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Zambia election: making sense of the youth dividend and civil society agency

Image Credit: UPND

By Pride Mkono


Zambia went to the polls on 12 August 2021 and after some tense period, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) Alliance led by longtime opposition stalwart, Hakainde Hichilema swept to victory.

In the Presidential poll, Hichilema resoundingly defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu garnering almost 60% of the total vote casts at 2,810,777 to Lungu’s 1,814,201 votes.

In the Parliamentary election, the UPND Alliance obtained 82 seats out of 156 contested seats while the Lungu led Patriotic Front (PF) got 59 seats. The election itself had a historic voter turnout of over 70% of eligible voters with the majority being youths between 18 and 35 years.

In addition, civil society organisations and the church played a very important role in mobilizing communities; undertaking voter education and observing the election to ensure they remained free, fair and credible even under strenuous circumstances.

This article seeks to shine the light away from the political gladiators who occupy Zambia’s electoral landscape and instead make sense of the youth dividend and civil society agency by drawing lessons from Zambia and looking at how they are useful to Zimbabwe.

A brief electoral history of Zambia

Zambian independence from the United Kingdom (UK) was declared on 24 October 1964 and for a considerable time, the country was a one-party state led by the late founding President, Kenneth Kaunda and his UNIP party. However, Zambian civil society and labour started to resist the one-party state agenda and the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian rule of the late Kaunda and his UNIP party. The pressure eventually forced Kaunda to hold multiparty elections on 31 October 1991 which saw his party lose heavily to the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and he lost the Presidency to Fredrick Chiluba who led the MMD. Since then, Zambia has come a long way in electoral processes and while the road has been bumpy, there has been a general smooth transfer of power from one leader to the next, making Zambia an interesting democratic experiment in Southern Africa. The emphatic victory of Hichilema and his UPND Alliance represents the 7th time that power has changed hands in Zambia and the 4th time it has done so across political parties making it a regional record of peaceful transitions in SADC.

Youth dividend

Zambia is a nation of young people with over 65% of the population below the age of 25 and 52% of the electorate who turned out on the voting day was below the age of 40. The young people showed up in their numbers and this ensured that their demographic dividend steered Zambia in the direction of democratic transition. Youths have suffered unemployment, poverty and lack of economic opportunities for advancement. The rising cost of living in Zambia also disproportionately affects the youths who have limited savings and lack any form of social safety net from the government. Millions of youths also watched with bewilderment and frustration as the country’s vast mineral wealth was auctioned off to the Chinese while they languished in poverty with little prospects of upward social mobility. Thus the young people began to organize themselves from below and while the government of President Lungu clamped down on street protests, youth activists organized differently on social media.

For example, in October 2020 youth activists in Zambia decided to stage an online demonstration against the PF government led by President Edgar Lungu for his increasingly authoritarian rule and the rising cost of living. The activists were using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp which gave them wide reach while safe from being caught by security agents. The Facebook live stream of the protest attracted 450 000 views in just seven hours making it the most widely viewed social media feed in Zambian history. The other demands of these young people were on improving the conditions of young people, more and better job opportunities, actions to stop corruption, and respect for human rights. They also demanded accountable leadership, improved education standards and a fairer tax system.

Lessons for youths in Zimbabwe

All these issues dovetail with what is currently prevailing in Zimbabwe where over 60% of the population are young people. Zimbabwe’s youths are also plagued by high unemployment, poverty and limited access to economic empowerment opportunities. The government of the day is highly authoritarian and abuses citizens with impunity. So there are important lessons for youths in Zimbabwe to take from Zambia which I summarise in the following bullet points:

  • Unity is very important – youths in Zambia were united and not just those in political parties through the UPND Alliance but also activists and civil society. When the government banned campaigns citing COVID19 restrictions and called for a fresh voter registration exercise, youths were united across the board to ensure that 7 million people registered in just 2 weeks. Youths in Zimbabwe must unite for change beyond the political parties as the country heads towards the 2023 election.

  • Voter registration and voting is important – young people in Zambia came out in their numbers to register as voters and also endured long queues on voting day to cast their vote. Youths in Zimbabwe must actively drive voter registration and also come out in their numbers to cast their votes.

  • Protecting the vote should be local – young people in Zambia protected their vote by having night vigils outside the polling stations once voting had been concluded so that there was no room for manipulation. These efforts were coordinated locally and likewise, Zimbabwean youths must set up voter protection committees across every polling station. Vigils must be held outside the polling station until results have been plastered outside polling stations.

·Discipline and non-violence are critical – throughout the electoral journey in Zambia, the ruling party and security forces tried to provoke youths into violent reactions to justify a clampdown but the youths remained vigilant, disciplined and nonviolent in their approach. Zimbabwean youth leaders and activists must take a cue and also maintain strict non-violent discipline throughout preparations for the 2023 elections.

Civil society lessons for Zimbabwe

Zambia civil society has come a long way in its fight for democracy as well as free, fair, and credible elections. From the days of the one-party state to the present; when Zambia is an established multi-party democracy, civil society has been at the centre of building citizen agency. In the August 2021 elections, civil society mobilised itself to push for a free, fair and credible election amidst closing democratic space. Civil society organisations such as the Christian Council of Zambia, National Women’s Lobby Group and Centre for Human Rights and Democracy among other national and community-based organizations worked around the clock to ensure that citizens were able to exercise their fundamental right to choose leaders of their choice. Civil society also effectively undertook a parallel voter tabulation process which was very accurate and reflected on the extent of its ability to organize. The following bullet points summarise some of the key lessons civil society in Zimbabwe can take from Zambia:

  • Be active but non-partisan – civil society in Zimbabwe has been accused of being ‘regime change agents’ as a way for forcing it to be docile. However, one key lesson from the Zambian civil society is that labels and tags don’t stick if you are active and remain objectively non-partisan in approach as this will win the support of the masses.

  • Collaborate and cooperate at all levels – there is always a danger that civil society organisations will compete to outdo each other and this affects their collective ability to support change and promote free, fair and credible elections. Zambian civil society was able to collaborate and cooperate to ensure that they effectively exercise their agency which is important for Zimbabwe civil society to copy moving towards 2023.

  • Provide empirical evidence – allegations of violence, manipulation and rigging require that there be solid evidence so that citizens and all other stakeholders are well informed. Zambian civil society was able to provide empirical evidence to back any issue they raised and this is very important for Zimbabwean civil society to emulate so that they remain a sober and trusted voice in the 2023 election period.


On 24 August 2021 Zambians, the region and the world witnessed another smooth transition in the southern African country for the 7th time.

For Zimbabwean youths and civil society, there are many lessons to take home as Zimbabwe prepares for 2023. While change cannot be imported it is critical to pick lessons and contextualize them to suit conditions in the country and as a first step, a joint youth and civil society learning mission to Zambia would be in order.




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