Africa / The 2021 Zambian elections: A triumph of democracy in Africa
By Linda Kasonde
Each year, on 15th of September, the world commemorates the International Day of Democracy. It’s a day of reflection on the state of democracy in the world. It is based on the shared value that the will of the people should prevail. To use a translated Latin maxim, “the voice of the people is the voice of God”. The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy was ‘strengthening democratic resilience in the face of future crises’. This theme is certainly very apt for Zambia having just emerged from a period of democratic decline. We must reflect on the state of democracy in Zambia following the just ended August 2021 general elections and see how we can emerge as a stronger, more resilient democracy.
Elections are the largest exercise of the will of the people in any democracy. With a record number of registered voters and a record 75% of registered voters voting in the elections, that alone was a democratic triumph. This article will focus on the lessons learnt in the run up to and post the election and to discuss our hopes and expectations of the new government in the wake of the third peaceful transfer of power in Zambia.
Lessons learnt from the previous ten years
The warning signs that our democracy was in decline could be illustrated by the following events:
- Abuse of the weaponization of the law against citizens
The apparent partisanship of the law enforcement agencies in securing law and order in relation to public meetings of opposition political parties and independent civil society organisations. There was an increase in politically motivated violence by various political parties in the country. The law enforcement agencies were not seen to preserve and protect the safety and security of all involved, particularly of dissenting voices. We saw this with the abuse of the Public Order Act and Covid Regulations as well as the use of criminal defamation laws and the recent introduction of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act to police the digital space.
- A blurring of the line between the Ruling Party and the Government with party officials making statements on issues of government policy.
The rhetoric and statements of high-ranking government officials and senior officials with the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party have continued to pose a threat to civil society organizations, ordinary individuals, and human rights defenders who are labelled as partisan in order to marginalise and intimidate them. In the past we saw the use of political party supporters employed to intimidate ordinary citizens, particularly those who expressed dissenting views from the government.
- Public threats against members of the judiciary.
In November 2017, former President Edgar Lungu threatened judges not to follow the Kenyan court on the issue of whether or not he was eligible to stand in the 2021 presidential elections. These sentiments were echoed by his press secretary. However, it is also worth noting that whilst the Courts have been under attack from the Executive, the Courts too have been heavy handed in laying charges of criminal contempt against those that criticize them in the media. This was a worrying trend as courts should ordinarily only speak through their judgments and through their conduct of cases generally. The courts have also been used as a battle ground to fight political battles often resulting in judgements favourable to the ruling government e.g., the eligibility of President Lungu case which was ultimately decided in favour of President Lungu.
- The harassment of journalists and closure of alternative voices perceived to be anti-establishment in an environment where there appears to be a decreasing tolerance for divergent views
In June 2016, the government shut down the largest independent newspaper in Zambia, The Post, ostensibly for tax related issues. In August 2016, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), a public agency run by officials appointed by the President, suspended the licenses of three private media houses a few days after the country’s leading opposition party filed a petition in the Constitutional Court contesting the outcome of the presidential election in which President Edgar Lungu was announced as the official winner. Also, the largest independent television station, Prime Television, was shut down in 2020.
- Divide and Rule
Article 3 of the constitution of the Patriotic Front manifesto which seeks to “ensure that all the public institutions, State-owned enterprises and popular mass and similar organizations are led by persons who are members of the Party and who are uncompromisingly committed to achievements of the Party”. We saw this play out in professional associations, the civil service, NGOs, and the Church. Any critic of government on governance issues was labelled ‘anti-government’ and subsequently was often abused through state-affiliated media or social media sites. This was one of the biggest threats to civil society and the media in Zambia. We also saw the use of tribal hate speech to demonise opposition political party leaders and to discourage people from voting for them.
Since our return to multi-party democracy in 1991, Zambia has been touted as a beacon of peace and stability on the Continent. This reputation has been hard-fought. Historically, we have seen that power exercised even in between elections. We saw that with the movement for multiparty democracy in the late eighties to early nineties; with the anti-third term campaign in the mid-1990s and most recently with the anti-Constitution Amendment Bill 10 campaign in 2020. These events did not only threaten our democracy but the state of human rights in Zambia. The results of the August 2021 elections are a clear sign that Zambians yearn for democracy and democratic ideals as established by the Constitution.
The biggest lesson that we Zambians have learnt and continue to learn is that the structure and foundation of democracy are based on choices and joint efforts of each citizen of the country. When democracy thrives, the people win, and their choices and joint efforts deliver peace and prosperity. If the last election taught us anything it is that true power vests in the people and that the demonstration of that power can defy seemingly insurmountable odds.
In conclusion, the existence of democracy is underpinned by freedom of expression, assembly, and association. These rights afford citizens the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to receive and impart information and ideas through any medium. Our hope is that the new UPND government has learnt the lessons of the past and will respect human rights and the rule of law that in turn support economic emancipation. If the government fails to listen to the voice of the people once more, history tells us that will be the cause of their demise. The last ten years have shown us that it is that civil and political issues are everyone’s business because without the will of the people being respected our democracy will die and we will all suffer for it – economically as well as politically.
 Constitution of the Patriotic Front, http://www.lusakavoice.com/2014/11/16/constitution-patriotic-front-election-pf-party-president/