Policy Brief 7: State of Democracy-Zambia


Zambia’s stagnating economy and ever widening democracy deficit has combined to make this year’s election the most contested election since liberation leader Kenneth Kaunda was displaced in 1991 by trade unionist Frederick Chiluba in the country’s first multiparty election since independence from colonialism.

Late last year, in the context of a rapidly falling currency, Zambian President Edgar Lungu called on Zambians with “brilliant ideas” to help steer the country towards prosperity[i]. Lungu, who was re-elected as president on 11 August 2016, urgently needs fresh ideas to overcome the country’s increasingly ailing democracy, economic stagnation and crippling multiple inequalities.

President Edgar Lungu and his governing Patriotic Front (PF) sought re-election for a second term. The main opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) led by Hakainde Hichilema, was the main challenger. Ahead of the elections President Lungu had been criticised for undermining democracy, for allegedly turning a blind eye to corruption and for lacking ideas to turn the ailing economy around.

The rare case of governing elites and changing powers

Having secured its independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1964, Zambia is one country in Africa where the party of independence, in this case the United National Independence Party (UNIP), lost power following mismanagement, poor public service delivery and aloof leadership.

The country also experienced the replacement of a former opposition party turned government when the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was replaced for failure to deliver on its promises. Zambia is therefore among the rare examples in Africa where governing elites and power have changed hands several times since independence.

Zambia’s liberation party-aligned trade union, the Zambia Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU), broke away when the government tried to make it a labour desk of the governing party. ZCTU head Chiluba and other trade union leaders formed the opposition MMD in 1991, a year after Kaunda permitted multiparty politics.

Chiluba’s MMD is also one example of an African opposition party that, having unseated the party of independence, behaved as badly when in government itself as the party it unseated and the leader it ousted. Chiluba left the presidency mired in scandal and wanting to stand for a third term. He was found guilty in a London court of stealing US$46m of public money, while president.

The MMD delivered two more presidents; Levy Mwanawasa (2002-2008) and Rupiah Banda (2008-2011). Mwanawasa, although launching a massive anti-corruption drive, which led to the prosecution of his predecessor Chiluba, survived an impeachment vote called by opposition parties over alleged corruption. Mwanawasa died in office of illness. During his presidency, Banda was accused of personally benefiting from oil deals with Nigeria.

In 2011, the MMD was ousted by another opposition party, the Patriotic Front (PF), led by Michael Sata. Sata and the PF have also proved a disappointment. Last year Lungu last year secured the presidency by 28 000 votes, in a presidential by-election, when Sata died of an undisclosed illness.

The August 2016 elections were marred by allegations of violence, intimidation and repression of government opponents. Ahead of the elections, the opposition, media and civil society complained about intimidation, repression and violence. They have alleged that the campaign events of the governing party received favourable coverage in the state-owned media, while those of the opposition parties did not[ii].

In July, the Zambian electoral commission suspended campaigning for 10 days in Lusaka because of violence. In June, the Zambian Revenue Authority (ZRA) raided the offices of The Post newspaper, which has been critical of the Lungu government, ostensibly for the newspaper company not paying taxes. Using the tax authorities is an old African government ploy to silence critics, because prosecution can be made to appear legitimate.

In April two journalists from The Post[iii] were detained for reporting that President Lungu had used government funds to finance his holiday. Last year Fred M’membe, the publisher of The Post, and another journalist were detained for alleging that Lungu accepted a bribe from a Chinese businessman.

In early 2016, the head of Zambia’s anti-corruption agency, Rosewin Wandi, suddenly resigned. The Post alleged she fall foul of President Lungu after investigating a case linked to the president.

Zambia ranked 88th out 167 countries in the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International. Transparency International Zambian chapter head, Lee Habasonda said rampant corruption continued to undermine development and democracy-building efforts in the country[iv].

Democracy and institutions undermined by concentration of power in the executive

The August 2016 Zambian election combined voting for the president with parliamentary and local government elections and a referendum. The referendum sought to agree to changes to the country’s Bill of Rights. Zambia has had a number of constitutions since independence, with every new government seemingly wanting to change the constitution, often with little public input and with changes based on the interests of the governing party and leader rather than on strengthening democracy.

Although the constitution has been revised several times since 2003, none of the revision proposals have reflected the reduction of the power of the presidency in relation to other democratic institutions. Attempts to consolidate democracy in Zambia are undermined by the fact that power is heavily concentrated in the office of the president, as is the case in many African countries.

The power of the office of the president essentially overrides other democratic institutions.  The president has overwhelming power to distribute public resources, make public appointments and veto parliamentary decisions. Thus, “Institutional reforms have not produced effective watchdogs or counter forces to prevent state malpractice and corruption”[v].

Zambia is heavily dependent on development aid. International donors usually direct development aid through the office of the president in the form of budget support. However, this has further increased the discretionary power of the president to channel resources to allies and to withdraw it from opponents.

The political system of Zambia is also skewed in such a way as to entrench power in central government in relation to local government. “Zambia’s current state of local government can be said to undermine meaningful community participation, democratic development and socio-economic development”[vi].

Inequality in politics, society and economy

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index estimated that Zambia is among the most unequal countries in Africa and the world[vii]. The inequalities in Zambia, as in the rest of Africa, are multiple and intersecting in that they manifest in economic, political, regional and social spheres and intersect with each other. The income of the richest 20% is about 17% higher than that of the poorest 20% of the population.

The high levels of inequality stifle economic growth, development and the deepening of democracy in Zambia. Poverty, a major factor in inequality, is disproportionally located in the rural areas. Poverty levels are lowest in the more urban Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces and highest in the more rural Luapula and Western provinces. Urban households in Zambia have better access to clean water, sanitation and electricity than rural ones. The UNDP reports that 36% of the urban population aged between five and nine years old are not attending or have never attended school and the proportion for rural areas is almost 63%.

Women are the worst off. Women-headed households are more likely to be poor. More women than men have never attended school. Women only occupy 12.7% of the parliamentary seats. Gender and development consultant Sara Hlupekile Longwe says, “Women are lowly represented in all decision-making positions because of the entrenched belief of male supremacy (patriarchy) in our Zambian constitutions, customs, traditions, religions, politics and practices”[viii].

Zambia’s current constitution, adopted in 1991, while outlawing discrimination against gender, allows ‘exceptions’ based on traditions, customs and marriage. This will have to change. Ultimately, deeply ingrained social, customs and traditions which discriminates against women must be changed.  Without women’s full participation in society, politics and the economy, Zambia will continue to run below capacity with devastating consequences for development, democracy and the fostering of new ideas.

Traditional leaders control large swathes of rural land. Given the patriarchal nature of Zambian society, women in rural areas may undertake the majority of the farming, yet lack the power to turn their labour into prosperity. Clearly, the institution of traditional leaders must be democratised if equitable development is to become a reality. Zambia desperately needs to foster gender, social and class equality. Gender equality, whether in politics, relationships and the labour market, must be genuinely implemented.

Zambia is one of the African countries that have introduced social welfare programmes, which provides in-kind or cash transfers to the vulnerable. However, the programmes often do not reach their intended beneficiaries and are not especially effective when they do. Education is a powerful stepladder out of poverty and a powerful leveler of inequality. Zambia has increased public spending on education to around 20% of total government spending and has provided free primary education since 2002.

However, there are imbalances in allocation of funding. The World Bank decried the fact that Zambia’s spending on public education is “largely biased toward the richer group of students”[ix]. Furthermore, Zambia spends proportionally less on technical, vocational and artisan training, which are crucial for development since Zambia, like most other African countries, desperately needs relevant technical skills among its unemployed or those eking out a living in the informal sector.

Economic stagnation

Zambia, based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, has been classified as a low middle income country since 2011. It is the world’s seventh-largest copper and third-largest emerald producer. Copper exports provide nearly three-quarters of the country’s exports. Most of the mining companies are foreign owned.

Before the global slump in commodity prices, Zambia has been notching up high growth levels, like many other African commodity exporters, growing at an average of 4.5% annually. However, the commodity-fueled growth did not delivery jobs, chiefly because commodities were exported as raw materials rather than beneficiated goods, thus delivering less money, fewer jobs and benefits to few.

Subsistence farming, mining and services are the country’s primary sources of employment. Close to 90% of Zambians eke out a living in the informal sector. China has become the largest market for Zambia’s copper as well as a primary source of foreign investment and infrastructure funding.

Copper exports account for 70% of Zambia’s export earnings. Falling global copper prices have inflicted havoc on the Zambian economy, with reduced foreign exchange earnings and the depreciation of the kwacha. Import prices have risen sharply, causing inflation to rise again to double-digit figures, currently standing at 21.8%.

Last October President Lungu ordered a national day of prayer after the country’s currency, the kwacha, fell 45% against the US dollar following the drop in the price of copper, the country’s main export. The kwacha was the worst performing currency out of 155 tracked by Bloomberg in 2015.

Like other countries in the region, Zambia is experiencing a severe drought, which has stunted agricultural production. Low water levels, especially in Lake Kariba, have forced the country to introduce power rationing, which in turn has undermined industrial production.  Zambian Central Statistical Office director John Kalumbi said the combination of the declining copper prices, falling currency and drought have increased company closures and job losses[x].  Zambia’s official rate of unemployment is 7.4% and youth unemployment is 10.5%.

A new study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD),Trade Misinvoicing in Primary Commodities in Developing Countries[xi], showed that Zambia lost out on billions in tax revenues, foreign exchange and ultimately development, because international companies fraudulently under-report the price, quantity of and the value of copper exports in invoices.

 Zambia experienced a cumulative under-invoicing of its copper exports of US$12bn between 1995 and 2014. Of Zambia’s total copper exports to China during this period some US$5.6bn or 61% was under-invoiced[xii]. Zambian copper exports under-invoicing to China represented 10% of Zambia’s total copper exports.

Zambia’s official copper exports to Italy recorded a value of US$3.9m, leaving US$2bn under-invoiced. Zambia’s copper exports to South Korea were under-voiced by US$3.9bn declaring only US$358m. Zambia’s copper exports to Switzerland shows an over-invoicing of US$31.8bn, yet “no such exports” are recorded to have arrived in Switzerland. If this is the case, then where did the Zambian copper exports that were supposedly exported to Switzerland actually go to?

Zambia seeks IMF and World Bank assistance

Foreign aid accounts for one third of Zambia’s annual budget – making the country vulnerable to vagaries of foreign funders. The World Bank and IMF have been prominent aid donors since 1983. The World Bank and IMF insisted on strict conditions in return for aid, including structural adjustment programmes, using The Bretton Woods Institution’s experts, often under protest from the Zambian government.

Following the end of the commodity boom, Zambia, like many other struggling African commodities, has sought help from the IMF and World Bank. Government insiders say an IMF development assistance programme will be rolled out in late 2016. It will be important that as part of the IMF package, Zambia will be able to come up with independent policies, use its own independent experts, rather than those usually proposed by the IMF and World Bank.

When former Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa was in charge during the commodity boom, the government brought inflation under control and presided over a high growth period on the back of a global copper price boom. The World Bank and lending institutions during Mwanawasa’s time in 2005 cancelled US$7.2bn of Zambia’s foreign debt. In return, the World Bank, IMF and Western donors insisted on local economic and democratic reforms. However, these reforms proposed by the World Bank and IMF were typically inappropriate.

Both Mwanawasa and his successor Rupiah Banda were criticised for being more neoliberal than Western counterparts, pandering to World Bank and International Monetary Fund advice to introduce economic austerity and market opening policies in a country where the majority live in poverty and less than 20% are in formal employment.

Mwanawasa and Banda were criticised for being uncritically subservient to China, which bought into the country’s copper mines but often ignored the rights of local employees, brought in Chinese labour, created few jobs for locals and failed to bring locals into mining supply chains. In 2011, Human Rights Watch revealed that Chinese-run copper mines in Zambia were dangerous, unsafe and that owners routinely flouted the rights of employees[xiii]. The 2011 Zambian presidential vote became a battle over the impact of Chinese investment in Zambia, between incumbent Rupiah Banda and the challenger Michael Sata. Sata slammed China for exploiting Zambia. He won.

Rebuilding the economy and improving democracy 

President Lungu, now that he has been re-elected, will need to make the most of the human capital and ideas of all Zambians, whether at home or abroad. Excluding individuals because of sex, ethnicity or politics will undermine any effort to rebuild the economy. The basis of an economic rebuilding programme must focus on adding value to copper production, diversifying the economy away from copper exports and diversifying agricultural products for households and for export.

As in most African countries, agriculture remains Zambia’s largest sector in which people eke out a living in the informal sector. African countries must put their efforts into supporting people to at least produce food for themselves and carry out the basic ‘light’ manufacturing of products without having to import these from abroad.

Zambia must build on the existing indigenous informal sector to develop informal businesses into medium-sized and then larger businesses. Zambia will have to accelerate infrastructure development across the country, rolling out special programmes in historically poor areas. It must also maintain existing infrastructure.

 Zambia needs an industrialisation strategy. It needs to diversify its agricultural sector and add value to its extractives sector. It must link informal businesses into private and public supply chains. It is one of the few African countries which introduced social welfare. However, social welfare must be targeted more smartly to reach the most vulnerable. But social welfare must go hand in hand with the mass transfer of technical skills (of which economy needs) to the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. also be linked to targeted d technical skills transfer.

 An article by United Nations Zambia on the multiple dimensions of poverty states, “A policy mix that combines targeted transfers with the provision of quality education, affordable and quality basic social services and infrastructure, and the reduction of gender imbalances, can be a powerful mix of instruments to reduce both poverty and inequality in the short and long run”[xiv].

 Zambia’s Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR) group, which monitors the government’s poverty reduction programmes said the country’s economic challenges are worsened by the lack of a diversification strategy that can boost the productivity of critical sectors such as agriculture in order to “trigger growth in manufacturing through processing and packaging”[xv]. Maxson Nkhoma, the CSPR’s advocacy and communication programmes officer said: “It is sad to note that despite the economic diversification programme being discussed by successive governments, Zambia has failed to implement economic diversification due to lack of political will”[xvi].

Fighting corruption, waste and mismanagement must be a priority. Zambia will have to improve, regulate and monitor commodity exports to avoid billions in lost revenue through fraudulent invoicing. Civil society, the media, citizens and opposition parties must play a stronger oversight role to ensure that financial resources are not siphoned off through corrupt means.

Deepening democracy, rather than eroding it, is crucial to rebuilding the economy. Zambia’s civil society, which is among Africa’s most vibrant, is crucial not only to hold government, business and foreign lenders accountable, but to provide new ideas to strengthen democracy and boost development. International donors must directly provide financial support to civil society groups, rather than as part of the country’s budget support programme.

[i] “Zambia leader seeks God’s help as currency freefalls,” Aljazeera, October 19, 2015.  http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/zambia-leader-seeks-god-currency-freefalls-151019050741159.html

[ii] “Tough Times for Democracy in Zambia,” Deutsche Welle, March 14, 2016. [http://www.dw.com/en/tough-times-for-democracy-in-zambia/a-19112257]

[iii] “Blood on the floor in Zambia poll,” Mail&Guardian, August 4, 2016. . 4 [http://amabhungane.co.za/article/2016-08-04-00-blood-on-the-floor-in-zambia-poll]

[iv] Lee Habasonda, “Official Launch of TI 2015 Corruption Perception Index.” (speech presented at Official Launch of TI 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Lusaka, January 27, 2016)

[v] UNU-WIDER (2013) Zambia- Foreign Aid and Democratic Consolidation. Helsinki: UNU-WIDER

[vi] Simutanyi, N (2013) Zambia Democracy and Political Participation. Discussion Paper. A Review by AfriMAP and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Johannesburg

[vii]Lwanda, G and Quarles van Ufford, P (2013)  Addressing the multiple dimensions of Poverty and Inequality in Zambia, United Nations Zambia, UN Zambia Signature Issues Series 1, Lusaka

 [viii]Longwe, SH (2014) Failure of 50/50 Female Representation in the Zambian Parliament [Online]. Available:https://africanwomenfirst.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/failure-of-5050-female-representation-in-zambian-parliament

 [ix] Saeki, Hiroshi; Hong, Seo Yeon; Gardner, Lauren Marie; Nomura, Shinsaku; Kadiresan, Kundhavi; Bashir, Sajitha. 2015. Education public expenditure review in Zambia. Washington, D.C., World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/431421468000590726/Education-public-expenditure-review-in-Zambia

 [x] Lusaka Voice (2015). Falling Kwacha fueling unemployment – Zambian official.

Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGpny254oXA.

 [xi] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, (2016). Trade Misinvoicing in Primary Commodities in Developing Countries – The cases of Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia. [online] New York and Geneva: UnCTAD. Available at: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/suc2016d2.pdf [Accessed 8 Sep. 2016].

 [xii] Ibid

 [xiii] “”You’ll be Fired if You Refuse” Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines”, Human Rights Watch (2011). https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/11/04/youll-be-fired-if-you-refuse/labor-abuses-zambias-chinese-state-owned-copper-mines

 [xiv] Lwanda, G and Quarles van Ufford, P (2013)  Addressing the multiple dimensions of Poverty and Inequality in Zambia, United Nations Zambia, UN Zambia Signature Issues Series 1, Lusaka

 [xv] “Diversification key to Zambia’s economic renaissance,” Xinhua, February 19, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-02/19/c_135111071.htm

 [xvi] Ibid

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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