Of late, there has been very harsh criticism of the ruling patriotic Front (PF) government from many quarters, local and international, after the recent arrest and incarceration of United Party for National Development (UPND) President Hakainde Hichilema for what is believed by some to be trumped up treason charges.

I submit that as much as PF have made a lot of mistakes and will ultimately be judged by Zambians at the polls, a lot of what is happening currently is not their fault. Not exactly. I know this sounds an incredible statement to make but allow me to elaborate.

The PF is simply playing by the rules and systems that have been set by people and forces before them. They are simply using the power that lies in the Executive branch of government. They are benefiting from weak institutions of governance. Instead of focussing on blaming the PF, we must blame the system.

Take an example of the Public Order Act of 1953 that was created to stifle efforts of the native blacks to gain equality and attain fair majority rule. The POA made it difficult for the natives to organize a strong resistance to an unjust system that made whites richer and kept blacks poor.

The United National Independence Party (UNIP) government of Kenneth Kaunda had 27 years to dismantle the POA but did not. KK used the law to the maximum and even went further than the colonialists by creating a one party state and imposing a state of emergency for his entire presidency which he use to crush all opposition to his rule.

The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government similarly used the POA against its political enemies including the PF itself! And when the PF came into power, they also used the POA to maximum effect against their opponents. Every single government since the white colonialists have used the POA to advantage themselves and stifle opposition. So rather than blame the PF, we must blame the entire system of Zambia with its weak institutions of governance.

Therefore, I am inclined to think that even if the UPND under HH were elected, the same problems would continue. It seems to me that the UPND could potentially be worse than PF in this regard because they have a huge axe to grind and are upset beyond measure, especially with the incarceration of HH.

Many people in the UPND support base are annoyed with long standing historical problems from 1964 whereby potential Presidents from the South Western part of Zambia (Harry Nkumbula, Arthur Wina, Anderson Mazoka, Hakainde Hichilema) are apparently always “dribbled” in favour of North Eastern or Central candidates (Kenneth Kaunda, Frederick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa, Edgar Lungu). Under a UPND government, public officers like the Police Inspector General or the Electoral Commission of Zambia Chairperson would be fired immediately and very likely harassed thereafter using the courts. Lots of political scores would be settled.

Every single party in power will overuse state power to some extent. It would have to take a very special “Messiah President” in the mould of Nelson Mandela to resist using the excessive powers of the Executive. Even the man of rule of law and integrity Levy Mwanawasa used the powers of the state to try to deport Roy Clarke over satire pieces that likened him to an elephant called “Muwelewele”. LPM threw out from MMD his former Vice-President Nevers Mumba when he got wind of an impending challenge for the party presidency at the 2005 convention.

The default position by any ruling party and sitting president is to preserve power. Even Americans or Europeans do it. The powers of the Zambian state are so extensive that they have a corrupting and seducing effect. Those of you who have seen the movie “Lord of the Rings” would understand what I mean. There was a character in the move called Gollum who got corrupted by a magical ring with strange irresistible powers.

Fixing the problems we have with governance in Zambia requires reforming the system and not just heaping blame on the ruling party as if they created the system. Hate the game and not the players, as they say on the streets. Zambians should not be fooled by the current crop of opposition that they would be any different. It is all just a game of political musical chairs, hence the need to change the system. How do we do it?

Well, a good constitution and more robust laws is a step in the right direction, but even good laws are only as powerful as their enforcement. If the Judiciary, Police and Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) are not independent of the Executive, then everything is useless. Strengthening these arms of government by giving security of tenure to office bearers is cardinal.

So for example, judges should be nominated by the Judiciary itself, seconded by the President and ratified by Parliament. After that, to remove a judge should only be done by an independent body and not the President. The Police Chief position can also be safe-guarded by removing the power to fire from the president’s office. Other independent mechanisms for removal can be created. Similarly, the ECZ, Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) or Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) should be made completely independent so that the Executive cannot misuse any of those offices to settle political scores.

Cabinet should be removed from Parliament as was proposed in the draft constitution of the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) and the Technical Committee under the PF. This clause was thrown out by selfish parliamentarians who want the chance to be appointed Ministers while remaining MPs. They want to do a “Double Tobela”.

The trouble is that a president holds influence over Parliament since they have the power to appoint Ministers. Once they appoint 30 Ministers, none of them would ever go against the President and the rest also want to be appointed. This is why the law on impeaching a president for example is useless and redundant. We need full separation of powers like in the USA where Cabinet is appointed outside Congress. Full independence of institutions, separation of powers and a freedom of information law is what will fix the current broken system and prevent all the excesses we have witnessed the last 50 years plus.

All these reforms I am suggesting would require the cooperation of the ruling party to ever see the light of day. Some of the reforms may at first appear to work against the interests of the current office bearers. However, taking a long term view means that it is actually in the interest of PF to enact these kinds of proposals because no matter what they do or do not do, they will eventually lose power to another party in future. They can create a nice landing for themselves by ensuring that the party which succeeds them cannot misuse state powers against them.

Both UNIP and MMD made this mistake and were punished for it. I hope the PF can learn the lessons of history well.