Authoritarianism in Zambia

On the night of the 11th of April 2017 the Zambian Police broke down the gate of Hakainde Hichilema’s compound and began their quest to arrest the country’s main opposition leader. All of this less than a year after Hichilema had disputed the result of a close-run presidential election. Both the election and the arrest speak to worrying trends in Zambian democracy amidst the backdrop of a stony silence by the South African government and other international actors.



Zambia has functioned as a multi-party democracy since Kenneth Kaunda abolished his United National Independence Party’s political monopoly in 1991.  Zambia has a presidential election and parliamentary elections. The parliamentary system is a constituency based First Past the Post system while there is a direct election for President .  A constitutional change meant that the 2016 presidential election was the first where a candidate had to receive the majority of the votes or a second, run-off, election would be necessary . The parliamentary system has 150 constituencies with a single member each in addition to eight MPs who are presidential appointees and the Speaker of the House.

The presidential election in August 2016 saw the ruling Patriotic Front’s (PF) main challenge coming from Hakainde Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND). The election resulted in Edgar Lungu, the PF’s candidate, remaining as President. However the election was contested by Hichilema who alleged vote rigging and unfair practices.

The Zambian political landscape has altered rapidly over the course of the past two decades, leaving the PF and the UPND as the two main parties. This has mainly been the result of splits of existing parties leading to the formation of new ones. The ruling PF emerged out of a breakaway from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), led by Michael Sata, due to a dispute over who would follow Frederick Chiluba as president of the party . The party ascended to power in 2011 with Sata as President, a position he held until his death in 2014. He was briefly replaced by his deputy, Guy Scott, before Lungu- a lawyer and former military officer - became President in a by-election in 2015 . The Party positions itself as a centre-left Movement and is a member of Socialist International.
The main opposition is the UPND, a centrist, economically and socially liberal party that is also the result of a breakaway from the MMD in 1998, which was led by Anderson Mazoka . Mazoka was a strong critic of the governance failures he perceived to be rife within the MMD. Hichilema succeeded Mazoka as party leader in 2006 and the party finished second in the 2015 by-election.

The 2016 elections
The 2015 Zambian presidential election had been very close, with only 27 000 votes ultimately separating Hichilema and Lungu. Hichilema had alleged the election had been rigged, but he told his supporters to stay calm and wait for the 2016 election. The 2016 election was far tenser than many previous elections and there was a rise in election related violence. The election resulted in a victory for Edgar Lungu who received around 100 000 votes more than Hichilema, just over the 50% required to avoid a run-off.  Hichilema immediately filed papers with the Constitutional Court to challenge the result.

Election monitors varied in their assessment of the election. The African Union delegation, led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, declared the election free and fair . However, questions have been raised about the AU’s propensity to rubber stamp problematic elections, with the 2012 Angolan and 2013 Zimbabwean elections being utilized as examples. There were a number of other reports released, most of which found that the election was free but that it was not fair . These reports found that the lead up to the election had not allowed for open campaigning on an equal footing. The main areas which were identified as cause for concern were; media freedom, political violence and the right to organize for political rallies.

The issue of media freedom was a key one and mainly focused around the closure of the Post newspaper due to a dispute with the Zambian Revenue Authority . The country has only four major newspapers, two of whom are government owned and one who - despite being privately owned - usually takes a pro- government line. This only leaves the Post, with the newspaper being seen as independent and often fiercely critical of the government and ruling party. Over the course of its 26 year history the Post has aroused the ire of successive governments through its commitment to exposing corruption and abuses of power. This has often led to attempts to criminally charge Post journalists, and the newspaper’s founder and editor, Fred M’membe, was briefly arrested for contempt in 2010, when he published an article critical of a case against one of the paper’s employees. The paper began a long running battle with the Zambian Revenue Authority in relation to allegations that they had failed to turn over 26 million Kwacha in VAT and employee income taxes between 2010 and 2014. After many legal battles the liability increased to 53.9 million Kwacha, an amount disputed by the Post. It was on these grounds that the ZRA raided the Newspaper’s offices on the 20th of June 2016, seizing their offices and printing presses and effectively halting the Newspaper’s ability to operate. Despite gaining a court order to allow it to return to its offices, the State refused to implement this. The official government line that this is merely normal procedure in a tax case is not true. Numerous other media outlets also have outstanding tax bills and it remains highly problematic and unusual to close down an independent newspaper less than two months before a Presidential election. Additionally, there were other alleged abuses of state control over the media with the Zambian National Broadcaster refusing to air a UPND documentary until forced to do so by the High Court.

The second major concern about the elections was the right to organize for opposition rallies. Unlike in the 2015 election, the provisions of the antiquated Public Order Act were not suspended in order to allow for equal and unhindered campaigning opportunities. According to election monitors this allowed the ruling party to apply the act selectively and excessively in order to stifle opposition . The Act was utilized on numerous occasions to halt UPND rallies and to arrest individuals who attended opposition rallies that were declared illegal.

In addition, there were concerns with the way that the vote counting occurred after the elections with irregularities reported, particularly in Lusaka, a UPND stronghold. Gen12 forms, that certify election results, were withheld from UPND agents, raising concerns of vote rigging. Additionally, during early counting Hichilema seemed to be registering gains in traditional PF strongholds until the reporting of results slowed down dramatically and Lungu won the vote in the end. Additionally, there were numerous reports of missing ballot papers and a UPND mayoral candidate in Lusaka at one stage arrived to find over 14 000 UPND marked ballot papers in a bin .

These factors led to Hichilema to challenge the result in Zambia’s Constitutional Court. However there were already concerns about the independence of a large number of judges on the court after Lungu appointed six judges in his previous term, all of whom faced questions about whether they met the requirements to have had 15 years of practice as a legal practitioner with specialised training or experience in human rights or constitutional law .  The case was dismissed in September 2016 on a technicality related to the time it had taken for Hichilema to file his challenge.

Hichilema’s arrest
On the night of April 11th, police and paramilitaries stormed Hichilema’s compound in Lusaka and begun ransacking the house. The operation was well coordinated and is alleged to have been violent, with members of Hichilema’s staff assaulted and destruction and theft of his property . Hichilema himself hid in a safe room until his lawyer arrived and then handed himself over to the police. He has been charged with treason in relation to an incident three days earlier in which his convoy refused to give way to President Lungu’s convoy while the two men were both on their way to a traditional ceremony in the Western Province. It took over a week after Hichilema’s arrest before he was allowed access to a lawyer and to see his family. The charges are also of a nature so that bail cannot be granted.

South African reaction
Both of South Africa’s main opposition parties condemned Hichilema’s arrest. The Democratic Alliance called it an “arbitrary arrest” while stating that it was politically motivated . The Economic Freedom Fighters also expressed their grave concern about Hichilema’s arrest and harassment, although they disagree with him politically . However, there has been no comment on these developments by the South African government in any form . The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has also not commented on the arrest.  However, recently a delegation from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) visited Lusaka and met with Lungu. An ANCYL representative praised Lungu as “a democrat whose government has allowed the Opposition to operate, an ideal strategy of handling opponents that political leaders in the region needed to emulate” . The comments were made after Hichilema’s arrest.
The South African government’s silence on this issue fails to uphold our commitment to constitutional rule on the continent. The irregularities in the election were cause for concern. Hichilema’s arrest is more worrying. The charges are politically motivated, coming soon after the contested election. Additionally, regardless of the nature of the charges, the lack of due process and a public trial raise questions about the prospect of a fair judicial process. As a major regional ally, it is deeply troubling that the South African government has not commented on this at all.

The current crisis in Zambian politics raises two main issues. The first is how the international community should respond to elections that are not clearly rigged, but are generally unfair and of cause for concern. This Zambian election was deeply troubling but went relatively unchallenged by election monitors and the international community because it was not blatantly rigged or overtly violent. If ruling parties utilise the resources of the state to gradually skew the electoral system to favour themselves, work must be done to arrest this trend. The second is the silence of the South African government. Issues of democracy on the African continent, and especially amongst regional partners require a clear stance from the government in order to continue South Africa’s commitment to human rights and democratic values guide our international relations.

On the 25th of May, South African opposition leader, Mmusi Maimane travelled to the Zambian Capital, Lusaka, in order to attend the trial of Hakainde Hichilema. Maimane states that as well as being a friend of Hichilema, he was also attending the trial as a fellow opposition leader . Additionally, Maimane is the head of the Southern African Partnership for Democratic Change, an alliance of eight opposition movements in Southern Africa .  That includes Maimane’s Democratic Alliance and Hichilema’s United Party for National Development. When Maimane and his team landed at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, a large number of armed police and immigration officers boarded the plane. Maimane was informed that he had been denied permission to visit Zambia . No reasons were given for this decision and Maimane and his team were manhandled, pinned down and had their cell phones and passports confiscated. Despite his protestations, Maimane was sent back to South Africa on the same plane.


The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), had initially advised Maimane to refrain from visiting Zambia until the Zambian courts had altered their court order to allow Maimane to visit Hichilema . At present the court order pertaining to Hichilema’s custody is very restrictive and only allows certain individuals to visit him. However, Maimane went ahead with the trip despite this and had informed the South African High Commission in Zambia of this. The High Commission therefore sent a representative to the airport to meet Maimane . Following the deportation, DIRCO announced that they would register their disapproval with the Zambian government as they felt the way that the deportation was carried out was “over the top” . The Zambian government has stood by its actions, with the Country’s High Commissioner to South Africa saying that Maimane’s visit “threatened to undermine the judiciary” . Maimane hit out at this claim saying that the reports that we intended to do so emanated from biased newspapers and that he had never indicated that this was a possibility 

Rafael Friedman