By Sean Tembo – PeP President
1. Most people that l meet these days always chastise me with the same sentences… “the trouble with you opposition is that you can’t work together”! And … “for as long as you are divided, you will always give the incumbent an advantage to bounce back”. Initially l would make an effort to explain to such people about the efforts we had made towards opposition unity and how those efforts failed, but these days l just save my breath. So all l do is smile and agree that indeed, opposition unity is important and how it is a pity that previous efforts at opposition unity did not materialize. But what really happened with the Opposition Alliance project? Why did it fail? Was it a necessary project?
2. One Wednesday afternoon in 2018, about 11 political leaders representing their respective parties assembled at Pamodzi Hotel and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work together. I was one of them, and was to later serve as the Opposition Alliance’s Chairman for Media as well as Chairman for Finance. In front of flashing cameras, we all committed to fielding single candidates in each electable position in the 2021 general elections, using an electoral pact that was to be yet agreed upon.
To me personally, l looked at this MoU as a stepping stone and the true substance of the entire Opposition Alliance was to be spelt out in the soon to be agreed Electoral Pact. The Electoral Pact is what would spell out which political party would field a candidate in which constituency and ward? It would also outline which political party would sponsor a presidential candidate and running mate.
However, such an Electoral Pact never materialized and with the passage of time, several members of the alliance left including myself. However, the pinnacle of this Alliance Project was reached yesterday when the name of the alliance was officially changed from Opposition Alliance to UPND Alliance. The funny thing about yesterday’s developments is that throughout my tenure as Spokesperson of the Alliance, l spent inordinate amounts of time and effort trying correct the perception that naysayers were advancing that the Opposition Alliance was in fact a UPND Alliance and that we were all there just to escort UPND. I vehemently argued otherwise, but yesterday l felt quite silly that the naysayers were proven right, not implicitly but explicitly, when the Alliance changed its name from Opposition Alliance to UPND Alliance.
3. But the pertinent question perhaps is; was the Opposition Alliance necessary to dislodge the ruling PF? Well, it depends on ones point of view. Others have argued, rightly so for that matter, that given the results of the 2016 general elections where about 98% of the votes were shared between the ruling PF and the main opposition UPND, there really was no value in UPND uniting with other small political parties and that such an alliance would just birth confusion. Unnecessary confusion. And that UPND was better off going it alone. I must say that there is undeniable truth in this point of view. On the face of it, UPND does not need to be in an Alliance with anyone, based on the assumption that the future will be a linear continuation of the past.
4. In fact, from my observation during my stay in the Opposition Alliance, l got the feeling that the UPND never wanted the Alliance to work in the first place. There are several times when meetings of the Alliance were called at short notice at HH’s house and you all sacrifice and abandon what you were doing to go and attend the meeting, only to find that HH is not there. You are told to wait for a few minutes, but you wait for several hours and to no avail. Then 5 hours later, you note from social media that he is actually addressing his people at some event in Kafue or somewhere else. This happened on a number occasions.
To me personally, such lack of respect for the time of others is what drove me to pull out my party; the Patriots for Economic Progress (PeP) from the Alliance project. But the hypothesis that UPND was never interested in making the Opposition Alliance to work, and that they infact deliberately engaged in actions which had the direct impact of undermining the Alliance project, might suffer from one major flaw; UPND are the ones who reached out to everyone else and asked us to work together with them. In other words, they were the architects of the Alliance project, so then how could they decide to undermine their own project?
5. Well, two possible explanations come to mind. It is possible that when HH embarked on the Alliance project he did not first get the blessings and mandate of his senior party members who subsequently applied pressure on him. And for fear of dividing his party, he decided to backpedal on the Alliance project but then was not brave enough to directly inform his Alliance partners that he had a change of heart, but instead resorted to just undermining the Alliance project so that it just dies a natural death. This is actually very plausible because l personally saw the animosity with which senior UPND members related to Opposition Alliance partners. Am sure in their minds, they felt that these new comers have come to reap where they did not sow, just at the time of harvest. And who would really blame them? They had a valid point. They had toiled with their chipani for decades and it’s only human for them to feel threatened.
6. The other possible explanation as to why the UPND decided to start undermining the Opposition Alliance project which they themselves initiated is that they merely wanted to tick the box that they had made an effort towards opposition unity. A number of key stakeholders including the church, civil society and the diplomatic corps had always pressed upon the UPND to unite with other political players so that they can speak with one voice. Possibly in order to comply with the expectations of these key stakeholders, the UPND decided to initiate the Opposition Alliance project, but when they saw that the other political players were genuinely committed to it, they then decided to covertly undermine their own project while putting up a public appearance that they were committed to it.
They expected everyone in the Opposition Alliance to fall off and for the project to die a natural death, and for sure, some of us left soon enough. However when the UPND noted that one Chishimba Kambwili appeared to be unwavering in his commitment to the Opposition Alliance, and time was running out towards 12th August and that everyone expected them to unveil the long awaited Electoral Pact, they decided to pull their most audacious move yet; rename the Opposition Alliance to UPND Alliance and stop all pretense that the alliance cared about embracing other political parties.
7. Allow me to end with the question that l had began with, albeit in a paraphrased way; is opposition unity necessary? Or to put it another way; would UPND’s prospects be better on 12th August if they had the 11 alliance partners on their side than if they don’t? Would the Opposition Alliance in its initial composition have given the UPND a greater chance of winning the August 12th general elections? If so, how? Well, my view is that the Opposition Alliance would be of no value to UPND if we assumed that the 12th August general elections will be a repeat of the 2016 general elections; a two horse race between UPND and PF. But is that a reasonable assumption? I think not.
On the contrary, l see this year’s general elections as being similar to the 2001 general elections where everyone got a piece of the cake. What this means is that the new political players will eat into both the PF and UPND voters base and that the chances of any party getting 50%+1 votes in the first round are extremely slim. Very very slim. What this means is that the real election battle will be fought in the second round. Now, given that the UPND have clearly dry-gulched almost every other opposition political party in this failed Opposition Alliance, and now renamed UPND Alliance project, HH will find it very difficult to approach and work with any of the political leaders that he has so far betrayed, at the time when he will need opposition unity the most in order for him to stand a better chance of going through in the presidential election rerun. When that time of the rerun comes, l personally would rather go into an alliance with the PF, because Mr Lungu’s level of political selfishness is yet unknown to me, whereas that of Mr Hichilema is well documented, based on my personal experiences in the failed Opposition Alliance and now renamed UPND Alliance project. Indeed, it surely was an ambitious political project that could have, might have and should have but never was.