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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Why Zambia’s 2021 election is a matter of life and death for Lungu and Hichilema

Columns Why Zambia’s 2021 election is a matter of life and death for...

By Sishuwa Sishuwa

On 23 February 2020, Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) chief electoral officer Patrick Nshindano appeared on Sunday Interview, a Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation television programme hosted by Grevazio Zulu every Sunday evening that typically consists of an in-depth, one-on-one 60-minute interview with a prominent guest.

Zambians who had hoped that Nshindano would use the platform to explain how the Commission plans to conduct next year’s general election in a transparent and credible manner were left disappointed. He predicted that the 2021 general election will be ‘a tight race’ and highly contested, just like the 2016 one which saw a minimal margin of results between President Edgar Lungu and opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema.”

“We are coming from a very contested 2016 general election”, Nshindano told his host, “where the margins between the incumbent and the opposition were quite minimal. And now we are getting again to a very highly contested election in 2021”.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with predicting election results when qualified individuals or institutions undertake the task. It is normal and absolutely harmless for academics working on, say, political parties and elections to forecast the possible outcome of an electoral contest. When the researcher undertakes this task, the important point to note is not the prediction per se, but the reasons or explanations that the person making the prediction advances in support of their prediction. This ‘evidentiary base’ of their position enables other interested researchers or students of electoral politics to either contest the prediction made or even build upon it.  So, when one makes a prediction, it is critical to ask them to explain what exactly they mean and why they think that way, in instances where the source of their prediction has not been made available. This would lend credibility to the prediction.

The problem arises when the person or institution making the prediction is an official of a national electoral body, as it creates room for misunderstanding. In this regard, Nshindano’s comments that Zambia’s 2021 elections would be highly contested and a tight race were inappropriate for two main reasons. The first is that they fall outside the established function of the institution that he officially represents – ECZ. The core function of the Electoral Commission of Zambia is to organise, supervise and administer elections in a fair and impartial manner.

It is beyond the constitutional and legal mandate of the Commission to make predictions or to pronounce itself on possible closeness, outcomes or contestation of future electoral contests. The task of making such predictions is a responsibility of researchers working on elections, political analysts, election pollsters, or even the competing political actors who may simply want to embellish their chances of victory. The Commission’s job is to facilitate and promote conditions that are conducive to the holding of free and fair elections.

The second reason that makes Nshindano’s comments inappropriate is that there are too many variables that can change between now and August 2021 in a manner that is likely to undermine the accuracy of any election forecast. We do not, for instance, know the names of candidates yet and total number of those who will seek election, say, to the position of President of Zambia in 2021. Would the governing Patriotic Front (PF) field President Lungu or would the ruling party choose another candidate at its forthcoming convention slated for 10-12 July 2020?

Would the main opposition UPND field Hichilema or another political leader? Would the National Democratic Congress leader Chishimba Kambwili be on the ballot or would he be a running mate to Hichilema or someone else? Would the two socialist parties led by Fred M’membe and Wynter Kabimba each float a presidential candidate? No one is in any position, at this stage, to provide definite answers to these key questions.  

Even if we assumed that there will be only two presidential candidates, say, Lungu and Hichilema, in 2021, there is no guarantee that either of them would obtain the same or close to the same number of votes that they received in the 2016 election, or that the overall result would be as close as the previous one. This is because the loyalties of Zambians who previously voted for the two political leaders may have shifted since then or over the past few years. For instance, some of those who previously voted for Hichilema may this time opt to vote for M’membe or Kambwili. This is more likely to be the case in some constituencies of Western, Muchinga, Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces where a number of voters may be prone to ideological, ethnic and populist mobilisations.

Similarly, some among those who voted for President Lungu in 2016 may this time decide to take their votes elsewhere in protest against his record in office since then. For instance, Lungu has presided over the worst ever economic performance; highest levels of corruption; highest incidence of inequality; greatest assaults on democracy, civil liberties and the political opposition; highest levels of debt; and deepening ethnic divisions.

In any case, it is not enough for any of the individual political leaders to express interest in seeking election to the position of President of Zambia. One also has to be validly nominated, in line with the provisions of the Constitution of Zambia and other relevant electoral laws. For example, Article 52 of the current Constitution allows any citizen to legally challenge the nomination of a candidate who has filed their nomination for President within seven days of the close of nominations. It also obligates the court to hear the matter within 21 days of its lodgement and to make a conclusive determination of these processes at least 30 days before a general election.

So, it is not a foregone conclusion that once a candidate for elective public office has filed in their nomination papers, they would be on the ballot. To the contrary, a candidate can be disqualified either by the ECZ or the courts of law by relying on Article 52. This probably explains why Article 52 is among the clauses that the PF seeks to remove from the Constitution through the deplorable Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill Number 10.

Given all these unpredictable variables, how did the Electoral Commission of Zambia chief electoral officer reach or arrive at the conclusion that the 2021 election will be highly contested and end up as a tight race? Was there any scientific polling that was conducted that renders credibility to the Commission’s views? If yes, who conducted that poll and why is the ECZ playing the role of the pollster’s publicity? If Nshindano is unable to provide satisfactory responses to these questions, then he would do well to withdraw those inappropriate remarks and apologise to the public because his comments have the potential to be misunderstood and undermine the credibility of the electoral process, long before the first ballot is cast.

Already, public trust in the capacity of the Electoral Commission of Zambia to conduct a transparent, free and fair election is at its lowest ebb. Nshindano’s comments would only further erode the public’s confidence in the credibility of the institution. To regain public trust and confidence, the Electoral Commission needs to be consultative, transparent and build consensus with all the key stakeholders that are involved in the electoral process. This includes representatives of political parties, civil society, and international institutions or bodies that help finance Zambia’s elections like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Building consensus is important because it guarantees trust and credibility in the integrity of the electoral process. 

If Nshindano’s prediction that the 2021 election will be a tight race comes to pass, then the integrity and credibility of the electoral process would crucially determine the willingness of the losers to accept the outcome.  There are many Zambians who, on the one hand, believe that President Lungu and his crew in the PF may attempt to perpetuate their stay in power by manipulating the 2021 elections in their favour. Others, mainly the opposition and their supporters, think that the main opposition UPND and Hichilema will likely rebel against an election result that lacks credibility. The best way of avoiding either outcome is for the ECZ to build public trust in the institution, establish consensus, strike compromises where necessary, and promote transparency and openness in the electoral process – in short, establishing a truly independent electoral commission.

I have read, for instance, that the ECZ intends to choose the controversial Dubai-based firm, Al Ghurairi Printing and Publishing, to print ballots for the 2021 election. Without establishing consensus with key actors, this innocuous move can be a source of much tension and potentially undermine the integrity or credibility of the results. I also understand that prisoners and Zambians in the diaspora may be allowed to vote in 2021. Again, it is crucial that these matters are discussed and decided in a timely manner and in a way that fosters trust and promotes transparency. What, for instance, is the total population of prisoners in Zambia or of Zambians in the diaspora? How would political parties mobilise prisoners or voters in the diaspora? To leave the determination of these issues to the eleventh hour risks creating suspicion in the integrity of the electoral process.

Even more concerning is the announcement by the ECZ that the current voter’s’ roll will be entirely discarded to pave way for the creation of a brand new one. There is no sufficient justification for this move, given the limited time that is remaining before the next election. To create a totally new voters roll, about a year before the elections, would be a difficult undertaking, one that is likely to disenfranchise many eligible voters, especially in rural Zambia where many people have to cover great distances to the ‘Boma’, the main site of the issuance of National Registration Cards – a pre-requisite for obtaining a voter’s card. What all these considerations underscore is the need for broad consultation, dialogue, active listening, transparency, necessary compromises and co-operation on the part of the ECZ. 

Much will be at stake in the 2021 election. For both President Lungu and UPND’s Hichilema, winning Zambia’s 2021 election is a matter of life and death, politically speaking.

Lungu and his crew will seek to win in order to escape possible prosecution. All of Zambia’s former presidents, aside those who died in office, have faced trials after leaving office and Lungu is already facing questions about the sources of his newfound wealth. Possible prosecution for corruption, embezzlement or criminal misuse of power cannot be far from his mind. The solution is to remain in power for as long as possible or until a pliant successor can be installed.

Another possible reason why Lungu may be so unwilling to leave office is that he is beholden to the business and political interests of certain individuals that contributed to his rise. According to well-placed PF insiders, this group is fearful of what might happen if Lungu steps down and that, in seeking another term, the president is not speaking for himself alone. Lungu has many political and business figures around him, many of whom were marginalised under the late President Michael Sata but have flourished under him. This group feels its time in the corridors of power has been too brief thus far and wants more time to accumulate through the state. They can see clearly how those they replaced are now languishing. Senior government and ruling party figures say that this circle has captured virtually all state institutions.

The term “state capture” is topical in South Africa, but applies fully to the situation in Zambia too. In fact, in Zambia, it is not only the executive that has been captured, but a whole range of public institutions including the police, security services, investigative agencies, the media, the electoral commission and National Prosecution Authority. One could arguably add the judiciary, parliament and various other bodies to this list too. Lungu’s administration successfully closed down the previously leading critical free press and has almost succeeded in muzzling civil society. Many believe the president’s allies are behind the frequent arrests of prominent opposition figures.

Meanwhile, this group has even extended its influence over the church thanks to the president’s new powers to appoint a Minister of Religion. Through misuse of the police, impunity and bogus prosecutions, Lungu and his associates have created a general climate of fear in Zambia and are therefore effectively in charge of everybody except for those seeking martyrdom. How far this group is willing to go to maintain this grip on power remains to be seen.

As for Hichilema, he has already indicated that he will step down from the leadership of the UPND if he loses the 2021 election. This means that next year’s poll will be his last. Hichilema, who has led the UPND since 2006 and lost five successive presidential elections, will seek to win in order to prevent the end of his political career on a very low note. The stakes could not be any higher, for both Lungu and Hichilema. What is needed is an impartial referee who will apply the rules of the game fairly and provide a level playing field for the political players who are competing for ‘Government’. Can the Electoral Commission of Zambia be that non-aligned referee? The Commission has no choice, in my view, if it is to produce a credible outcome that would be acceptable to all concerned and save the country from large-scale political violence.


  1. HH in simple terms he is indicating that he as already worn 2021 elections which is a very bad statement and very careless statement to make for a person like him.When you go in a football pitch it is 90 minutes until the final whistle but suffice to say HH is bluffing.

  2. Nshindano is wise and genius and these are the people we need.If HH says if he loses 2021 elections he will stop politics what does that mean? and way back he as been quoted saying he will do everything possible to get to plot 1,again what does that mean?Wake up you people and get what this person is implying or trying to say. 2016 and 2021 results will be the same only that the margin will be a bit bigger for ECL and on parliamentary upnd the number will increase.

  3. This piece fails lamentably to recognize the gapping hole in our system that is the simple reason for all our current and past woes.

    The excessive powers of the office of the president to appoint heads of institutions like Electoral commission. No matter the CV of the individual you appoint, eating is eating and an appointee will invariably be true to the appointing officer and their belly more especially when push comes to shove (2021 election).

    We need to change the system. Anything less is like the useless barking of a dog at 03 am.

  4. Just why should it be a matter of life and death for the incumbent Lungu? He’s been given ample to contribute to the welfare of Zambia in the years he has served as President. Magufuli became President of Tanzania in the same year as Lungu but go to Tanzania today and see the amazing changes both physically and system of governance. Even for HH, life goes on if he loses again. He will need to accept that, that position was never meant for him. Next year’s elections are not a matter of life and death for anyone. We are all a passing phase. This country will remain

  5. Whether predicted or not predicted the truth remains that pf are winning. You can use sangomas the seer 1s etc. However I have faith in my ability to win elections. That is my job and I am very good at it. The only way pf can lose elections is if I am killed. And that is what the opposition are trying to do. I now drive in a bullet proof car. Kz

  6. The task of making predictions about the closeness or outcomes of future electoral results is a responsibility of researchers working on elections, political analysts or even the competing political parties who may simply want to raise their chances of victory. The ECZ’s job is to facilitate and promote conditions that are conducive to the holding of free and fair elections to all political parties if we are to have free and fair elections next year ECZ should be dissolved and this is a very serious issue which need to be taken seriously by all Zambians.

  7. Kaizer bullet proof or no bullet proof if God want’s to take you He can take you my guy we live by God’s grace not by material things.

  8. Oh Lord our God, ruler of heaven and earth, we pray that you show your justice and righteousness by humbling the wicked and arrogant that boast as though their lives are in their hands; Those that vaunt themselves as though they have power to determine the fate of this nation and hold the future in their hands.
    May you humble them and show the nation that a man’s life is not in his hands; that the nation may fear you and turn from evil.
    But we also pray that you would show these wicked men mercy and cause them to humble themselves under you mighty hand, that you may grant them salvation, that the nation may see that you are a merciful God and so turn to you.

  9. The statement by Sishuwa was right. Whether or not the presidential election would be closely contested or not was a matter of criteria applied. Was it economic criteria applied?Was historical criteria applied? Was regional criteria applied? Was demographic criteria applied? Was racial criteria applied? Was photogenic criteria applied? Clearly, narrow historical criteria was applied. Because the immediate past presidential election was closely, contested, then it follows that even the forthcoming presidential election will be contested. Time would tell. Presidential elections could see any presidential candidate emerging victorious. What would count would be free and fair elections. Transparent and accountable. N impunity.

  10. LOL, Kz and your ego. Did you finally manage to satiate your lust, you were shamelessly prostrating for her contact details on public media in the guise of political needs.

  11. The Zambia Union of Nurses Organization (ZUNO) is dismayed at government’s failure to pay four months’ salary arrears owed to over 3,000 nurses and midwifes recently employed in the health sector pay them now.

  12. ZUNO is dismayed at government’s failure to pay four months’ salary arrears owed to over 3,000 nurses and midwifes recently employed in the health sector pay them now.



  15. This is a great writeup Dr Sishuwa. I respect your genuine commitment to thought and making sense of of the sad political happenings in Zambia, a country that has little respect for thinkers like you and has greater admiration for thugs, ignoramuses and holdrums . Please keep it up and ignore those who are unable to disagree with your writings by pointing out the flaws in any of your arguments. It is amazing how few, if any, of the comments on this article are responding to what Dr Sishuwa has written or are engaging with the contents of his article. Why do many of us find it so difficult to interact with competing ideas? Are we this bad at thinking or presenting alternative points of view?

  16. What bothers me is that we do not see people within these parties challenging for the top position. Why is it the same faces since 2014. You are saying that PF and UPND only have these two as candidates? Zambia can do a lot better when citizens start demanding for others to lead.

  17. Political inclination is the only draw-back i have found this write up. You are smart Dr. in your campaign, You are really using the power of the pen.

  18. I don’t see anything wrong in Mr Nshindanos statement. Whats important is to understand the context in which the statemet was issued. After all, It’s a known secret that since 2001, Presidential Elections in Zambia have been highly contested and very tight. Talk of 2001, the election was highly contested and very tight with the late Mwanawasa winning by about 37,000 votes. 2006 had similar traits with 2008, 2011 and 2015.
    2016 was also no exception with the difference between first and second being About a 100,000 votes.
    From the above analysis, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to predict next year’s elections. Mr Nshindano didn’t mention who will win but marely stated the above which I assume must have come from his analysis of past Presidential Elections. Moreover, if I…

  19. Moreover, if I was a politician I would be pleased to hear such a statement from the ECZs CEO because it’s a warning to the Elctions body itself that come 2021, there should be no margin of error on thier part because the election is likely to be very tight. Surely, how does this become an issue.
    The problem we have in our country is that we like to politicize anything, even harmless statements. What a shame….just like Jesus Christ who meant so well to humanity ended up being crucified.

  20. I for one voted for lungu in 2016 come 2021 iwill not vote for him and the reason is very simple he has failed the nation in many sectors of our economy I don’t even know why people are seeing next years elections to be tight and highly contested if the opposition do there home work properly then it will be a walk over for them coz if we talk of copperbelt victory is more than certain for the opposition and no one will change this fact not even kaizar zulu

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