Using the Zambian Legal System to Get Justice for the Death of a Zambian Student

Vespers Shimuzhila, a fourth year university student at the University of Zambia (UNZA) suffocated to death when police officers threw tear gas canisters into her room during student protests over unpaid allowances. Another student broke her spine after jumping out of the building.

In a moving and emotional act of togetherness, UNZA students, politicians, musicians and social justice activists wore all black in a funeral procession for Vespers.

Policy makers have not expressed sincere regret over the death of Vespers and strong intention to hold those responsible accountable. The president stated that he will be waiting for answers from the police on what transpired and that the public should let the police do their job.  There is a lot of irony is such statements. With student allegedly harmed by the police, how then can they be trusted to investigate and probe her death? shouldn’t more action be taken to ensure that they are held accountable for their actions and effectively trained to make sure that such an incident never happens again?

Indeed, systems do not always work the way they should and this is beyond true for the Zambian system, however there should be mechanisms in place that ensure that incidents such as this one do not occur again.

Police accountability and the law

According to The Zambia Police Act, the police force has a hierarchical system beginning with the Inspector General and lower ranking police officers. When an individual joins the force, they make a declaration before a magistrates or superior officer to perform their job to the best of their abilities. According to this act, it is the duty of every police officer to obey lawful directions from police officers who are more superior in rank. With regard to disciplinary matters, disobedience of orders, acting without good cause or neglecting to carry out a lawful order can lead to disciplinary action (30a). An act perpetrated without good or sufficient cause such as the use of unnecessary violence is unlawful (30h).

I am not an expert on the law however Vespers was in her room when a canister of tear gas was thrown in. According to The Zambia Police Act, this may have been an act perpetrated without good cause. By the act then, those who allegedly perpetrated this act can be held accountable for their actions.

Investigation and formal inquiry

In global news in incidents were citizens feel that an injustice has been done to an individual or a group of people, formal inquiries take place in order to fully understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. In the UK for instance, when the Grenfell Tower building caught fire, killing 72 people and injuring and displacing many, a formal inquiry was carried out. This will never bring back those whose lives were lost and will always remain an injustice however there is a structure in place to at least look into events and possibly change policy in social housing which will protect people in the future.

Zambia does have an Inquiries Act which allows commissioners to inquire into and report on matters referred to them. Again, as with accountability and actions of the police, laws exist to ensure that issues can be dealt with through an inquiries process.

Students union

Some such as the Council of Churches in Zambia have attributed the death of Vespers to the university not have a student’s union. In May 2017, the minister for higher education Nkandu Luo banned student’s union activities as they are a recipe for anarchy and chaos. Of course in the past, demonstrations have turned destructive with roads being closed and buildings damaged. This is obviously unacceptable however unions are necessary to act as mediators between students and state and non-state actors.  Perhaps if the university still had a union, it would be responsible for having a dialogue with those in charge of disbursing meal allowances.

You do not need to be a mother, daughter, father or even an UNZA student to understand the horror of this situation. You need only be a human being to understand that an innocent girl was killed and that this should never happen again.

Online and in the media, the opposition and students have been blamed. A life was lost, let us  not forget that. With the #JusticeForVespers Campaign gaining traction one can only hope that the family of Vespers gets some justice.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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