Authors: R. Maxwell Bone & Mike Brodo*
In Zambia’s August 2021 elections, Hakainde Hichilema defeated then-incumbent President Edgar Lungu by a margin of over twenty percent. Lungu’s defeat and timely commitment to ensuring an orderly transition of power came after he went to great lengths during the campaign period to ensure his continuity in power. Actions taken include revision to the voter registry that opposition parties perceived as disenfranchising their voters, high levels of electoral violence that led to the deployment of security forces to opposition strongholds, and judicial action against opposition leaders on dubious legal grounds. The victory of Hichilema, a long-time opposition leader who has often been subjected to state violence and even spent time in prison, was seen as a welcome course correction after years of backsliding in what had previously been one of southern Africa’s strongest democracies. While the peaceful transfer of power in 2021 was a positive step toward restoring the stability of Zambia’s democracy, vulnerabilities remain. In Hichilema’s 15 months in power, multiple worrisome patterns that emerged during Lungu’s presidency have persisted, with the nature of the country’s political parties constituting the most significant barrier to reform and much-needed stability. In order to address this barrier, it is imperative to fully understand how these patterns have and continue to manifest themselves.
In March 2022, the National Assembly of Zambia suspended 30 MPs from the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) party over procedural matters, an action that followed the Speaker of National Assembly barring nine PF MPs from taking their seats in December 2021 given legal challenges to their elections. For a period of time, these actions led to 76% of the PF’s MPs being suspended, in effect making it all but impossible for the opposition to carry out its most important task: government oversight. Critically, these expulsions were not decided by an independent body, but instead by the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, both of whom are senior UPND figures. These recent suspensions are not the first time such a tactic has been used to weaken the opposition in the legislature, as the previous administration regularly did so against the UPND. Ironically, at the time the UPND and Hichilema decried that such expulsions constituted an assault on democracy, only to go on and do the same when they won power. While the MPs have since taken their seats, these actions are some of the latest manifestations of a worrisome trend that has seen the legislative opposition fundamentally weakened, with serious consequences for democratic oversight and stability.
Moreover, Hichilema’s government has emulated the legacy of his predecessor by denying coverage to opposition parties on state-run television and radio stations, such as the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, as well as in state-funded newspapers, Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia. Even President Hichilema’s signature anti-corruption campaign has been domestically derided as disproportionately targeting PF figures. Though at face value anti-corruption measures are laudable, the fact that so many PF officials are under investigation has effectively neutralized the opposition.
Beyond impacting government oversight, the weakening of political parties through the aforementioned means gives way to malicious actors, at times with deadly consequences. This is particularly relevant given the increasingly antagonistic relationship that exists between the two main parties, which often leads to violence. Inter-party clashes spurred by party agents, though not absent from Zambia’s political history, reached an unprecedented rate during the 2021 electoral cycle. For instance, PF-sponsored violence at a police station led to the suspension of campaigning for two weeks, while the brutal murder of PF supporters by machete-wielding opposition cadres was used as pretext for a massive military deployment to opposition strongholds. Recent by-elections demonstrate that high levels of violence show no signs of abating and that the tactics the PF used while in power are now used against it by the UPND. This worrisome trend demonstrates that the wide-scale violence seen in 2021 was no outlier, but instead a growing characteristic of Zambian politics, a concern also raised by civil society and religious leaders.
The weakness of political parties also inhibits reforms to existing laws that place extensive power in the executive and have previously been used to undermine the opposition, sowing the seeds for a continuation of antagonistic, zero-sum politics. This is particularly relevant with respect to the Defamation Law of 1965, which among other things carries a sentence of up to three years for insulting the president. Numerous Zambian administrations have used this law to silence dissent, including that of Hichilema, which employed it against individuals ranging from leaders of opposition parties to online influencers. In fact, during the first year of Hichilema’s administration, more people were arrested and sent to prison under this law than during the entirety of Lungu’s six-year presidency. The same applies to the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, a law hastily enacted by the Lungu administration in the run-up to the 2021 election that gives authorities the ability to engage in telephone tapping and seize electronic equipment with minimal justification. Concerns have also been raised about the need to reform the Public Order Act under which opposition parties and civil society have continuously been charged. During the campaign Hichilema promised to either repeal or amend these laws but has remained silent on doing so since assuming the presidency. Given the seeming unwillingness of the government to act on such reform measures, the cycle of such laws being used against the opposition, only for them to continue utilizing them when they get into government, will continue.
These laws remaining on the books will taint all other reforms that the administration takes as not being about solidifying democracy, but instead political aims. The perceived legitimacy of reform efforts is particularly relevant given the administration’s emphasis on electoral reform. Specifically, the aim of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to introduce electronic voting could lead to widespread disenfranchisement and the perceived illegitimacy of the electoral process should there not be engagement and support of the opposition. Given the administration’s perceived aggressions against the opposition and lack of progress on legal reforms, the situation in which the opposition loses trust in the electoral reform process with disastrous consequences is imaginable.
Despite the peaceful transition after Zambia’s 2021 election, the country’s democracy remains fragile and saddled with weaknesses. This is particularly the case regarding Zambian political parties, which have been locked into an antagonistic and zero-sum relationship with one another. The degree to which these weaknesses are addressed will determine if the 2026 election is another step toward democratic consolidation, or a revelation that Hichilema’s commitment to democracy is no better than that of his predecessor.
*Mike Brodo is a Program Associate for Africa at the International Republican Institute (IRI).