In the Autumn of 2016, an election was held in a deeply divided country. After months of protest, and in the wake of claims of election fraud by the losing party, this country elected a president who would threaten its fragile democratic institutions in the following years.
That country was Zambia, and the 2016 presidential election’s winner, Edgar Lungu, brought his nation of over fifteen million people closer to democratic collapse than it had been in twenty-five years. But how could a nation like Zambia, which had held several peaceful and orderly elections for over two decades, almost lose it all in four short years? More importantly, what can the incumbent president Hakainde Hichilema do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Zambia, like many African countries, embraced democracy in the 1990s. In 1964, the Zambian people voted overwhelmingly for the United National Independence Party and chose that party’s leader, Kenneth Kaunda, as the country’s first President. However, in 1972, after a power struggle in the United National Independence Party, Kaunda imposed one-party rule in his young nation. After nearly 30 years of undemocratic leadership in Zambia, Kaunda finally permitted a legitimate presidential election in 1991, an election that he lost in a landslide. The 1991 election gave rise to a democracy in Zambia that has remained relatively stable to this day.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Zambian democracy in the past thirty years has been its sixth president, Edgar Lungu. Lungu, who had become President of Zambia shortly after the 2014 death of President Michael Sata, first showed his authoritarian colors in the run-up to the 2016 General Election, when the Zambian police interfered with campaign events by Lungu’s opposition, the United Party for National Development, or UPND. After reporting on the violence, one of Zambia’s largest news publications, the Post Newspaper, was shut down by Zambian authorities. The Lungu government’s repeated attacks on freedom of assembly and press freedom were reminiscent of tactics used by neighboring African autocrats, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, to silence popular dissent, suggesting that Lungu was following in the undemocratic footsteps of his peers. Edgar Lungu’s attacks on freedom of assembly and press freedom were early signs of the danger Zambia’s democracy would face in the next four years and suggest that a burgeoning autocrat was in control of Zambia.
The UPND’s leader, Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the UNDP, was concerned that Lungu’s intimidation tactics would threaten a “free, fair, transparent and credible election.” Hichilema’s concerns may have been justified, as after Lungu’s victory in the 2016 election doubts were raised as to the fairness of that election. The Carter Center, a human rights organization founded by former United States President Jimmy Carter, expressed concerns that overreach by government officials and the judiciary’s failure to properly assess the UNDP’s claims of election irregularities raised questions about the fairness of Lungu’s victory. The actions of Lungu’s government surrounding the 2016 election threatened the sanctity of Zambia’s elections and set a dangerous precedent for future Zambian leaders wishing to consolidate power by interfering in elections.
Edgar Lungu further threatened Zambian democracy after his victory in 2016. After his inauguration, Lungu worked to eliminate checks and balances on his power and to stifle the influence of the UNDP as much as he could. In 2017, Hakainde Hichilema was charged with treason after he allegedly refused to make way for Lungu’s presidential motorcade. In 2018, Lungu attributed several arson attacks to political opposition groups without evidence. Using these tragedies as an excuse, Lungu proceeded to declare a state of emergency and place heavy restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly. Lungu additionally used this state of emergency to imprison many of his political opponents. After having issued vague threats against the judiciary of Zambia, Lungu was given permission by the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Zambia, to run for a third term. The provision in the Zambian constitution that the Constitutional Court used to justify their decision was added in 2016 under the influence of then-president Lungu. During campaigning before the 2021 General Election, the Zambian government turned a blind eye to displays of excessive force by Zambian police against UPND protests. The evidence suggests that Lungu’s authoritarianism was not restricted to the 2016 elections. Over the following four years, Lungu continued to undermine democratic institutions in Zambia. His brazen attempt to change term limits rules in Zambia, a trademark of authoritarian leaders across the world, is perhaps the most concerning aspect of Lungu’s sickening consolidation of power. During the entirety of his five-year term, President Edgar Lungu undermined democratic institutions, abused his authority, and restricted the civil rights of his citizens in an attempt to consolidate his authority.
In 2021, Zambia’s democracy prevailed, and Edgar Lungu’s dangerously authoritarian rule came to an end. During the 2021 General Election, Hichilema soundly defeated Lungu and took control of a struggling Zambia. But Hichilema’s celebration couldn’t last long, as he had a monumental task ahead of him: how could he begin to fix all the destruction Lungu had wrought upon democracy in Zambia?
Though Hichilema has barely been in office for half a year, he has already made significant progress in repairing Zambia’s once-strong democracy. Within his first hundred days in office, Hichilema worked to repair freedom of the press in Zambia, removing bans on many private media sources. In late February, the Supreme Court of Zambia ruled that the Lungu government had acted illegally in shutting down the Post Newspaper. Hichilema also took aggressive action to dismantle the security apparatus that had long oppressed opposition groups like Hichilema’s in Zambia, firing many of the security chiefs who had authorized violence against these groups. On these fronts, Hichilema has significantly improved the quality of Zambia’s democracy
However, Hichilema still has a long way to go to fully restore Zambia’s democracy. First, Hichilema needs to properly tackle corruption in Zambia. Hichilema has faced criticism for his failure to root out corruption quickly in Zambia’s government. If the Zambian people believe their government is corrupt, they will lose faith in their government and the democratic process, further weakening Zambia’s fragile democracy. It is in the best interests of Zambian democracy for Hichilema to fight the widespread corruption in the Zambian government.
Hichilema’s most pressing issue is the Zambian economy. Hichilema inherited a struggling economy from Edgar Lungu, and a central focus of Hichilema’s campaign was fixing the debt crisis and rampant unemployment that Lungu’s poor governance had intensified. If Hichilema can’t deliver on his promises of economic salvation, the Zambian people will likely lose faith in his leadership, opening the door for a demagogue to rouse the troubled masses of Zambia and destroy Zambia’s democracy, following in the footsteps of Lungu.
After years of democratic backsliding under Edgar Lungu, democracy has prevailed in Zambia with the election of Hakainde Hichilema. Now, Hichilema must deliver on his campaign promises, such as rooting out corruption and improving the economy, to ensure an aspiring autocrat like Lungu does not come to power again in Zambia.
(Featured image sourced from Paul Kagame on Flickr)