Lessons from Zambia and why democracy in Africa is fickle

Lessons from Zambia and why democracy in Africa is fickle


By Nic Cheeseman (Published in Daily Nation of Kenya)

In Summary

-Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason.

-While Kenya has suffered a series of damaging ethnic clashes, Zambia has been relatively peaceful.

-While Zambians have been willing to defend their democracy, political leaders have shown a greater willingness to share power than in many states.

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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.

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.


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.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. @fromagehomme

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