Zambia: one too many close calls for democracy?

Zambia 1Democracies in the developing world must often overcome a number of hurdles on the road to maturity and development as a stable state. Peaceful elections, a vibrant civil society, regular transfer of power, and fair service delivery are all key indicators of democratic development. No doubt, differences in the maturing of democracies should be considered based on local realities, and a so-called Western roadmap must not be the only lens through which we view this development.

But has the southern African country of Zambia, rich in copper and with plentiful tourism potential, had one too many close calls in its democratic development? Does Zambia and its people need to rethink their political path?

The most recent August 11th elections certainly give that impression.

This year’s General Elections resulted in the incumbent Edgar Lungu (Patriotic Front – PF) winning the presidential race by just over 2.5%, enough to avoid a second-round run-off. The liberal opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), led by Hakainde Hichilema, also lost the last presidential by-election by a mere 27,757 votes. Those early presidential elections were called after the passing of former President Michael Sata in 2014. On the surface, these results appear to be a sign of political maturity, with an election called upon President Sata’s death and an apparently democratic process in place for political succession.

Zambia dinnerIndeed, following the end of Kenneth Kaunda’s autocratic rule in 1991, Zambia did begin a process of ‘democratisation’, enjoying multi-party elections and a more representative version democracy than they had in the past. Five nationwide elections have since been held, with new and old parties coming and leaving the political scene, all whilst Zambia has received international recognition as a good example of peaceful transitions and elections. In spite of shifts in the politics of the country, life remained relatively stable no matter one’s personal political affiliation. This is something not to be taken for granted, especially when considering certain neighbours of the country, such as the DR Congo, where such stability is considered enviable.

However, it appears that Zambia has taken a turn for the worst of late. There are even suggestions that the leadership of a different neighbour, Zimbabwe, has set an example which President Lungu seeks to adopt and bring home. Widespread violence, allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and state media bias in the past elections, all do no favours for the fledgling democracy in Zambia.

The turning point may have been the passing of President Sata two years ago. Following the former leader’s death, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) finally lost elections after governing for 20 years, opening the way for the close contests between the liberal UPND and the PF which have followed. Additionally, tension and infighting in the PF has resulted in the tightening of Lungu’s grip on the party and near-paranoia to remain in power by almost any means, including the appointment of sympathetic electoral commissioners, judges and state broadcasters. Even the Zambian police force is not beyond the grip of the president.

Political violence, especially around election time, has dramatically spiked. The UPND’s supporters have been subject to numerous attacks across the country, with some sources informing us that the party’s members and volunteers have been intimidated so as not to wear even party regalia for fear of their lives. Another specific example is the stoning and torching of an opposition campaign bus by PF cadres just a few short weeks prior to polling day. Tragically, a female UPND supporter was shot and killed by police in the capital of Lusaka as the party organised a march to the city’s central business district. No follow-up or conclusive investigation into the matter has been prioritised by the authorities.

From the presidency in Lusaka to his supporters in the remotest regions, the fundamental democratic and liberal principle of tolerance – for political, cultural and personal differences – is slowly yet dangerously being eroded.

Even the Africa Liberal Network (ALN), the largest political affiliation on the continent, endured a close call prior to elections. As the network’s coordinator, I held meetings with the International Committee of the UPND at the party’s secretariat. On one occasion, the building was nearly stormed, looted and burned to the ground by PF cadres whilst I was midway through a presentation. Party officials and I escaped near-disaster by fleeing the property and the armed PF forces.

Following this year’s elections, the UPND challenged the results in court, a legal recourse afforded by Zambia’s relatively progressive constitution. Between the announcement of the election results and the inauguration of the president, fourteen days are granted for the Constitutional Court to be petitioned on fraudulent elections. In spite of strong arguments produced by the opposition, the time period expired and no extension was granted for any legal challenge. Now, Edgar Lungu is set to once more be inaugurated on September 13th.

Lungu and his Patriotic Front will have to confront more challenges, however, this time from the Zambian people, the economy and foreign investors. Issues such as skyrocketing inflation of over 20%, loss of investor confidence, tumbling copper prices, and an overall weakening economy must all be overcome by Lungu’s new government.

Failing this, the ballot box may not be the only means by which Zambians will make their choices; the stability of democracy in the state could then be questioned even further. How many more close-calls should Zambians endure before the political system is responsive to their demands? The future of Zambian democracy is at stake.


* Luke Akal is Coordinator of the Africa Liberal Network

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Rebecca Forrest 21st Sep '16 - 2:41pm

    As the country of my birth, I find the potential decline of the burgeoning democracy in Zambia extremely saddening. It does leave me with the question of what can I (or we) do to help the situation…

  • Himoonga Mweeba 21st Sep '16 - 5:25pm

    In the last 15 years Zambia saw a decline in democractic issues and the leaders in power have been arresting any individual who spoke against their ruling, managing of government funds or corruption. Zambian leaders have failed to work for their own people. They have failed to to organise social welfare and community development activities. Farmers have complained of loss of income and late payment by governing bodies but the ruling parties have failed to address these issues. Zambia is a rich country and it is capable of feeding its own people from its local resources.
    The current government is arresting innocent people, throwing them in jail or prison without trail.

  • Zambia has done very well since independence in 1964. It has achieved several transfers of power without very much conflict. I very much hope that they will manage to do it again. Robert Mugabe is no kind of model for anyone, and the DR Congo, on the other side, has been in trouble ever since its own independence. Here’s hoping that what has been so admirable about the last 50 years will survive and prosper. Oct 24th is both Zambia Independence Day and United Nations Day. Here’s hoping that both institutions will have a happy birthday and a good year ahead.

  • Himoonga Mweeba 22nd Sep '16 - 1:02pm

    It is true that Zambia has achieved several transfers of power under its multiparty system. However, the we keep re-cycling the same people in power since gaining independence in 1964 i we have a same people in government, by this I mean it is the same families that are running the government – they just keep handing posts to each other.
    Looking at the current situation in Zambia at the moment – Politicians going back and forth from one party to the next – swithing political parties is not illegal but in our case people join politics to get a position that will benefit them other than benefit Zambias. They are only in politics to line their pockets and their childrens pockets.
    Zambia is heading the same direction as Zimbabwe. ZANU PF is controlling PF in Zambia and that is why our media houses are being closed and targeted by government the Mugabe style. IMF is coming in soon to control the budget and remove all subsidies and this will increase the cost of living and it will be really difficult for most poor people

  • Himoonga Mweeba 22nd Sep '16 - 1:20pm

    They all talk of free and fair elections in Zambia, but the government is arresting opposition supporters, beating people who support the opposition. tThis is undemocratic. During campaigns for the just ended elections, the PF government beat supporters of the UPND in unprovoked situations – that is not democracy. People were arrested, some teargassed, some beaten to death and some shot dead by police under the authority of government. One wonders if this is democratic or dictitorship. Today, we ready about a UPND lawyer police arrested for a document that was written by government Advisor:
    Police in Lusaka have charged and arrested Lusaka lawyer Martha Mushipe.
    Ms Mushipe who is a senior legal counsel for the UPND has been charged with being in possession of seditious materials.
    The charge relates to a confidential document entitled Strategy of domination PF against opposition UPND 2015 – 2016 and beyond” which among others involves use of violence against the opposition.


    The document is alleged to have been authored by former Justice Minister Dr Ngosa Simbyakula and two others.

    This is after her lawyer firm located at Millennium Village Complex in Lusaka was searched by police in April this year.
    Her lawyers told Journalists that Ms. Mushipe has been denied police bond and that they have now sought the intervention of the Lusaka Magistrate Court to secure her release.

  • Lester Holloway 23rd Sep '16 - 6:24pm

    Solon, credited with inventing the first democracy in ancient Athens around 500BC, travelled to Eygpt to learn about their democracy. Pre-colonial and pre-slavery Africa is rich with examples of flourishing democracies, such as the Songhai empire. Africa gave democracy to the world. So much for ‘maturing’ democracies; democracy in Africa, like its’ development, was interrupted by Europeans. A key difference with European democracy is that in many parts of Africa there was not a feudal system based on ownership of land because there was a belief that land belongs to all. And prior to foreign domination many Africans enjoyed great freedom in societies, just as many pre-colonial villages operated highly advanced local democracies that were participatory and representative, such as the Mossi empire, which was a constitutional monarchy.

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