Every single day in Zambia, an average of 15 people are arrested for drug offenses, mostly for cannabis. Some of these victims are as young as 11-years-old, and almost all of them are poor and powerless.
The inhumane prison overcrowding we are witnessing is a symptom of the failed global War on Drugs. That war has been good for organizations like the Drug Enforcement Commission and the US Drug Enforcement Administration—which signed a “secret” MoU with DEC last year—but it has been devastating for the world’s poor and marginalized communities.
In Zambia, the main victims of our overly harsh drug laws are also poor and vulnerable, among them untold thousands of peasant farmers, widows, and unemployed youths.
Visit the juvenile section of Kamwala Remand Prison and you will find that almost all those young inmates have been caged by DEC, some of them still dressed in their school uniforms as they wait weeks for trial.
There is no doubt that drugs are dangerous. As former UN Secretary Kofi Annan says: “I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more. We all want to protect our families from the potential harm of drugs. But if our children do develop a drug problem, surely we will want them cared for as patients in need of treatment and not branded as criminals.”
This is particularly true in Zambia, where cannabis was grown and used by our ancestors for a thousand years before Europeans arrived to ban it and undermine our local cultures and traditions. All these years later we are still suffering those Colonial attitudes.
Even worse, certain authorities such as DEC officers and prosecutors are profiting—in money and employment—from the War on Drugs and the misery of those thousands of Zambians.
The questions needs to be asked: Who will defend the poor and powerless? Who will stand up for the children, widows, unemployed youth, the voiceless masses huddled in misery in our nation’s prisons?
Except for Peter Sinkamba, our political leadership is unsurprisingly silent on the issue. But where are the non-state actors? Where are NGOs and those much-trumpeted “civil society organizations”?
Where is UNICEF to speak for the children? Where is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to counsel on non-custodial alternatives for drug offenders?
Where is Civil Society for Poverty Reduction to cry for the poor in prisons? Where is Sara Longwe and the women’s movement to challenge the jailing of women for feeding their families from the proceeds of the cannabis trade?
Where is the Zambian media to shine a light in the dark places such as prisons? Are we practitioners of journalism only awake to official statements and speeches, or are we capable to questioning?
Above all, where are the churches to call for leniency and mercy for the poor, which was the core message of Jesus’s ministry? Are we to believe that not one single church leader can speak out for these inmates who are suffering because we consider them as “criminals” even as they are non-violent and pose no threat to society?
The great Russian writer and philosopher, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once wrote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Judged by our prisons—filled to 240 percent over-capacity with the poor and powerless—this society has a long, hard road to walk before reaching a higher degree of civilization.
If only there were some enlightened, progressive, and fearless people among our NGOs and CSOs who could help us along the way.