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REFLECTIONS ON ZAMBIA’S NEW DAWN: LESSONS FROM THE AUGUST 2021 GENERAL ELECTIONS

[By Chapter One Foundation]

The election period is now over. What remains is to reflect on the 2021 elections from a broader sense, taking into consideration some of the popular public views about the fall of the Patriotic Front regime and beginning of the UPND’s new dawn brand. One cannot reflect on the past election without discussing some of the issues that led to a peoples change of government, a change that the then ruling government did not anticipate. Several factors might have led to a change of government; we will reflect a few of those factors and our reflections on the various issues that stormed the elections.

Despite the messaging of the Patriotic Front regime around infrastructure development, there was a failure by the previous dispensation to strike a balance between infrastructure development and economic growth. This led to huge accumulation of public debt and a struggling economy in which inflation and the cost of living were high. The Patriotic Front did not seem to appreciate that without the ordinary person being able to provide basic needs for their family such as good nutrition, good health care and education all the infrastructure development did not matter.

What governance expert Reuben Lifuka describes as “industrial level corruption” by those connected and associated with the Patriotic Front lowered citizen’s confidence in their government. Even during the campaign and election period, those in the ruling party lived in opulence and were dishing out huge wads of cash seemingly oblivious of the poverty all around them. This eventually eroded confidence in the government and its institutions. That and the t coupled with corruption and narrowing of the civic space, were major contributing factors to the people’s choice to do away with the Patriotic Front.

It appeared to the ordinary eye that state institutions that were meant to provide checks and balances against government excesses were captured by the Executive to serve their interests. The civic space was narrowed in order insulate the government of the day from criticism and public protest. Zambians were alive to the threats on the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly through the Public Order Act, the Covid regulations, and the new Cyber Security and Cybercrimes Act. That coupled with the intimidation of ordinary citizens of ruling party cadres in marketplaces, bus stops, and other public places led to an atmosphere of fear and repression not seen since the Second Republic.

On voting day, something that most frontline activists and members of civil society had long anticipated happened, the shutting down of internet. This cut off access to social media platforms this disrupting the free flow of information. The fact that this took place whilst Zambians were still in line at polling stations was a huge miscalculation by the Patriotic Front government as it caused widespread anger and indignation. This was particularly so among the youth who use the internet on a large scale, had to make a choice between freedom and a possible future where human rights and freedom of expression was no longer enjoyed. The youth vote was extremely significant in these elections with issues of high unemployment and a lack of business opportunities being high on their agenda. This was a demographic that the Patriotic Front had failed to appeal to, and they were punished for it.

The countrywide crusade of tribal hate speech targeted against the then opposition UPND particularly its presidential candidate, was a main character of the PF campaigns. The idea that leadership was the preserve of only certain tribes in Zambia was antithetical to the “One Zambia, One Nation” national motto. This idea was resoundingly rejected by the majority of Zambian voters. Ultimately no one care who puts food on the table.

While public media houses were still churning out the ruling party narrative, private media houses played a key role in ensuring that media coverage was also given to opposition political parties and civil society to speak to the voters and educate the public on national issues. Others have attributed the failure by public media houses to cover dissenting views as a result of all state institutions being captured by the Executive. Most people would agree that workers at state institutions were crippled and could not resist the direct control received from the government and ruling party leaders.

We cannot forget to mention that violence marred these past elections, resulting in deaths. This led to the deployment of the defence forces on the Zambian streets to protect Zambian lives. This move was originally received with some trepidation but ultimately it did help curb violence in hot spot areas as, with a few exceptions, soldiers continued to operate professionally without interfering with civilians who went about their business. The violence came with suspension of campaigns for the UPND and Patriotic Front in districts where they were reported to be the masterminds behind political violence. The interventions by the Electoral Commission of Zambia in suspending the activities of political parties that breached the electoral code of conduct can be said to have helped in ensuring that political parties took responsibility of controlling their political cadres. Campaign suspensions and violence could have potentially affected the electoral process and disadvantaged the affected political parties, but it was deemed necessary to protect lives and cool down the highly tense political environment that was prevailing at the time.

Despite having made several questionable decisions in the run up to the elections, critical to the result was the fact that the Electoral Commission withstood the Pressure from President Lungu to suspend the announcement of the election results. There was mounting tension in the country due to the delay in the announcement of the results and the suspension of that exercise may have exploded into unrest.

In conclusion, the past elections were a mixture of both positive reflections and negative reflections. Positive because citizens with the majority being youth and women came in numbers and exercised their right to vote. Despite the lack of adequate voter education which resulted in many rejected votes, knowledge sharing and citizen-led reflections on the performance of the previous regime helped shape the voters mind on what they were going to vote for. The violence, internet shutdown, and fears of civil unrest did not stop registered voters from queuing to cast their votes. On the negative side, there was high speculation of rigging and the Electoral Commission of Zambia’s result announcement timetable raised anxiety which would have sent people on the streets to protest. Overall, the people won. They prevailed against violence, breach of the rule of law, crackdowns on freedoms of expression and assembly, an internet shutdown, and a potential rigging of the elections. Zambians must maintain their civic activism in between elections if our democratic gains are to be sustained. They must continue to demand for good governance, respect for human rights, and accountability to get the Zambia they want.

Chapter One Foundation is a civil society organization that promotes and protects human rights, constitutionalism, the rule of law and social justice in Zambia. Please follow us on Facebook under the page ‘Chapter One Foundation’ and on Twitter and Instagram @CoFZambia.

You may also email us at infodesk@cof.org.zm

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