse of state power by Zambia’s government. It is no surprise that the government has turned on Sishuwa. It is something of a surprise, however, that Unza has not defended one of its rising stars.

Sishuwa’s PhD thesis was a careful study of the rise to power of Michael Sata, who formed and led the Patriotic Front (PF) to electoral victory in 2011. The incumbent president, Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, accepted defeat. Sata served as president until his death in late 2014. After a bitter internal struggle, the PF chose Edgar Lungu as its candidate in the 2015 presidential by-election. Lungu controversially defeated his opponent, Hakainde Hichilema (‘HH’) of the United Party for National Development (UPND) by wafer-thin margins in 2015 and again in 2016.

The 2016 election was especially controversial. While none of Lungu’s predecessors had entirely clean hands when it came to the abuse of state power to harass opponents, Lungu went much further in relying on coercion and abuse to make up for fragile or declining popular support as well as intra-party factionalism. The Carter Center (in the US) assessed that “the 2016 elections represent a troubling departure from Zambia’s recent history of democratic governance”. The governing party exploited fully the benefits of incumbency. For example, 63% of the election coverage in the state media focused on Lungu and the PF, with “the government” receiving an additional 14%. HH and the UPND received only 5% of the coverage.

The Lungu governments proceeded to break even the informal rules of the game that had prevailed under previous governments. The independence of the Electoral Commission and even the Constitutional Court appeared to have been compromised. HH was arrested in 2017, charged with treason and held for four months before being released. Corruption has become even more widespread. It is alleged that the government persists with capital projects, funded in large part through debt, because these allow the kickbacks that hold together the ruling party and fund its forthcoming election campaign.

The economy has also slid into stagnation and then recession. The external debt doubled in three years. With debt service payments growing to one half of the government’s budget, the government defaulted. The government is way behind in paying contractors, institutions like universities and even social grant beneficiaries.

As the economy faltered, discontent with the Lungu government seems to have broadened and deepened. Recent survey data suggest that voters — including voters in the PF’s strongholds — have been abandoning the governing party in the face of its mismanagement of the economy.

 

Sishuwa has written extensively about these developments. He is no simple partisan, however. Over the last four years, he has published several articles that are highly critical of some aspects of HH’s policy positions.

Facing the prospect of defeat, the government is likely to clamp down on the opposition UPND as well as on independent critics like Sishuwa. As Sishuwa noted when expressing gratitude to “all those who have defended my academic freedom and freedom of expression, the reaction of the Zambian government to my article was as outrageous as it was appalling. I wish I could say that I am surprised by this episode. Unfortunately, it is further proof of a rapid and serious process of democratic erosion in Zambia.”

Lungu’s administration has already forcibly shut down the country’s most prominent independent newspaper and leading private television station. As well as enacting a repressive cybersecurity and cybercrimes law to control the use of social media, it has also undermined the power of civil society and exploited the coronavirus pandemic to restrict the political activities of opposition parties.

The experience of Zimbabwe in the 2000s revealed the risk of repression when incumbent regimes face electoral defeat.

While the University of Cape Town has not yet released an official statement in support of Dr Sishuwa, individual academics there and at other universities in South Africa have added their names to the international scholars’ letter of support.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2021-05-04-in-defence-of-zambian-academic-sishuwa-sishuwa-and-the-social-responsibility-of-intellectuals/

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