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Political violence dent Zambia’s record of peaceful elections

From 1964 to 1991, Zambia knew only one president: Kenneth Kaunda. Since then, the country has had five democratically elected presidents. The presidential election of 11 August 2016 was anything but free and fair, however. A few weeks after the polls, Charles Mafa reflects on the state of Zambia’s democracy.

By holding its sixth election since the re-introduction of multi-party politics in 1991, Zambia has passed yet another test for a democratic state. However, the elections themselves were neither perfect nor peaceful. There was an increase in political violence during the election campaigns and in the wake of the election. It is a worrying situation for a country that is known for peaceful politics and national unity.

Incumbent president Edgar Lungu, the leader of the Patriotic Front (PF), was re-elected after the final results gave him a lead of more than 100 000 votes over opponent and wealthy businessman Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). The opposition leader, seeking the country’s highest office for the fifth time, has since disputed the results and accused Lungu’s party of stealing the vote.

The two rivals had faced off once before – in an election that was held in 2015 to replace President Michael Sata, who had died in office in October 2014. Lungu, a former defence minister, served the remainder of Mr Sata’s term after winning with a narrow margin over opposition rival Hichilema.

Crucial election at a time of economic crisis

The 2016 election was held at a time when the country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade. The price of copper, the country’s main export, continues to drop and the kwacha, Zambia’s currency, is among the world’s worst-performing currencies. The focus of the election campaigns should have been on the economy; on bread and butter issues. However, it is political violence that took centre stage, with disenfranchised, unemployed young men forming groups to execute the politicians’ nefarious intentions.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu was on August 15, 2016 re-elected in a closely-fought vote that the opposition claimed was rigged, the election commission chief announced. Esau Chulu declared Lungu "duly elected" after releasing the final results which put Lungu ahead of his main rival Hakainde Hichilema by around 100,000 votes. Photo: ANP/AFP Gianluigi Guercia
Zambian President Edgar Lungu was on August 15, 2016 re-elected in a closely-fought vote that the opposition claimed was rigged, the election commission chief announced. Photo: ANP/AFP Gianluigi Guercia

Although seven other candidates took part in the election, the violence was largely between the two main parties: the Lungu-led PF and Hakainde’s UPND. Justice Esau Chulu, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, referred to the violence as “unprecedented”, saying it has “marred Zambia’s historic record of peaceful elections”. The violence during the campaign led to several people being killed and many injured.

Leaked PF action plan

In May this year, it became apparent that Lungu would not give up power without a fierce fight when an unverified PF action plan was leaked. It outlined in remarkable detail the governing party’s strategy to rig the elections, restrict opposition space and curb basic civil and political freedoms. The government denied the authenticity of the document, yet it appears to have been followed to the letter.

A man passes the office of the now-closed independent newspaper "The Post" on August 9, 2016 in Lusaka. The Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) shut down The Post newspaper in June demanding $6 million in unpaid taxes, but the newspaper accused the authorities of trying to silence it. Photo: ANP/ AFP Gianluigi Guercia
A man passes the office of the now-closed independent newspaper “The Post” on August 9, 2016 in Lusaka. The Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) shut down The Post newspaper in June demanding $6 million in unpaid taxes. Photo: ANP/ AFP Gianluigi Guercia

The list of tactics to be used was long, but what was perhaps the most illustrative of the abuse of state powers was the shutting down of the The Post, one of Zambia’s last independent news sources, in the middle of the election campaigns, allegedly over unpaid taxes. Given that state media is monopolised by the ruling party, this move drastically reduced the opportunities for opposition voices to be heard. In fact, the preliminary findings of the European Union Election Observation Mission confirmed many of the opposition parties’ concerns.

The Uganda effect

Lungu’s campaign benefited from external help. The ruling party was accused of developing close ties with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. The PF hired the services of Timor Consulting, an Israeli firm that has helped ruling parties win elections in neighbouring Botswana and Mozambique. Through his adept handling of the Christian messages, Lungu has gained the loyalty of the hugely popular Pentecostal churches. He declared 24 October a day of national prayer and initiated the building of the inter-denominational church in Lusaka.

“Although there were seven other candidates who took part in the election, the violence was largely between the two main parties: the PF of Mr Lungu and the UPND of Mr Hichilema.”

Despite inviting the EU and other international actors to observe the vote, Lungu has shown signs of disregarding the electoral process. In his campaign, he openly stated he did not care about international election observers and vowed to “sort out” opposition supporters if they disputed the election results.

On 11 August, voting proceeded in a generally peaceful fashion, with most polling stations recording high voter turnout, despite fears of political violence. But in the days that followed, the counting process had numerous irregularities and major delays in the final announcement of results.

United Party for National Development's Hakainde Hichilema maintains that the vote was rigged. Photo: LusakaTimes
United Party for National Development’s Hakainde Hichilema maintains that the vote was rigged. Photo: LusakaTimes

Incidents ranged from the arrest of a suspected ruling-party hacker, who was caught in the verification room of the national totalling centre, where official results were finalised, to mysteriously disappearing ballots. There were also claims that official forms with the final figures from polling stations and constituencies had not been given promptly to opposition party agents.

Ethnicity was another important feature in the election. Outside the urban areas, the vote was split along tribal lines. The Bemba areas in the north voted in large numbers for the PF candidate, along with people from Eastern province, where Lungu hails from. The Tonga people, Hichilema’s tribe, from theSouthern Province, voted for the opposition candidate. They were joined by those in Western and North-Western provinces.

It is now up to the court

Now that the election dispute is before the court, it is hard to predict how the Constitutional Court will rule on the UPND petition. The court can either accept the results or annul the election, in which case a new presidential contest would have to be held within 30 days. Another crucial point is that all six the judges of the recently established Constitutional Court, a crucial organ in the electoral dispute, were appointed by Lungu.

In a region known for presidents clinging to office for decades, Zambia has had smooth elections and transfers of power since 1991, long before multiparty democracies emerged elsewhere on the continent. But state dominance by politicians from the northern and eastern parts of the country is threatening Zambia’s peace.

Dealing with realities

Citizens from Hichilema’s rural bloc who have voted for him on the five attempts he has made at the presidency seem determined to make their claims heard. Equally, groups in the Western Province have for some time now been advocating secession, which is mainly fueled by poverty and the lack of development. In order to lessen ethnic conflict, the state must find ways to include everyone in the national agenda.

“The ruling party, the Patriotic Front, was accused of developing close ties with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.”

The opposition has its own flaws to deal with. The UPND has not moved away from an openly neoliberal agenda. Their leader, a former cattle herder turned economist, is a wealthy businessman who benefited from the wholesale privatisation of the 1990s. This has given ammunition to Lungu, who portrays himself as ‘a humble, God-fearing man of the people’.

In conclusion, the responsibility lies with the candidate who will be endorsed by the court as the winner to unite the country, which at present is so deeply divided along political and ethnic lines. There is also the impending IMF programme meant to heal Zambia’s poor economy. How these and other governance issues are handled will determine whether the country will get back to its democratic path or continue its freewheeling fall into the abyss of political violence, intolerance and lawlessness that has been seen over the past few months.

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