In an article titled “Civil society has collapsed in Hakainde Hichilema’s Zambia,” published by the Mail and Guardian on August 7th, 2023, Sishuwa posits that civil society has weakened under Hichilema's leadership. He argues that many critical voices have either been appointed to government roles or are shielding the president from accountability. Sishuwa's sweeping conclusion is based on his criticism of a statement issued by nine (9) civil society organizations (CSOs) about the perceived rising cost of living. Notably, Sishuwa fails to provide a proper comparison of the cost of living before and after the election. Moreover, he targets various individuals, including his academic colleagues Dr. Pamela Sambo, Dr. Kaaba, and Dr. Felicity Kayumba, labeling them as silent or unprincipled critics. In this response, we highlight the logical fallacies in Sishuwa's claims, his inconsistent views on civil society's strength, his selective use of information, and his inclination to promote a one-sided narrative.
2) Sishuwa’s flip-flop view on the strength of civil society.
In his article, Sishuwa contends that during the Hichilema presidency, there has been a severe erosion of the strength of Zambia's civil society, which historically acted as a check on governmental power since the early 2000s. He attributes this decline to Hichilema's appointments of individuals from civil society into various roles, suggesting that those who haven't received appointments have transformed into government supporters, speaking only in defense of the administration. In this narrative, Sishuwa strategically constructs the notion that civil society was more robust before the 2021 elections and has subsequently weakened due to Hichilema's actions. However, this perspective is deeply flawed and inconsistent with Sishuwa's own earlier writings. It seems that Sishuwa is willing to manipulate facts to suit his preferred narrative.
To illustrate this inconsistency, in an article titled “Surviving on borrowed power: Rethinking the role of civil society in Zambia’s third term debate,” published in the Journal of Southern African Studies in 2020, Sishuwa argued that the changes in Zambian politics since 1991 had led to the gradual weakening of civil society. He asserted that civil society had become ineffective and lacked the capability to hold governments accountable. Additionally, he dismissed claims that civil society played a pivotal role in defeating Chiluba’s bid for a third term, asserting that such claims were overstated. Sishuwa's own
words from that article reflect this stance: “The net result of these major political and economic changes was that, over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, civil society progressively weakened to a point where it was no longer able to maintain an ‘independent’ power base that could decisively shift the position of the government or hold other key actors to account.”
This inconsistency raises questions about Sishuwa's credibility. If he previously asserted that civil society had been weakening over the years, then his current assertion that its decline is solely a result of Hichilema's actions is intellectually dishonest. It is evident that Sishuwa is willing to manipulate facts and shift his position to support his desired narrative, regardless of the actual facts and historical context.
As evident, Sishuwa has consistently asserted that civil society lacked the ability to hold the government accountable. This viewpoint was also expressed in relation to the 2021 elections, where Sishuwa anticipated Lungu's victory, partially attributing it to the perceived weakness of CSOs. This sentiment was echoed in various tweets before the elections, later compiled and republished by Lusaka Times on March 15, 2021, under the title “President Lungu will steal the August election, no election will evict him from State House - Dr. Sishuwa.” In these tweets, Sishuwa dismissed CSOs' potential impact and suggested that the military was the only entity beyond the PF that could prevent Lungu from securing another term. He discredited those with opposing views as detached from reality, stating:
“Zambia, brace yourself for a minimum of 5 more years of this terrible NIGHTMARE! I see a lot of wishful thinking about Lungu’s term coming to an end in August and an opposition victory in the elections. This wave of optimism is detached from reality. I do not see Lungu being removed from Government through an election. Certainly not an election that he controls.”
Building on this narrative, Sishuwa proceeded to label certain CSO leaders as villains in the run-up to the 2021 election. In an article titled “Class of 2020: Zambians who gravely disappointed last year part 1,” published in January 2021 on platforms like Diggers and other online forums, Sishuwa singled out Linda Kasonde, Executive Director of Chapter One Foundation (COF), as one of the supposed arch-villains of good governance in Zambia. Sishuwa criticised Kasonde for exercising her constitutional right to challenge the Electoral Commission of Zambia’s decision to abolish the existing voter register. This characterisation was unwarranted, as legal strategies often vary among lawyers. Kasonde's strategic choice should not have labeled her as a villain.
Sishuwa's conflicting stances on CSOs' strength pose questions of intellectual honesty. If he consistently held that CSOs were weak and incapable of holding governments accountable since the 1990s, his current assertion about the decline of CSOs under Hichilema's rule becomes intellectually dishonest. His contradictory positions beg the question of when CSOs supposedly revitalized themselves to hold Lungu accountable, only to fade into obscurity under Hichilema. These inconsistencies render his arguments dubious; both positions cannot coexist as accurate. Either he propagated falsehoods before the 2021 elections, is currently spreading falsehoods, or is grappling with logical fallacies.
3) A Case of Selective Amnesia
Sishuwa portrays the appointment of 14 individuals he singled out as if it's an unprecedented event in Zambia, labelling it as "mass" recruitment. He suggests that this recruitment spree has depleted civil society of its most experienced activists, consequently weakening it. However, this characterization is profoundly misleading in the Zambian context. Many activists and CSO leaders were previously appointed to governmental or quasi-governmental roles under the PF regime, prior to the 2021 general election.
For instance, consider the roles of these individuals: Fr. Leonard Chiti, the former JCTR director, served as IDC board member; Simon Kabanda participated in the Silungwe Technical Committee; Musa Mwenye transitioned from LAZ leadership to the roles of Solicitor General and subsequently Attorney General; Munalula Mulela, coming from academia, took up the mantle of a Constitutional Court judge; Reuben Lifuka held various positions including the APRM national board, the Silungwe Technical Committee, and the Commission of Inquiry on ethnic or regional violence; Lee Habasonda contributed to the National Dialogue forum; and Goodwell Lungu, former TIZ director, was appointed as a diplomat to Botswana.
These appointments reflect the nature of quasi-state institutions and oversight bodies. Entities like the ACC and the Human Rights Commission should ideally be led by individuals beyond the realm of civil servants or party affiliates. It's rather surprising if Sishuwa, a historian, is unaware of these precedents, hinting at possible selective amnesia. Selectively employing facts to fit a predetermined narrative is inherently dishonest. True academic discourse necessitates that scholars equip themselves with all pertinent facts and allow the evidence to guide them toward unbiased conclusions, regardless of how agreeable or disagreeable those conclusions may be.
4) Are CSOs Really Silent?
Sishuwa's sweeping assertion regarding CSOs' silence hinges solely on a joint statement issued by nine organizations. Curiously, his concern lies less in the substance of their message and more in how he perceives it should have been conveyed. He appears vexed with CSOs due to their choice of expression, implying they should have adopted a confrontational stance instead of engaging in constructive dialogue. The enigma lies in how Sishuwa concludes that the CSOs' joint press statement amounts to silence or praise-singing, a logic known only to him. Characterizing all CSOs based on one article he disagrees with is a logical fallacy that disregards principles.
To substantiate his sweeping censure of CSOs, Sishuwa broadly generalizes about the alleged mass recruitment of activists into government roles, claiming that influential civil society elites who formerly held authorities accountable under the Patriotic Front (PF) have been absorbed. This assertion is inaccurate. While a few activists have assumed various positions, none have come from prominent CSOs in Zambia like JCTR, NGOCC, Caritas, TIZ, ActionAid, and Chapter One Foundation. These organizations remain unaffected. Furthermore, morally and legally, accepting appointments is justified. Sishuwa himself acknowledged this when he applauded Pilato's appointment as Permanent Secretary, stating,
“Individuals are free to decide their career trajectory and work where they want. It is selfish to want them to be only one thing.”
Interestingly, Sishuwa himself expressed interest in a political advisor role and sought support from us and others to secure it, believing he possessed the qualifications and had the right as a citizen to aspire to any position.
Is the claim that CSOs have fallen silent accurate? While some areas, such as advocating for constitutional reforms, have seen limited CSO involvement, asserting that they have turned into Hichilema's praise singers is entirely false. With the exception of those who transitioned into full-time government roles, everyone listed by Sishuwa remains active in governance activities. Their only "fault" appears to be expressing opinions that do not align with Sishuwa's preferences. Many CSOs have issued individual and collective statements on a range of topics, including corruption, legal reforms, the Access to Information Bill, economic changes, and tax policies. When the Registrar of Societies threatened to deregister PF, NGOCC released a statement urging government restraint. TIZ's involvement in anti-corruption efforts has exposed financial malfeasance in the finance ministry. Caritas Zambia continues to champion electoral reforms. A cursory review of media sources reveals their ongoing activist efforts.
Several of those Sishuwa accuses of lacking principles have, in reality, contributed far more to national discourse than he acknowledges. Reuben Lifuka, for instance, consistently advocates for a more robust and coordinated anti-corruption campaign. The fact that their approach may diverge from Sishuwa's does not warrant his disparagement or vilification. Is it a crime to hold differing views on public matters? Should everyone be coerced into echoing Sishuwa's claims, even if they are unreasonable or baseless? Sishuwa's bid to present himself as the sole national hero should not come at the expense of those who have made substantial contributions to the nation and continue to play significant roles.
5) Assessing Dr. Kaaba and others: Are they silent?
Let's delve into Dr. Kaaba and his fellow activists who have been labeled as silent and unprincipled. Curiously, Sishuwa's recent comments coincided with the appointments of Dr. Felicity Kayumba and the promotion of Dr. Pamela Sambo to chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, both of whom are academic colleagues of his. Ironically, Sishuwa had previously congratulated Dr. Kayumba on her appointment and expressed confidence in her ability to bring her impeccable expertise to the Commission. However, facts contradict Sishuwa's notion of silence.
Before the 2021 general elections, Drs. Kaaba, Sambo, and Kayumba were active in their activism, primarily focusing on constitutional matters. They engaged in discussions regarding constitution-making, the legal profession, and the electoral process. This engagement persisted post-elections. Dr. Kaaba, in particular, amplified his contributions since 2021, focusing on themes such as reformation of defamation laws, constitution-making, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) individuals, the Barotse secessionist movement's right to self-determination, and various electoral concerns impacting the nation. His viewpoints are documented through public comments on platforms like Makanday, an online news forum.
Furthermore, when the President appointed a new set of judges, Dr. Kaaba voiced his criticism in a Diggers newspaper opinion piece, challenging the methodology used. His opinion even became a part of the opposition's Constitutional Court submission, contesting the appointments' constitutionality. In instances where the opposition and certain government affiliates targeted the LGBTQ+ community for mistreatment, he was forthright in opposing such actions. Together with Dr. Pamela Sambo, he authored an article advocating for the constitutional rights and respect due to LGBTQ+ individuals.
This brings to light a question: Can Sishuwa truly label these actions as silence? Dr. Kaaba's and his colleagues' continuous involvement in public discourse and advocacy contradicts such a characterization. Their commitment to engaging with crucial issues and contributing to the national dialogue is evident. The standard of silence imposed by Sishuwa appears arbitrary, failing to acknowledge the dynamic and multifaceted nature of their contributions.
In light of the above analysis, a clear pattern emerges in Sishuwa's narrative construction. His approach leans heavily on conjecture, reverse psychology, and cherry-picked facts, all of which serve to perpetuate his limited perspective. Regrettably, this approach amounts to academic dishonesty, failing to objectively enrich public discourse. It leads to misdirection and a sense of disingenuousness.
In a democratic setting, differing opinions and divergent views are not only acceptable but encouraged. However, these disagreements should always be rooted in fact, not conjecture, misinformation, or blatant falsehoods like those perpetuated by Sishuwa. While we all endeavor to contribute to Zambia's interests through our public statements, it is essential to avoid undermining those who hold alternative views. Sishuwa's chosen style of engagement is his prerogative and within his constitutional rights. However, it should not come at the expense of belittling the contributions of others to the nation's welfare.
Every individual's contribution to the betterment of the country deserves recognition and celebration. The act of serving the nation's interests should not be contingent upon receiving Sishuwa's validation or approval. After all, Sishuwa has not been appointed as the overseer of civil activists, and individuals do not owe him their allegiance. In pursuing his chosen role, he should not diminish the value of others' contributions to the nation's progress. Every voice matters, and each person's effort toward the greater good should be acknowledged, regardless of their alignment with Sishuwa's perspectives.
[Dr. O’Brien is a lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Zambia; Dr. Priva Hang’andu is Policy Advisor with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and not representing those of their employers