The 1990’s in Zambia saw a clean, nonviolent transition of power from longtime president Kenneth Kaunda (1964-1991) to a democratic system with multiparty elections. Under Kaunda, Zambia had followed a single party, socialist path that had rejected the tenants of democracy in favor of totalitarian rule by Kaunda and his government. The sudden political liberalization in the 1990’s, initiated by Kaunda, was spurred by the collapsing economy, rising debt, and increasing dissidence by members of the civil society in the country. External actors were hopeful that, following this transition, Zambia would experience a renaissance of political thought and heightened economic growth and development. In the years following political liberalization and free elections in Zambia in 1990, the country’s fledgling democracy was called a model of democracy among African nations. However, following the succession of Edgar Lungu to the presidency in 2015, Zambia’s democracy has been in crisis.
The initial signs of democratization were promising: independent observers in the 1991 elections found procedures to be largely free of corruption and pressures on the populace. Kaunda was defeated in a decisive victory by opposition candidate Frederick Chiluba. However, in the years following the peaceful transition to a multiparty democracy, the political landscape was particularly tense. Opposition parties threatened to boycott elections in 1991, 1996, and again in 2001 following Chiluba’s rejection of a constitutional amendment prohibiting a third term. These boycotts, along with the influence of civil society organizations, were successful in preserving the integrity of the constitution .and preventing Chiluba’s attempts to retain office for a third term.
Despite these temporary setbacks to the development of a democratic state, surveys of the public opinion on the country’s governance in the mid 2000’s indicated that, overall, the public maintained confidence in its ability to question people in positions of authority as well as its ability to exercise free speech. Even throughout the turbulent political conditions in Africa in the mid 2000’s, characterized by a continent-wide democratic pushback and Zambian head-of-state Chiluba’s indictment based on charges of corruption, Afrobarometer data shows that the Zambian people remained relatively confident in the state of their democracy. However, Zambia would experience a second pushback against democratic institutions in the years following that would precipitate the current crisis facing the country.
In 2011, Chiluba’s ruling party, Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, or MMD, which had been in control of the country since the inception of democratic elections, lost power to Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front. This represented a major political shift in the country, and soon after the MMD faded into the obscurity of the plurality of Zambian political parties. One of Sata’s key campaign promises was a new constitution, which, while never drafted or adopted, influenced constitutional amendments adopted by his successor Edgar Lungu in 2015. Notably, these amendments required 50% +1 votes to win the presidency. This would lead to a consolidation of power by the two major parties, the Popular Front and the United Party for National Development, or UPND, in following election, ending the crucial balancing role of third and minor parties and increasing political polarization.
In addition to aggressive anti-democratic constitutional reforms, Lungu opposed democratic principles through hostile antagonization of civil society and rejecting principles of the original constitution. Following claims of electoral fraud in the 2016 election by the United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema, Lungu refused to step down for the speaker as required by the constitution. Later, he had Hichilema placed under arrest for inflated and false claims of treason and attempted overthrow of the government. Lungu also condoned the closing of major newspaper The Post, as well as antagonizing the leaders of the paper through continuous searches of their house and property. This was a major blow to freedom of speech in a country with few major media outlets. The move also served as a scare tactic, forcing other papers to fall in line and silencing public criticism of Lungu’s government. Most recently, as of March 23, 2018, the UNPD proceeded with impeachment proceedings for Lungu, stemming back to his failure to follow the constitution in his 2016 electoral victory. Lungu’s ruling party played a key role in a defeat of these proceedings in parliament, allowing his tight rule over the Zambian state to continue.
The most worrying aspect of the democratic crisis in Zambia is the lack of international media coverage on the subject. Following the closing of The Post, other Zambian media outlets have fallen in line with the President, now only offering unwavering support of the administration. Critics of Lungu and his government are called saboteurs, seeking to undermine the security of the state, in rhetoric that echoes eerily of totalitarian regimes.
In response to increasing corruption, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, and Sweden have withdrawn aid from Zambia, a vital resource for the still poverty-stricken country. THis move affects not only the people of Zambia who rely on such aid for poverty relief, sustenance, and education, but also the Zambian government officials who skim off the top of aid packages. Lungu has few options here:
1) He can choose to coöperate with metropole states, but is unlikely to submit to demands that he cull rampant state corruption. Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Richard Joseph, in his research on government structures in Nigeria, found that many African countries function through a system of neopatrimonialism, where government offices and political positions are used by those who occupy to extract capital from the only developed institution in the state – the government. Remove the corruption and you remove the fundamental basis on which the state operates; it is impossible.
2) He can refuse to take any action and continue operating under the status quo. Inaction on Lungu’s part is an equally risky move to action. While he has successfully silenced media opposition and consolidated his political power, taking actions that would lead inevitably to the harm of the Zambian people—such as indirectly refusing aid—would undoubtedly lead to discontent among those who benefit from foreign money: not only the Zambian people but those who skim off the top in the state itself. Being in the unstable position he is after fighting to dismantle his opposition, Lungu would only further risk unseating himself from the power he so values.
3) He can feign a gesture of support for anti-corruption causes. By removing a scapegoat from his cabinet or another high-ranking official, Lungu can easily brush off claims of corruption from both the metropole and his people, while maintaining the larger patron-client relations in the state. This option not only offers no risk to Lungu, but also is tried and true in Africa and around the world. Reagan famously used Oliver North as his scapegoat for Iran-Contra, rather successfully passing the blame off onto other people and maintaining his reputation as the “Teflon President.” For Lungu, using a scapegoat for explaining corruption is even easier. He risks no inquisition into his actions by the media after eliminating dissent, and the minister that takes the blame can easily be re-incorporated into the state apparatus once pressure on the administration dissipates.
On September 19, Lungu made a decision. It was easy. He dismissed Emerine Kabanshi, Minister of Community Development, as well as the Postmaster General, McPherson Chanda. So far, the effects of this move seem minimal, and corruption persists along with the institutions that make it possible. Lungu has shored up his power, and no media or civil society organization is likely to oppose him, as long as the wheels of the neopatrimonial system keep turning. The only good come out of this recent withdraw of aid involved a possible reëvaluation of the development aid systems by the counties that fund them. Implementing a smarter aid program through a three-pronged approach of transparency, accountability, and democratic governance would help to eliminate the rampant problems of misappropriation and abuse. As for Zambia’s governance by an increasingly authoritarian president, the country’s once-lively civil society must again insist on true democratic, responsible governance. Without the voice of the people, the country can only follow in the footsteps of countless other African despotic regimes.