Lessons from Zambia and why democracy in Africa is fickle

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By Nic Cheeseman

Over the last 20 years, comparisons of the state of democracy in Kenya and Zambia have tended to favour the latter.

Not only has Zambia experienced two transfers of power — something only achieved by a handful of African states — but it has never experienced the kind of violence that broke out in Kenya in 2007/2008.

Zambia also featured something Kenya did not: Powerful trade unions capable of holding the government to account by mobilising support across ethnic lines.

But over the last two years, this picture has started to change.

While Kenya has introduced devolution under a new constitution, Zambia has suffered a period of democratic backsliding.

HICHILEMA ARRESTED

First, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason.
Shortly after, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a strongly worded criticism of the government that concluded, “Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship”.

So what does Zambia’s plight tell us about the prospects for democratic consolidation in Africa, and the challenges that lie ahead?

ETHNIC IDENTITIES

Kenya and Zambia share many historical experiences.

Both suffered under British colonial rule, achieved independence in the 1960s, and went on to construct durable one-party states.

However, until recently, it was Zambia that most people thought had the better chances of becoming a consolidated democracy.

On the one hand, the presence of strong civil society organisations placed constraints on what political leaders could do, and provided the campaign for multi-party politics with a strong organisational backbone.

On the other hand, ethnic identities were not manipulated for political gain in the way that they have been in Kenya.

AUTHORITARIAN REGIME

The county’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, may have constructed an authoritarian regime, but he was careful not to play divide-and-rule politics.
As a result, Zambia fared better following the collapse of the one-party state.

In contrast to Kenya, where the ruling party was able to hold on to power for another decade under Daniel arap Moi, Kaunda was voted out by a landslide.

Moreover, while Kenya has suffered a series of damaging ethnic clashes, Zambia has been relatively peaceful.

ILLEGITIMATE STRATEGY

From this point onwards, Zambia oscillated between stagnation and reform, and although it has not made the kind of political or economic gains needed to be identified as one of Africa’s success stories, a relatively functioning and competitive political system has evolved.

Most notably, while the level of corruption has remained high, and a number of elections have been highly controversial, the country has consistently pulled back from the brink when a return to authoritarian rule appeared a possibility.

Things appeared to be going downhill, for example, when Zambia’s second president, Frederick Chiluba, manipulated the constitution to prevent Kaunda, his predecessor, from running against him on the grounds that he was not a Zambian.

This strategy was clearly illegitimate — after all, Kaunda had ruled the country for more than two decades — and many worried that the country had started on a downward trajectory that would undermine its democratic transition.

JOINED TRADE UNIONS

However, Chiluba’s position was weaker than he understood and he overplayed his hand by trying to secure an unconstitutional third-term against strong civil society opposition.

When some members of his party joined trade unions, religious leaders, opposition parties and donors in opposing his plans, Chiluba was forced to step back and ultimately left office when his second term expired.

While Zambians have been willing to defend their democracy, political leaders have shown a greater willingness to share power than in many states. Presidents from different ethnic groups have occupied State House, which has helped to manage inter-communal tensions.

At the same time, opposition parties have been able to use populist strategies to attract support in urban areas and build effective political machines.

HIGHLY COMPETITIVE

Partly as a result, Zambian politics has remained highly competitive.

Things have changed considerably in the last few years.

After the political crisis of 2007/2008, Kenya wrote a new constitution in 2010 and held relatively peaceful elections in 2013.

Though the government continues to use the advantages of incumbency to retain power, the opposition has been able to win important county level elections in places like Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa.

By contrast, Zambia has witnessed democratic backsliding. According to the Conference of Catholic Bishops — one of the most influential bodies in the country — Zambia no longer deserves to be called a democracy.

BRUTAL MANNER

Instead, under the leadership of President Edgar Lungu and the Patriotic Front, it has become a dictatorship “and if it is not yet, then we are not far from it”.

So what has changed? The bishops identify a number of recent developments as causes for concern.

First, they point to the treatment of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, popularly known as HH.

Not only was his arrest conducted in an unnecessarily brutal manner, but the government has not yet provided any evidence to substantiate the treason charge.

Instead, it appears his detention is punishment for refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the president, who HH believes won the election unfairly.

BISHOPS LAMENT

For obvious reasons, the detention of HH, and the question of whether he will be released, has been the focus of much of the recent media coverage.
But for the bishops, HH’s arrest is clearly just the tip of the iceberg.

The worries expressed in their statement are less about the fate of the opposition leader, and more about the systematic weakening of checks and balances institutions throughout the state.

For example, the bishops lament the fact that the Constitutional Court failed to effectively hear the opposition’s election petition, and cite this as an example of the way in which the judiciary has “let the people down”.

LESSONS LEARNT

They also say the politicisation of the police has resulted in the violation of citizens’ rights and, partly as a result, the media has become “entrapped in a culture of silence”.

In turn, the bishops conclude that the political manipulation of these institutions has enabled the government to launch attacks on civil society groups that have dared to challenge its authority, including the Law Association of Zambia. More recently, President Lungu has been talking about bringing in a state of emergency, which he has said would target opposition areas.

Given this, it is clear it is not just HH that is under attack, but Zambian democracy.

President Lungu may decide not to follow through on some of his threats in the wake of considerable domestic and international criticism.

If the recent spate of attacks has been designed to intimidate his opponents, he may feel his goal has been achieved and that he has little to gain by following through with his threats. Already, one of the lesser charges brought against HH has been dropped.

But even if this happens, the political standoff between the government and the opposition is unlikely to end there.

SECURE THIRD TERM

One of the things underpinning the current crisis is the knowledge that President Lungu hopes to secure a third term on the basis that during his first period in office, he was just completing the tenure of President Michael Sata who died in 2014.

In contrast to President Chiluba nearly 20 years ago, Lungu is likely to win this fight.

Not only did he appoint the Constitutional Court that is responsible for interpreting the laws, but some key civil society agencies such as trade unions have been weakened by privatisation and unemployment.

However, his third term will not come without a cost. Opposition protests are inevitable, as is civil society criticism. If past form is anything to go by, Lungu’s government will respond with threats and intimidation, fuelling more controversy.

MULTIPARTY POLITICS

The contrasting trajectories of Kenya and Zambia demonstrate how difficult it can be to predict the way in which multiparty politics will play out.
In Kenya, the 2007 elections undermined stability and called into question whether the country had a genuine national identity.

However, the 2010 Constitution has brought the country back from the brink of ethnic conflict, and created an opportunity to build a more inclusive political system and a stronger democracy.

In Zambia, the victory of the opposition in 2011 appeared to be an important step towards the consolidation of a more open and rule-bound political system.

However, the subsequent election of a populist leader willing to put his own needs over those of the people threatens to erode the country’s democratic gains and undermine confidence in the wider political system.

WIELD GREAT POWER

On this interpretation, the lesson these two counties have to teach us about the process of democratisation in Africa is clear: When presidents are able to wield such great power and face so few constraints it takes a lifetime to build a democracy, and just a few months to undermine one.

Let us hope the continent’s political leaders heed this lesson as we head into another election season.

The Author is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. @fromagehomme

27 COMMENTS

  1. +9
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    Democracy in Africa can not work…. its a concept very alien to African culture. A black man by nature does not obey rules and regulations.

    • +4
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      Democracy doesn’t work anywhere. It’s just that in Europe, or the West, unlike in Africa, people tend to place little emphasis on politics. I believe the disparity lies in the fact that there are more developed socially and economically than Africa. We are developing nation’s, therefore, we are awake to the fact that we must hold our leaders accountable to their actions and the development agenda.

    • +4
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      wow. i cant believe someone who calls themselves an engineer can be so misinformed or/and uninformed. A black man by nature does not obey rules? where is the proof of that assertion? could it be that he fails to follow through with some rules that have shifted him from his natural place and boxed him in a social construct that opposes his nature? The maladies so described by your statement speak to the subconscious cries in us all as african men who seem to operate in white based system of governance. There has never been an African Government on the continent for close to half a millenium now. A people, robbed or their original way of thought will exhibit these tendencies which you so eloquently describe. You sir, are blaming the victim and not seeing the true perpetrator of the crime…

    • +3
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      And as long as you dont see the full picture,we as africans will keep running in circles.If we could only look back into our history,maybe we can see our self worth and how we established powerful kingdoms in which there were no words for jail because people didnt go to jail,old peoples homes because nobody threw away their parents,orphanage because no one threw away children.If you go to the unza linguistics department you will find that words like ichifunga,ukubosha are modern terms that came after european invasion.So what is it that we did then, that made us take a better care of our people?why have we neglected that and followed through with other peoples ways and theories of governance?We must live the african way.thats the only we can achieve freedom and dignity,Thomas Sankhara…

    • +1
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      @ TheEngineer (Australia now Germany),
      LOL – Mulumendo, bushe walitala waikala pa Nsaka? Clearly you are expressing your opinion. The notion that obeying rules and regulation is genetic and such genes reside in the skin pigmentation of human beings is like a very funny joke, especially coming from someone who is supposedly grounded in science. Whats going on? Are you having a bad day or what?

    • +1
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      @Zagagze,
      History has shown that apartheid, is not the way forward for our future generations. We now live in a pluralistic society in a global village. This is an irreversible change, so adapt or you will go the way of the Dinosaurs.
      Its true there is a feel-good factor in reminiscence, especially if one only looks at positive aspects in their history.

    • +1
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      UNDER 5’s ARREST HAS BEEN LONG OVERDUE. HH ALITUMPA SANA. THE ARRESTING OF HH DOES NOT MEAN THE END OF DEMOCRACY IN ZAMBIA. TO THE CONTRARY, IT MEANS PEACE FOR ZAMBIA. ALL PEACE-LOVING AND WELL MEANING ZAMBIANS WERE JUST TOO FEDUP WITH THE CRIMINAL BEHAVIOURS OF HH. IF HE WASN’T ARRESTED, OBVIOUSLY, HH WAS GOING TO COMMIT ANOTHER OFFENCE WHICH WOULD HAVE EQUALLY TAKEN HIM INTO PRISON. “UMWAICE EKALISHA ILYO ANYA”. LET HIM FIRST SIT ON HIS SH1T SO THAT HE REALISES THAT NGA ANYA IT ISN’T THE TIME TO SIT DOWN BUT TO STAND UP AND WIPE HIS BOTTOMS. HE HAS BEEN GOING ALONG WITH UNWIPED BOTTOMS AFTER SHIITING FOR SUCH A LONG TIME.

    • +1
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      This is a bull dung argument and you know it. Christianity was also an alien concept to Africa, and yet we have fully embraced it. Democracy is failing to work in Africa because we have selfish leaders. We have been struggling to deal with our constitution for over 20 years. Kenya did it in 3. This all boils down to PF being a party of dictators. Cut the bull about black men not respecting rules

    • vote

      @brabus – its not feel good history, these are facts. if you can have a society where citizens dont go to jail, dont go hungry why would you shun from it? i say to you that globalization is merely a fancy word which mean europeanization where white hegemony is practiced. if we live in a global society where we share ideas globally, why is it that only africans are adopting foreign names like edgar,rupiah,frederick,kenneth,levy michael etc. why is it that there are no europeans practicing african religions, no europeans practicing african based systems of governance. what you call globalization is mere white supremacy and unless you face this fact and choose to live the african way. we will always lag several steps behind the white,yellow and brown.

  2. +2
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    zambia yasila under illegal pf! the pf are a bunch of clueless rats who got power through default option and then stealing votes in the last election. They have abused state power to further tighten their grip on illegal power by abusing human rights and the rule of law. PF deserve to be loaded on a boat and thrown off

  3. +4
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    He wrote a good analysis in comparative terms between the two countries. I agree with him that, politically, Zambia should be ahead of Kenya because we introduced multiparty democracy ahead of Arap Moi’s rule. But we are caught up between stagnation and sliding back to authoritarian rule. We don’t have a clear pathway or direction with regard to developing a wider consultative political system. It’s ironic that we have two living past Presidents but we are not moving forward politically.

    • +2
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      Lombe thats so true. More so the confusion on Barotse Agreement when KK is still around and a signatory to that Agreement. Honestly this Barotse issue should have been concluded a long time ago. UNless someone can tell me that KK has lost his memory

    • 0
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      @3.1 MIYA, KK, HAS GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MADNESS WHICH WAS PRACTISED TO DEMARCATE THE LAND THAT STRETCHED COVERING COUNTRIES BEYOND ZAMBIA SUCH AS BOTSWANA, NAMIBIA AND CONGO (DR). THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL OF THE LAND DEMARCATION. IT IS VERY EASY FOR THE LOZI PEOPLE TO SECEDE FROM ZAMBIA IF ONLY THEY CAN START FROM THE OTHER ABOVE NAMED THREE COUNTRIES. KK IS STILL ALIVE- WHY DO YOU THINK THE LOZI ESTABLISHMENT HAS NEVER BOTHERED TO ASK KK TO EXPLAIN. WORSE STILL WHY DO WELL PLACED LOZI PEOPLE IN THE KNOW LIKE MBIKUSITA ACCEPT TO OCCUPY AND HOLD RESPONSIBLE POSITIONS IN ALL GOVERNMENTS OF ZAMBIA? MOREOVER, THE QUEEN WHO SIGNED THOSE ALLEGED PAPERS IS STILL ALIVE. WHY HAVE ALL THESE PEOPLE KEPT QUIET? “…ZAMBIA IS A UNITARY STATE..”, IT IS STATED. PLEASE, READ MORE.

  4. +4
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    The refusal to accept a Legitimately sworn in president incites anarchy and has a potential to not only divide the nation but also cause confusion in a country. Lets wait and see how Zambia will finish. I am afraid UPND has crooks for partners and these are real cartels that will cause a lot of misery for this country. We should never allow them near the corridors of power. The outside groupings that analyse the situation in this country are very suspicious and crooked business dealers. In Birmingham busy analyzing countries where you do not stay. Imwe serious investors are seeing a lot of potential in this country

  5. +3
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    Mr Cheeseman, what trumped up charges was Kaponya Hichilema arrested on? What dictatorship?
    Just continue penetrating cottage cheese in Birmingham instead of commenting on Zambia which you know nothing about. Professor my foot

    • +1
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      We have to be very suspicious of these Anglo American copper thieving Free Massons who side with Kaponya (HH), a well known privatization crook.
      We in Zambia are better off without him. We are enjoying peace and this Cheeseman would rather see Kaponya Hichilema released and continue to terrorise our Peaceful Friends.

  6. +1
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    “But over the last two years, this picture has started to change.” The last two years relate to fake president Edgar Lungu. He rigged the election. He is now, by hook and crook, imposing himself on the electorate. Dictators can be identified by the way they ascend to power. Edgar Lungu muscled his way to the top.

  7. vote

    The author is such a foolish person sorry I was gonna insult you but am a democrat so l wont

  8. +2
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    Mr. professor you are very one sided. when did you last visit Kenya and Zambia? how can you only lecture the ruling parties without mentioning a single wrong done by the oppositions? are they not committing any single wrong? I really appreciate the time you spent on your long article, but I also suspect you are paid to destabilize our national sovereignty. Coming back to the political tension of my country Zambia, you know nothing about how president Edgar Lungu has been exercising lenience towards the opposition leader HH, it seems to me you are a catholic, and anything that comes out your priests is right.By the way it’s not even all catholic clergymen. It was just a few partisan priests who have ill fillings towards president Edgar Lungu. Please come down here, don’t read things on…

  9. 0
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    Just checked the list of professors at Birmingham university especially in the faculty of democracy. There is no such “professor”. Another fake story by UPNDonkeys?

    • +1
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      @Terrible,
      What’s a flat lie. He has even written a book on democracy. You lack of capacity to debate like a mature adult on a given subject and stay on course says it all.

  10. +1
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    Can this so called professor also compere Trump’s victory which was said to be through hacking and people in many states demonistrated, with that of this new boy in France who won a clean erection? The chap hasn’t even been to Africa to understand us. Can his president’s motorcade be blocked and the culprits be left to see the next morning? Zambia is far more democratic than any nation on earth.

    • 0
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      @9. SPOT-ON BRO. ZAMBIA IS MUCH MORE DEMOCRATIC THAN EVEN THE WESTERN COUNTRIES WITHOUT WHICH SOUTH AFRICA WOULD HAVE BEEN IN YORKS UP TO THIS TIME. I NOTICE A LOT THAT ZAMBIANS CONFUSE DEMOCRACY WITH “HIGHLY INDUSTRIALISED”. ZAMBIA IS HIGHLY DEMOCRATIC BUT NOT INDUSTRIALISED, YET. IF ZAMBIA WERE NOT HIGHLY DEMOCRATISED, FTJ CHILUBA WOULD HAVE BEEN IN GOVERNMENT UP TO THE TIME HE DIED. IN FACT KK WOULDN’T HAVE LET FTJ RULE ZAMBIA. BECAUSE OF THE DEMOCRACY OF ZAMBIA- THE PEOPLES’ WILL TOOK PRECEDENCE OVER KK, FTJ AND RB. BECAUSE OF THE SAME DEMOCRACY IN ZAMBIA, HH, WAS ALLOWED TO PETITION THE ELECTION RESULTS, ETC. HH EVEN OVERSTRETCHED DEMOCRACY AND IT HAS LANDED HIM AT THE WRONG STATION. ZAMBIA IS, “HIGHLY DEMOCRATIC”, THAN EVEN THE WEST AND THERE ARE SO MANY EXAMPLES I CAN CITE.

    • +1
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      @The Laughing Philosopher

      Talk about what you KNOW! I have met this man IN AFRICA! He has travelled and personally observed dozens of African elections.

      And from personally talking to him, I KNOW he understands more about DEMOCRACY than all of PF put together!

  11. +2
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    “When presidents are able to wield such great power and face so few constraints it takes a lifetime to build a democracy, and just a few months to undermine one”.

    This is evidently true in Zambia’s history. Name any former President and without exception, each one of them drifted way from democracy towards monarchy form of governance albeit at varying rates of change. Brings to mind the old adage: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

    I strongly believe this power-mania in African Presidents is induced into them by citizens over-hyping them, i.e. wrongly treating them like royal highnesses (traditional Kings and Chiefs). E.g. if a reporter shouted at a President:- “Sir, what’s your view this subject…blah blah..”, that reporter is very likely to be hassled,…

    • vote

      Cont’d … hassled, whereas if he shouted:- “Your Excellency, what’s your view this subject…blah blah..” he will be well received.

  12. 0
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    The Author is Professor of Democracy my FOOT! ASK HIM IF HE HAS EVER VISITED ZAMBIA ZERO, SO STOP TALKING ABOUT THINGS YOU ONLY IMAGINE IN FICTION. ZAMBIA IS PROUD AND FREE AND WE A RUNNING OUR OWN GAME GO DEAL WITH YOUR BREXIT WHICH WILL TORE YOUR ECONOMY APART WAIT AND SEE. PROFESSOR OF DEMOCRACY KWAMENE UKO,,,,

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