By Dr. Yobert K. Shamapande
Zambia’s democratic project is in peril. I believe the countrymust urgently reform
the electoral governance institutions, especially the Electoral
Commission Zambia (ECZ), if it wants to redeem the integrity of the 2021
Fundamentally, the question we must pose is this: Since the2016 electoral
fiasco, has Zambia, as a society, undertaken any structural electoral
transformation to guarantee free, fair, transparent and credible elections we can
all be proud of? Doing nothing, means that we fall prey to the ECZ
machinations likely to expose the country in 2021 once againto the same
traumatic vagaries suffered in 2016 – a politically toxicelectoral environment
consumed by rampant irregularities, protests, disputes and court battles,
culminating in relentless recriminations and tensions injurious to national
interest and stability.
President Edgar Lungu was recently quoted lamenting that “Zambia has a lot to learn from Botswana how that country transfers power after an election without tension…Botswana has been able to conduct a smooth handover from one leader to another since independence which is commendable… [Zambia] must avoid the 2016 scenario where the announcement of election results was delayed.” . I couldn’t agree more.
But to me, the issue here is much deeper, and goes beyond thesmooth transfer of power or delays in releasing electionresults. What is at stake, fundamentally, is how to guarantee a free, fair and peaceful electoral process in Zambia acceptable to all stakeholders. That is the crux of the matter. It also goesto the heart of fostering political stability and peace in the country as well as of promoting a collective vision for acoherent development agenda. That further demands that the country should abandon the destructive politics of confrontation and embrace peaceful coexistence in order to achieve the smooth transfer of power and realize the largerdevelopment goals of social progress and a more just society.
The starting point, I believe, should be to revamp the Electoral Commission of Zambia and make it more credible and palatable. Since its inception in 1996, ECZ has been unable to conduct free, fair and transparent elections respected by allZambians. Instead, we have lurched from one chaotic electoral event to another, riddled by political conflicts, protests and senseless acts of violence, the likes of which areonly common in the beleaguered DRC or Zimbabwe. Nothing of the sort has ever happened in Botswana, South Africa or Namibia, hence the orderly transfer of power, President Lungu is talking about.
Take the August 2016 election. It marked a real setback in Zambia’s democratic experiment. The election suffered fromunprecedented levels of chaos, acrimony, disarray and outright mis–governance from start to finish — plagued with disjointed voter registration; political wrangling over the printing of ballot papers in Dubai instead of nearby and less costly South Africa; campaigns marred by political violence, intimidation and biased public media; violations of press freedoms through government clampdown of critical private media outlets, including the closing of The Post, Muvi Tv, Itezhi-Itezhi, Komboni radios, Watchdog; selective enforcement of the Public Order Act to muzzle freedoms of assembly, expression, debate or dissent; ECZ’s incompetent management of the polls, counting, securing the votes, and releasing results — all smacked of a subversion of the democratic principles, institutional incompetence, and failed leadership the likes of which have never been seen in Zambia before.
A reputable international observer group, the Carter Center,said the following about the 2016 electoral crisis: “the legal and judicial processes … failed to meet Zambia’s national and international obligations under the Zambian constitution, the African Charter for Human and People’s Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights …” Similar views were echoed by other independent observer missions, including the Commonwealth and the European Union.
Two issues, particularly, highlighted the dysfunctional natureof and really flawed performance by ECZ relating to the 2016 exercise.
To begin with, ECZ acted negligently, in my judgement, byunilaterally throwing out some 85,795 so-called “rejected ballots” from the electoral process without public scrutiny or accountability. Why deprive so many citizens of such a staggering number of votes in such a crucial election? Who exactly was authorized to determine those “rejected ballots” and by what criteria? As it turned out, the total number of the“rejected ballots” far exceeded the total votes received by the seven other competing presidential candidates put together. Alarmingly, the sheer magnitude of the “rejected ballots” was tantamount to disenfranchising registered voters of five Zambian constituencies, namely Luapula, Chembe, Feira, Mwandi and Mitete, combined.
How could that be democratic? How could that promote or encourage popular participation in national affairs, especially among the youths, when they know their votes could simply not count or get discarded or nullified without accountability? Every vote is sacrosanct in a democratic setting. It is thus imperative for Zambia to pass strong legislation protectingevery vote and ensuring it can never be nullified or invalidated without public scrutiny or judicial review
Second, on 15 August 2016, ECZ made a demonstrably erroneous declaration of Edgar Lungu as the outright winner of the presidential vote, contrary to the Constitutional threshold under Article 101 stating that “The Returning Officer [the ECZ chair] shall declare the presidential candidate who receives more than fifty percent of the valid votes cast during the election as President-elect” (emphasis mine). By ECZ’s own announced figures, Edgar Lungu received 1,860,877 votes while Hakainde Hichilema polled 1,760,347 votes out of a total of 3,781,505 valid votes cast. Simple arithmetic says that Mr. Lungu got 49.21 percent compared to Mr. Hichilema’s 46.55 percent of the valid votes cast. Numbers don’t lie. Those results should have triggered an automatic rerun by the two contestants to achieve a more conclusive and just outcome that would also mitigate political tensions in the country.
What is more, as 2021 approaches, ECZ is at it again, sowingthe seeds of chaos and confusion. Rather than expand on the existing voter register through continuous registration of voters as stipulated in 2001, ECZ has proposed compilation ofa completely new voter register with new voter cards issued for the 2021 election – “to start on a clean slate” it argues. However, given its track record and organizational limitations, this proposal could be another disaster in the making. Further, ECZ has again given ominous signals that Government Printers lack the capacity to print the 2021 ballots papers. What is this? Can we truly believe that since 2016, ECZ hasn’t made any substantive preparatory work to print ballot papers locally? Or is it that ECZ wants to head to Dubai once more for the printing of next year’s ballot materials? Obviously, such cumbersome and haphazard decisions provoke political acrimony and tensions instead of fostering the unity of purpose and stability the country yearns for. Clearly, I would like to contend that at present ECZ lacksthe organizational capacity, leadership skills or competence to effectively deliver free, fair and credible elections which command the confidence of all Zambians.
So, what do we do, going forward? The country needs to revamp ECZ, because as presently constituted, the body is not reformable or improvable through incremental measures. What is required, instead, is an overhaul or restructuring of ECZ – to give it the independence, impartiality, neutrality, objectivity, and more particularly, the professional and organizational competence necessary to conduct free, fair, transparent and credible elections in Zambia.
Therefore, I propose a complete reorganization of the ECZ, including a change of its name to: Independent Electoral Commission of Zambia (IECZ) – in line with the electoral structures prevailing elsewhere in the region. The main reform parameters should center around the following fourunderlying principles:
a) The new IECZ should be completely independent,impartial, more representative and more robust to effectively discharge its important national mandate. Meaning, IECZ should be completely separate from the influences of government or any political authorities, while answerable only to the Zambian electorate and the rule of law;
b) the IECZ should be more broadly representative in its composition, by drawing from a cross-section of the Zambian society, including from civil society organizations such as NGOs, professional associations, religious institutions, labor unions, institutions of higher learning as well as from the farming communities. But without any direct government representation. More crucially, the chairperson of IECZ must be elected from amongst its members, not appointed by the President, government or any other political authority;
c) the IECZ must be more robust and authoritative in the performance of its functions – underpinned by a strong and enforceable legal framework, together with the ethical code of conduct, regulations, rules and procedures as well as complemented with top-notch professional personnel withskill sets and expertise in the electoral field. Thus, the IECZ should be firmly anchored in the guard rails of the democratic process – the laws, regulations, ethics, organizational skills, expertise and resources to get the job done. It should be able to regulate and, if necessary, enforce political order through stipulated sanctions to guarantee free, fair and transparent elections; and
d) the IECZ should take a leading responsibility in expandingcivic and voter education, and voter engagement throughout the country — working through formal educational institutions as well as organizing informal outreach activities, including seminars, workshops and conferences to sensitize the public,especially young voters. Such educational efforts should stress two important areas of citizenship — one, to instill a new sense of civic engagement and awareness about the country’sdemocratic imperatives – with regard to the importance of elections, issue–based campaigning and voting, candidatesevaluation etc ; and two, to develop or promote a culture of political tolerance, coexistence, and critical thinking about the cardinal importance of elections in choosing leadership to spearhead national development programs in order to improve the human condition.
As Zambian elections occur at five-year intervals, IECZ should have ample time during recess periods to carry out the civic or voter education programs as well as the continuous preparations, voter engagements and registration operations around the country at provincial, district and constituency levels.
Financially, IECZ should also operate independently with itsbudget directly appropriated by Parliament and separate from any government department or entity. Operationally, IECZ should play the role of a neutral referee, by evenhandedly ensuring a level playing field in the flow of electoral resources while, in particular, constraining the abuse of public resources – funds, vehicles, public media etc. – by the party in government. By extension, IECZ should require all contesting political parties in an election to disclose their sources of funding to public scrutiny in the interest of transparency.
On a personal plea — I truly hope the proposals presented here will be taken in the spirit in which they are made: as a genuineand honest effort by one concerned citizen to improve what everyone knows is a broken electoral system but willing to tolerate it in the hope that, once in a while, it may work in their favor. From a national context, however, this is a risky business. A sound electoral system should always be expected to serve the larger national interest.
Throughout my four decades of professional involvement in the international arena, and from my United Nations vantage point, I have interacted with countless electoral authorities, including those in Namibia, South Africa, Botswana andothers in the region and beyond. I have seen how thoseelectoral bodies discharge their responsibilities with patriotic zeal, professionalism and credibility. Are they perfect? Not at all, far from it. But they fulfill the larger national imperative: to conduct elections that avoid conflicts, are consistently rated as reflecting the will of their people, and meeting internationally accepted standards of transparency, credibility and integrity. The losers under those elections have accepted the verdicts of the electorate, without resorting to street protests, disputes or endlessly flocking to the courts to settle their grievances. Here, the old dictum still holds – that the voters, and not the courts, are the final arbiters of the democratic contests. And by conceding defeat, the losers thereby confer political legitimacy on the elected leadership to press forward with the business of nation building. That’s why credible elections matter.
Ultimately, the credibility and integrity of elections impact supremely on the national development agenda. We can expect that the 2021 polls could well determine the trajectory of Zambia’s development – whether the country will move forward or retrogress into obscurity. The investor community at local and international levels will scrutinize the 2021election to be indicative of Zambia’s promise to political stability or choice of a different direction. If the country’s electoral process continues to falter, characterized by endless political squabbles, disputes and rising tensions, then Zambiarisks drifting into the ruinous paths of the DRC or Zimbabwe.