President Lungu must stop police from invading church services

Police in Serenje
Police in Serenje

The wisdom of the ages is strikingly clear. According to Pope Celestine I, “we are deservedly to blame if we encourage error by silence.” The manifestation of tyranny is always subtle. Oppression, no matter how heinous, usually does have trifling beginnings. Those who end up being oppressors frequently never plan to. They become tyrants by the deafening silence of the disaffected. When the state acts to violate the inviolable rights of its citizens, it usually does so by abusing legitimate legal power. State violation of human liberty, is rarely about whether the state has the power or authority to punish the wrongdoer but about the processes followed when punishing such a wrongdoer. It doesn’t matter the motives of the state, if its actions have the effect of eroding constitutional liberties we must as a people hold such a state to lawful accountability.

To keep good order in our republic, security agencies must be allowed to use force, but this force must be reasonable. The nature of humanity sometimes calls for the use of force more often than satisfies our comfort. The Zambian state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that those that live in Zambia, citizens or otherwise, follow the law in the conduct of their personal affairs. To keep the peace is a sacred duty of citizen and alien alike. However, if peace is threatened, or if criminals begin abusing the peace of our country, then the security agencies are justified in taking appropriate and reasonable action to redress the harm. The key here is that force must be both “appropriate” and “reasonable”. The use of police power should be balanced by a respect for constitutional liberties. It is these constitutional liberties that act as a milieu in checking the abuse of state assets. Our constitution stipulates what the state can do and cannot do when it is using force. Police cannot just begin shooting thieves on the streets; neither should they mount roadblocks anywhere and everywhere.

In Zambia’s constitutional structure, bullets and bombs held by our militaries cannot be triggered or activated without consent from our elected politicians. Patience is the virtue of force. Bullets have no minds of their own. Bombs would love to boom, but before they do, the decision to have them explode must be made by rational civilian representatives. Soldiers, paramilitaries and all the forces in our country are under civilian supervision for political accountability. The Zambia Police and the Zambia Immigration are accountable to our elected officials, and the elected officials are, in turn, directly accountable to the civilian population. To abuse the military, the police or the immigration officers is an insult on the revered integrity of the Zambian people. Zambia is a democracy; it is not a military dictatorship and neither is it a police state. Both the President of our republic and the Minister of Home Affairs are directly accountable to the people in the way the security forces deploy force. There is no such thing as absolute freedom, just as there is no such thing as absolute state power. To deviate from our democratic system is to invite danger and court trouble. After defeating the Kaunda dictatorship in 1991, our people should not accede to the return of despotism.

In meeting a legitimate state objective, Zambia’s department of Immigration and Police over the weekend raided a church service and detained its worshippers. Congregants of the Swedish Pentecostal Church were to be released only after they showed their immigration status. Apparently, the police and the Registrar of Societies had been closely watching this church. Listening to the immigration department spokesperson, you would see that the state did seem to have a genuine objective in trying to stop illegal immigrants. But this is only but a part of the story. The state as, I have mentioned above, has a duty to be reasonable, proportionate and sensible in the way it deploys force. What is offensive with the action of the police is the chilling effect that such operations have on the constitutional liberties of the people. The Zambians’ freedom to worship is sacrosanct. Sending armed police to a church service is disproportionate and, at worst, unjustifiable in a democracy. Couldn’t the state have found a better way to address the illegal immigrant problem than raiding a church while a service is occurring? A typical church service in Zambia doesn’t last more than four hours. Couldn’t the police have waited until the service was over?

INSPECTOR General of police Stellah Libongani
INSPECTOR General of police Stellah Libongani

The police command have a choice about how they will use their arresting powers. The police power of arrest or detention is not a demon that manifests at an inappropriate time demanding a knee-jerk reaction from officers. It is not an uncontrollable beast that can only be tamed after it has drunk the blood of its victims. Rather, the power to arrest is to be deployed in such a way as to accord and respect basic liberties of the people. Respect for basic human liberties makes legal state action lawful; any disrespect for liberty makes legal state action unlawful. If the police have a choice between arresting people before, during, or after a church service, both common sense and law demand that they do so in a way that is least disruptive of constitutional liberties. The police must be sensitive to what we hold dear as a Christian nation. Church services are cherished by the soul of this nation. There is absolutely no justifiable reason, no existential threat, which a church service poses that should justify a paramilitary invasion. To say that the police can follow crimes wherever they want, whether it is in a church or otherwise, is plain nonsense. The police are constitutionally constrained in the use of power. They can’t just show up anywhere and everywhere in the name of policing. They should not just enter any church and disrupt a service on the pretext of arresting illegal immigrants. Immigration officers cannot just be detaining people simply because they have a legitimate reason to do so. It is liberty that gives legitimacy.

If a church service of the Swedish Pentecostal Church is not respected today, there is no guarantee that a mass celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church will be esteemedtomorrow. I request President Lungu and his cabinet to direct the police to delicately balance the use of force against the constitutionally enshrined respect for religious expression.


Credit : Munshya, E