Zambia has abolished the Death Penalty and Defamation of the President, two colonial-era pieces of legislation which have been on the cards for repealing for several decades.

The death penalty is a capital punishment which is imposed on all those convicted of some of the gravest of offences in the country.

Anyone who is convicted for murder, treason and aggravated robbery is sent to a maximum security prison and wait to be hanged.

For the Defamation of the President, this archaic law became more prominent under former President Edgar Lungu and current President Hakainde Hichilema.

Dozens of people who criticized the President found themselves on the other side of the law.

The law has been used by those in authority to reign in on critical voices and sort out dissent.

In both administrations, opposition leaders usually found themselves in Police stations and courts, answering to charges of insulting the President.

During the campaigns ahead of the 2021 general elections, President Hichilema, then the leading opposition figure, promised to repeal the two pieces of legislation.

After being elected President, Mr. Hichilema stuck to his guns, repeating his promise to abolish the Death Penalty in May and September 2022.

And on 23 December, 2022, President Hichilema signed the Penal Code Amendment Bill Number 25 of 2022 which abolishes the two controversial laws.

President Hichilema said this on his Facebook page upon signing the laws:

“Please be informed that this afternoon, we assented to the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill number 25 of 2022, abolishing the imposition of the death penalty in the Republic of Zambia, and the offence of Criminal Defamation of the President. Fellow Zambians, during our campaigns for the Presidency, we promised to amend all laws that inhibit the growth of democracy and good governance, impede human rights and basic freedoms. Today we have delivered.”

Reaction to this decision has been uniform across the country.

“The abolition of defamation of the President laws and criminal defamation in general has been long overdue. We therefore highly welcome the abolition of defamation of the President laws. It was an offence for any person who, with intent to bring the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt, published any defamatory or insulting statements,” said Fred M’membe, President of the Socialist Party in Zambia.

Mr. M’membe, a former Editor-In-Chief for the now defunct Post Newspapers, says the past years have seen a growing global movement towards decriminalising defamation and Zambia has not been left behind.

The opposition leader says the Death Penalty and the Defamation of the President had to go.

“These laws were clearly unconstitutional and fell foul of international standards on freedom of expression. To be more meaningful, the repeal of defamation laws needs to be immediately accompanied by the removal of the public order Act.”

Another opposition leader Harry Kalaba, who leads the Citizens First political party, says the two laws were archaic.

“We expected this and we appreciate that it has finally been done. This is a law that should never have been there in the first place. A fair playing field is a key ingredient of democracy. We thank the international community and all stakeholders for keeping tabs and ensuring that a draconian law is repealed,” said Mr. Kalaba.

The former Foreign Affairs Minister in the previous administration says there was need for wider consultation before the abolishment of the Death Penalty.

“We believe in issue-based politics and that’s why we would rather focus on the issue of death Penalty that we think should have sought wider consultation before abolishing it. There are those who have lost their loved ones to criminal activities who feel the Death Penalty is a better option while those related to the people on death row will think otherwise and therefore in our view this issue should have attracted wider consultation,” he added.

On the international scene, Amnesty International welcomed the news that Zambia had joined other countries in abolishing the Death Penalty.

In March this year, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard visited President Hichilema at State House and issued the following statement on human rights in Zambia.

“Under former President Edgar Lungu’s administration, authorities weaponized the law to criminalize peaceful dissent, charging critics with a wide range of offences including criminal defamation, incitement of public disorder and sedition. For example, on 9 March 2020, police arrested a 15-year-old boy in Kapiri Mposhi, and charged him with three counts of criminal libel after he allegedly criticized President Lungu on Facebook. Authorities must repeal the repressive legislation, especially the Public Order Act, and the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act that have been used to suppress human rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression.”

With the abolishing of the Death Penalty, Amnesty International has reacted.

Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa said: “Amnesty International welcomes the announcement by President Hichilema that the death penalty has been abolished in Zambia. This is a good and progressive move that shows the country’s commitment to protecting the right to life.

Mr. Chagutah commended President Hichilema for quashing the offence of criminal defamation of the president which he said muzzled free speech and unjustifiably limited freedom of expression in the country.

“With the abolition, Zambia became the 25th country in sub-Saharan Africa to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. Zambia’s decision to ban the death penalty should serve as an example to countries in the region that still use the death penalty and compel them to take immediate steps to end this cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment and protect the right to life,” he added.

Mr. Chagutah encouraged the Zambian government to accede to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

Since January 1997, no Zambian citizen has been executed as successive Presidents have been declining to sign the execution orders for those sentenced to death.

This is on the basis of Zambia having been declared a Christian Nation early in the 1990s by President Frederick Chiluba and since then, no Zambian President wants to preside over an execution.

In the last 25 years since the hang man executed the last prisoner at the Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison in Kabwe, lobbying for the abolishment of the death penalty has been loud.

Both local and international non-governmental organisations have voiced out on the matter, encouraging Zambia to join an international group of countries which have done away with the law.

As at December 2021, Zambia had 257 death row inmates who were being held at the condemned section of the Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison.

The inmates, who wear white uniforms, live in small cells which are isolated from lifers and other convicts within the prison.

Over the years, successive Presidents having been using their Prerogative of Mercy to commute death sentences into life sentences on days such as African Freedom Day (Africa Day) and Independence Day (October 25) to reduce on congestion in the Condemned Section at Mukobeko.

According to UN records, 170 countries have so far abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium on the death penalty or have suspended executions for 10 years.

Of these, 24 countries are in Africa and they include states like Liberia, Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea.

Zambia now becomes the 25th country in Africa to abolish the Death Penalty.

Cover Photo: Photo Chalo Chatu (Flikr), public domain