Zambia Elections: a free press is critical in the electoral cycle
By Njabulo Ncube
"Who Takes It?, Zambia Decides, Choose Peace. Vote for Leaders of Your Choice." These were some of the headlines in Zambia’s major newspapers as citizens trudged to cast their votes in a historic general election held on Thursday, August 12, 2021.
While there were unfortunate internet restrictions on the day of the election and the following day, Friday, August 13, 2021, as results trickled in from across Zambia, winds of change were palatable in both the public and private media.
The slogan One Zambia, One Nation serenaded in and around the Zambian capital, Lusaka, as it became increasingly clear that the opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, was heading for victory.
‘HH takes the lead’- the media headlines screamed; including from the state broadcaster, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, which had to all intents and purposes in the run-up to the polls, barred the opposition leader from appearing on its screens.
Despite fears of the COVID 19 epidemic which the ruling ZANU PF in Zimbabwe has used to suspend long outstanding by-elections, Zambians flocked to the polling stations to elect a new President, Parliamentarians and Councilors in a dramatic poll which saw the opposition thoroughly trashing the ruling party.
As counting of the ballots continued with results showing that HH, as the opposition leader is popularly known, would be installed as the 7th President of the Republic of Zambia, elated supporters flooded the streets and bars of Lusaka chanting “HH, One Zambia, One Nation”. They camped outside his mansion in one of the leafy suburbs of Lusaka waiting for the official results.
The outgoing president, Edgar Lungu tried to duck and dive. Lungu, clearly unprepared for the thumbing, initially claimed the elections were not free and fair, citing murder and intimidation of his supporters but the Zambia Electoral Commission would have none of it while behind the scenes, scores of other losing presidential candidates exerted pressure on Lungu to concede defeat.
Zambians did not lose sight of the fact that three days before the August 12 polls, Lungu, in what appeared to be last-ditch attempts to solicit for votes, had presided over the official opening of the Chinese-built Kenneth Kaunda International Airport amid pomp and ceremony.
In his campaigns, Lungu never failed to point out that he had brought massive infrastructure developments: new roads, a new airport, hospitals and spaghetti roads.
But apparently, the majority of Zambians showed him the door in a dramatic election which was monitored by the regional and international community.
In interviews, the generality of Zambians rightly or wrongly accused Lungu’s administration of corruption through giving public infrastructure tenders to Chinese firms.
At exactly 2.30 am on 16 August 2021 Hichilema, a self-made billionaire who made his fortunes during the MMD government of Frederick Chiluba was declared by the Zambia Electoral Commission as the duly elected 7th President of the Republic of Zambia, much to the chagrin of Lungu and his supporters of the Patriotic Front. With the proverbial tail between his legs, Lungu begrudgingly conceded defeat while hardliners in his camp sought to pressure him to declare a state of emergency and stay at State House.
“These elections were held on the principle of democracy which requires the people to elect their preferred representatives. I wish to commend the Electoral Commission of Zambia for having managed the electoral process diligently despite the challenges of Covid-19, electoral violence and a stifling political environment,” said Lungu in his speech accepting defeat.
“Despite our misgivings on the violence and electoral malpractices, I have deeply reflected on the need for Zambia to move forward as a unitary state. In line with the people's will who spoke through the ballot, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that as the 6th Republican President, I will hand over the instruments of power to Mr Hakainde Hichilema, the President of United Party for National Development who clearly has won these elections.
“I unequivocally concede defeat as per the results that have been published by Electoral Commission of Zambia. I, therefore, appeal to members of the Patriotic Front and Zambians at large to support the new government in all endeavours. Zambia is bigger and mightier than all of us. I have no doubt that Zambia is in safe hands.”
There are few takeaways from the Zambia elections.
As Zambia enters the post-election period, there are lessons for Zimbabwe’s body politic and the media. The Zambian elections presented part of a watershed in the conduct of elections in Southern Africa. The opposition’s huge victory was significantly buttressed by an independent electoral commission, the Zambia Electoral Commission. The electoral environment provided for free and unfettered media coverage unfortunate restrictions of the Internet.
As HH has assumed the reigns he should move with speed to institute media legislative reforms. Laws that urgently needs to be reformed include but are not limited to the Public Order Act (1955); Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, the Penal Code Act (1938) and the recently promulgated Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act.
He also should move with speed towards the enactment of the Access to Information (ATI) Bill. The ATI law is critical especially on critical issues of national importance such as elections as it provides for transparency and accountability, contrary to the prevailing environment of secrecy, which breeds corruption and other vices.
Be that as it may, Zimbabwe can learn from Zambia that a free press is critical in the elections cycle as it creates room for transparency and accountability, builds democracy and helps to check those aspiring for public office.
Media reforms and legislation that promotes a free press are thus critical as Zimbabwe heads for the 2023 elections.