Maverick Citizen


Zambian elections: The good, bad and the ugly

Zambian elections: The good, bad and the ugly
Supporters of Zambian president-elect Hakainde Hichilema celebrate his victory in Lusaka on 15 August 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

The recently concluded election in Zambia was a breath of fresh air for a region battered by disputed and often deadly electoral cycles. This article celebrates the Zambian election not just because of its outcome, but because the collective will of the people ultimately prevailed — and because the Zambian experience provides useful lessons on the expansion of electoral democracy in Africa. Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Sadly, elections in Africa are rarely about the will of the electorate, but rather the will of the incumbent.

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer and the chairperson of the SAHRDN; Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender, a professional rapporteur and an election expert.

Against formidable odds, on Tuesday 24 August 2021, the president-elect of the United Party for National Development (UPND) was sworn in as Zambia’s seventh president. Hichilema won the 12 August presidential poll with a resounding 59.4% of the vote against President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF), who obtained 38.3%.


President-elect of Zambia Hakainde Hichilema. (Photo: Salim Dawood / AFP / Getty Images)

Lungu conceded, despite feeble attempts to discredit the outcome during the tense counting phase.

Zambia is among the few countries in Africa that boasts peaceful transfers of power following democratic elections. Zambia and Malawi have successfully managed to peacefully transfer power from the governing party to the opposition following tense presidential and parliamentary elections.

Zambia’s ground-breaking transfer of power in 1991, when the late liberation movement giant Kenneth Kaunda conceded defeat to an opposition led by Frederick Chiluba — who had no history of participating in the liberation struggle — is the foundation of this culture of change.

Despite having established a reputation as one of Africa’s stable democracies with regular elections and peaceful transfers of power, Zambia’s 2021 election was marred by serious irregularities. Fears emerged of a repeat of the disputed 2016 poll. Concern was also raised about a possible outbreak of violence and political unrest in the post-election period.


Outgoing President of Zambia Edgar Lungu. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Harish Tyagi)

Such was the scale of democratic backsliding and the rise of autocratic tendencies during the last days of president Lungu’s tenure, that in 2020 the Varieties of Democracy Project (V-dem), a leading source of information on indicators of democratic progress or regression, noted with concern that Zambia had registered a remarkably rapid decline in the quality of democracy since the previous election. Amnesty International also reported that Zambia was “on the brink of a human rights crisis”, claiming that Lungu was using repressive tactics to win another term in office.

Zambia seemed to be decidedly on an election path similar to Uganda, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Tanzania, where the elections were a sham and the Covid-19 regulatory framework was used to lock down democracy and try to prolong the incumbent’s position in power. It was clear that Lungu was in a mode of power as an end in itself and therefore at any cost. Elections were a mere instrument to retain and consolidate power.

Notwithstanding the odds, the determination of Zambians to have a final say in the elections was remarkable and a lesson to all who live under repressive systems, reminding the oppressed people of Nelson Mandela’s remarks that “it always seems impossible until it is done”.

The bad and the ugly: A tainted electoral process to favour the incumbent 

As many Zambians have expressed, the stakes were very high for a variety of reasons. The playing field was uneven in many ways.

There was initial concern that the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) had decided to undertake a fresh registration of voters instead of updating and cleaning up the old voters’ roll. Both opposition and civil society groups raised concern over the quality of the voters’ roll, the short registration period and the risk of disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

Only 38 days were allocated to register voters in the middle of the rainy season. From a target of nine million voters, the ECZ managed to register just over seven million (​​which is about 83.5% of projected eligible persons), despite an additional estimated four million new eligible voters having turned 18 since 2016.

The opposition was worried the registration process favoured provinces that were strongholds for president Lungu in the 2016 elections.

University of Zambia researcher and lecturer Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa warned that the creation of a new voters’ roll was part of a deliberate strategy by Lungu to rig the elections. That the ECZ also refused to make the voters’ roll available for an independent audit did not help.

The African Union Election Observation Mission’s preliminary findings noted reports of inadequate consultation and provision of information by ECZ in the implementation of key electoral processes, concluding that it undermined public trust and confidence in the ECZ. In its own defence, the ECZ argued that the old voters’ roll was outdated with more than 1.4 million ghost (largely deceased) voters.

The Constitutional Court’s decision to officially validate President Edgar Lungu’s bid to seek a contentious third term did not sit well with most Zambians, who felt it was a breach of the Constitution of Zambia, which limits presidents to two terms in office.


A Zambian Defence Force soldier forces men to do push-ups in downtown Lusaka on 13 August 2021. In the run-up to elections, now outgoing President Edgar Lungu ordered more troops to three provinces. (Photo: Patrick Meinhardt / AFP)

The Electoral Process (Amendment) Act no 32 of 2021, which made it illegal for any entity other than the ECZ to announce and declare election results, was dimly viewed, drawing some criticism from leading academics Nic Cheeseman, Dr Nicole Beardsworth and O’Brien Kaaba, of criminalising alternative results reporting.

In the run-up to the elections, concern was also raised of increased authoritarianism and the use of the ruling Patriotic Front’s youth militias (“cadres”), intelligence services and police and military loyalists to intimidate Lungu’s political rivals.

Opposition and civil society groups accused the Zambian police of bias and selective application of the law. The police often used the controversial Public Order Act to suppress opposition meetings or demonstrations.

In June, Amnesty International outlined how censorship, excessive use of force by the police, arbitrary arrests and detention had created a climate of fear and impunity. Public meetings by political opposition and civil society were largely restricted on the grounds of public security or managing the spread of Covid-19, a move described by analysts as a bid to curtail the opposition’s ability to campaign. This included demonstrations or party meetings even in private homes.

In its preliminary report, the European Union election observer mission described the process as technically well managed but “marred by unequal campaign conditions, restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement, and abuse of incumbency”.

The good: The forces that combined to save Zambia’s election 

Although the atmosphere pervading the election was tense with widespread violence and the electoral commission was adjudged biased, Zambians demonstrated resoluteness and responsibility in the way they participated and managed the elections at a time when the playing field was heavily skewed against the opposition.


Zambians wait to cast their ballots in Lusaka on 12 August 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

The electorate did not only go out to vote in large numbers, but they took it upon themselves to protect and defend their vote. They held state institutions such as the compromised ECZ to account, leaving them with no choice but to demonstrate some degree of professionalism and independence at a crucial stage of the electoral process.

We look at how Zambia raised the bar in terms of election results management, democratic transition and citizen participation.

Effective electoral governance

Before the election, stakeholders in several quarters queried the capacity and neutrality of the ECZ. Despite administrative and logistical challenges that the ECZ may have faced, the credibility of the electoral outcome was not undermined. Even with an untransparent and uncommunicative election management body, it is possible — with long-term observation and parallel vote tabulation (PVT) — to guarantee procedural certainty that increases the chances of heavily contested elections, even in toxic and hostile environments, producing outcomes that are not contested.

Zambia re-confirmed that election observation by both the local and international community does matter.

  1. Effective Results Management Systems: Investment in PVT systems is key in protecting the vote. Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG), a leading local election observation organisation, reported that PF and UNDP had party agents at 98% and 99% of polling stations during the counting of ballot papers. This allowed them to monitor the entire voting process.
  2. Democracy needs strong institutions, not strong men: Dr Phillan Zamchiya, a senior researcher and the southern Africa coordinator at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, argues that what enabled the smooth transfer of power was not just the goodwill of President Lungu, but also the professional and independent conduct of state institutions such as the military. The military’s non-involvement in civilian political processes has been a critical factor in ensuring peaceful transitions from one leadership to the other. The ECZ must also be applauded for upholding the tenets of democracy and transparent elections.
  3. Empowered citizenry: The Zambian election clearly demonstrated that it is not just about strong institutions, but also about an empowered citizenry that is ready to actively participate in democratic processes by registering to vote, turning out to vote in large numbers and being willing to defend and protect the vote. In particular, women and youth participation are key for all African elections given that they constitute the majority in virtually all states. In Zambia, 53% of voters were women, while 54% were young people. The youth and women are leaders of today and their voices must be heard across the whole of Africa. This is very consistent with the African Union Agenda 2063 that aspires to a people-centred Africa where the authority to govern comes from the will of the people, exercised in free, fair and genuine elections.
  4. Elections are possible during Covid-19: This election witnessed a higher voter turnout of 70.8% compared with the 2016 poll’s4%, despite being held amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Like Malawi, Zambia demonstrates to its neighbours and the whole of Africa that Covid-19 cannot stop electoral democracy. It is dictators and autocrats who are abusing Covid-19 measures to suspend elections and prolong their stay in power, as previously condemned by the UN High Commissioner when she said Covid-19 “should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power”.
  5. Inclusion and respect for the right to vote: Following the Constitutional Court ruling in 2017 (216/CC/0013) to uphold prisoners’ right to vote, about 20,000 eligible inmates were registered and allowed to participate in the 2021 elections. Efforts by the Zambian authorities to enfranchise prisoners must be applauded and emulated. The rest of Africa has something to emulate and build on to include such excluded or marginalised populations like the hospitalised, people with disabilities and key populations such as the LGBTQI community.
  6. Defending civic space, human rights and democracy activists is key: Long-term observation of Zambian elections demonstrated that committed autocrats will relentlessly constrict online and offline civic space and weaponise the legal system to perpetuate their stay in power. The power of the internet and social media has lately become a nightmare for authoritarian regimes even as they resort to limiting or shutting down internet services. President Lungu, like autocrats elsewhere, besides resorting to arresting human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents, also shut down the internet to create an artificial blackout of information during elections. Several social media sites and popular chat apps like WhatsApp were down, and Facebook confirmed it was among the sites affected. Programmes to protect activists and build their resilience, including digital resilience, paid off. Zambians turned to using virtual private networks to circumvent the restrictions on the internet. On the other hand, Chapter One Foundation, an independent organisation approached the High Court of Zambia, which ordered Lungu to restore internet services to the populace, as digital rights are human rights.
  7. Issue politics matter: African politics and electoral outcomes have been associated with and shaped by race and ethnicity for a long time. The Zambian elections, like the Malawi elections that removed President Mutharika, demonstrated that real-life bread and butter issues and accountable governance matter. The economy took centre stage in this election. Lungu was punished for economic mismanagement, including state capture, serial grand corruption and patronage that has become a phenomenon in many African countries. Many contend that the vote may have been a protest against the state of the economy, high cost of living and high unemployment among the youth, palpable inequality and pervasive corruption. This protest vote would not have happened if the opposition UPND was not organised and presented as a government-in-waiting, and therefore a viable political option to the governance crisis. This is a lesson also to African opposition parties to give the electorate genuine options based on issue politics.

The power of strong institutions and an alert citizenry to act as guardrails against undemocratic politicians was demonstrated in the Zambian election.

Elections matter

The recently concluded election in Zambia serves as a breath of fresh air for a region battered by disputed and often deadly electoral cycles. Despite several concerns that blighted the process, specifically the abuse of the power of incumbency by President Lungu and his party,  the collective will of the people ultimately prevailed.

Two factors eventually proved decisive: strong and reasonably independent institutions and a politically conscious electorate determined to participate in electoral democracy.

President Lungu was left with no option but to accept defeat once pressure on the ECZ to announce the correct results was insurmountable as a result of election observation and monitoring supported by a well-executed PVT process.

Ultimately, the lesson to Africa is that procedural certainty and outcome uncertainty should be the driving philosophy for African elections.

Elections remain the only way for societies to have opportunities for the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another. People should never allow anyone to destroy their confidence and belief in the power of their vote. Zambia is testimony to that. DM/MC

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

The roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.


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