ZAMBIAN President Michael Sata fought a long and bitter struggle to end the one-party rule of founding president and liberation hero Kenneth Kaunda, and he rejected Levy Mwanawasa’s elevation to the presidency and the way Frederick Chiluba hand-picked his successor. He clearly understands the concept of democracy, so why is he strangling Zambia’s hard-won freedoms now?

From the day Mr Mwanawasa was sworn in as president in January 2002 until his death in August 2008 and beyond, Mr Sata traversed the country, tirelessly holding rallies to gain backing for his campaign against the administration. He was able to do so because Mr Mwanawasa, who may have been given favourable treatment by his predecessor but was a firm believer in democracy and the rule of law, defended Mr Sata’s right to freedom of expression.

Under Mr Mwanawasa and his successor, Rupiah Banda, Zambian democracy was strengthened and the country progressed economically, building sound democratic institutions and putting in place the foundation for growth that made it a model within the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).

And when Mr Sata took office in September 2011, he was quick to affirm his commitment to Mr Mwanawasa’s campaign against corruption and pledge to continue to champion the rights of ordinary citizens. He also wasted no time in firing police and military chiefs who were deemed to have performed badly and launched several high-profile investigations of corruption, including against former ministers in the 20-year rule of his old party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy. He quickly reversed the sale of a Zambian bank to SA’s FirstRand, and the sale of telecoms group Zambia Telecommunications to Libyan investors, saying all was not above board. Most recently, the government revoked the mining licences of a Chinese investor, citing safety and environmental and labour concerns.

It therefore comes as a surprise that Mr Sata now appears to be stepping back from the democratic ideal. Unlike the freedom he enjoyed as an opposition figure, opposition leaders and civil society groups are being prevented from holding party or interparty meetings inside Zambia; they can no longer even hold media events.

Critics claim the Zambian executive is interfering with the judiciary, has moved to muzzle parliament and is ignoring the doctrine of the separation of powers.

Mr Banda, opposition leader Nevers Mumba and others in the opposition and civil society want the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group — the nine-member team of ministers that acts against persistent violations of Commonwealth principles and values — to investigate Zambia and stem a further decline in democratic governance and respect for human rights.

The problem is that the action group does not have a great track record when it comes to situations such as the one that is evolving in Zambia. Violations in the Gambia and Swaziland went by without action and little comment, while objections to the situation in Sri Lanka have been timid at best. The group can claim some successes in dealing with countries such as Fiji and Pakistan, but it is no longer the reliable guardian of fundamental human rights and democratic values that it was during the struggle against apartheid.

It therefore falls upon Sadc to put pressure on Mr Sata to respect the rule of law in Zambia.

Cynics will point out that it failed to do so when the delinquent party was Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who also paid lip service to democracy before being corrupted by power.

They have a point; on the other hand, failing to act early in the case of Mr Mugabe has not ended well for anybody, including Sadc, and there should be a lesson in that.