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Is Zambia the blueprint for democracy in Africa?

Opinion & Analysis
Many would argue that this country has never experienced a free and fair election, at best it has gotten one or the other but often neither. The accountability factor becomes moot when the result of an election is virtually pre-ordained due to an uneven playing field.

By Cedric Steele

ON August 12 this year, Zambia went into a scheduled general election to elect the President, National Assembly, mayors, council chairs and councillors. The result in the presidential race was that a new candidate was elected.

This seemingly simple and straightforward process, otherwise known as democracy, has been the shining light on the hill, so to speak, for countless souls, many of whom have died in the process of achieving this goal. One man one vote and all votes count equally.

The notion that people should be allowed to choose their leaders to represent them and that the party or person with the most votes shall be declared the winner is, both the wonder and the curse of this system of governance depending on whether you are the victor or the vanquished.

By all accounts, Zambians showed the world, and most pointedly the rest of Africa, how free and fair elections can and should be carried out. That’s not to say there were no problems, after all we are talking about Africa here, but they did not affect the overall outcome of the vote.

To understand Zambia’s path to democracy, we have to look at the history of the country.

This is also useful in comparing how Zimbabwe measures up in terms of the democratic process since both countries have a similar background and were indeed originally colonised as the northern and southern parts respectively of one territory by the British.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Britain was expanding its empire in southern Africa moving northward from the Cape.

From 1911, Zambia was formerly named Northern Rhodesia, after arch imperialist and white supremacist Cecil John Rhodes.

The country, that is now Zimbabwe, was formerly named Southern Rhodesia. Both countries were governed by an administration appointed by London with the advice of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) which was controlled by Rhodes.

As was always the case under British rule, there was no democracy to speak of. Africans had no political rights and were subjugated economically to the point of making them dependent on Europeans.

Northern and Southern Rhodesia existed for the benefit of the minority white elite while the role of Africans was to be on hand to work for them and tend to their needs as they saw fit in order to enrich and give them a comfortable life.

Of course, this kind of exploitation was untenable and the Africans started to reject the forced status quo. They began to resist the racial discrimination they encountered on a daily basis.

The rallying cry was firstly against the British-controlled Central African Federation (CAF) which was an attempt to form a single block consisting of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, now called Malawi, to be ruled by the British and in conjunction with the BSAC. This conglomerate would have virtually no input from Africans at any level whatsoever.

Despite the radicalisation of Africans led by the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress (NRANC) with its leaders Harry Nkumbula and Kenneth Kaunda against this monstrosity, the CAF was formed in August 1953.

The struggle against white settler persecution of Africans did not end there and protests against the legitimacy of the CAF continued. This in turn prompted the colonial government to step up its crackdown on African protestors with beatings, assaults and arrests.

They launched an investigation into the leadership of the NRANC which led to their arrest. Unfortunately for the British this drew even more attention to the struggle against the colonisers both internally and externally.

By 1958, support against the CAF had reached a significant level and militancy increased. After being released from prison, Kaunda would go on to form the United Independence Party (UNIP). In 1960, Kaunda was invited to a conference in London to discuss the future of the three colonies.

The meeting was unsatisfactory to him, so he returned to Zambia and organised more non-violent mass protests. This seemed to do the trick and the Constitution was changed in 1962, allowing UNIP to participate in the October 1962 general election. UNIP won two-thirds of the total vote, giving them a majority of government seats. With Africans now in power, the CAF was dissolved in 1963. In early 1964, Northern Rhodesia held another election based on universal adult suffrage. Kaunda was elected Prime Minister. Independence was granted by the British, welcoming the “birth” of Zambia on October 24, 1964.

As is so often the case in Africa, leaders and ruling parties, having fought for democracy, at times to the death for many, as soon as it is attained it is killed almost at birth. Zambia was no exception. From 1972 to 1991, Zambia was a one-party State, with UNIP being the only legal political party in the country.

It should be noted here that Kaunda and the people of Zambia were collectively some of the greatest heroes of the liberation of virtually the whole of southern Africa.

After gaining independence he could have easily turned his back on the other liberation struggles going on in Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and South Africa. As a true revolutionary and a pan-Africanist, he didn’t. Zambia endured many attacks from hostile settler forces during this torrid period in the history of this region.

This being said, the one-party State debacle was a huge misstep on Kaunda’s part. The essence of democracy is accountability. If as an elected leader and political party you mess up then the people who put you in office have the right to remove you.

This infers that there has to be choice, an alternative to those already in power. It took Kaunda and Zambia 19 years to figure this out but when they did he was removed from office through the ballot, the very same process that saw him gain power some 27 years previously.

Kaunda’s election loss to Frederick Chiluba through a democratically held plebiscite was indeed a victory for the country, but the fact that the outgoing ruler accepted it was huge.

Almost immediately the country saw tremendous economic growth, it was as if a breath of fresh air had been breathed into the tired lungs of a battered State.

Since that first election after independence, Zambia has seen some seven elections with three different ruling parties and six different presidents. Zambia is a beacon of light along the dark path to African democracy.

Zimbabwe can learn a lot from Zambia, if it so chooses to.  In the 41 years Zimbabwe has been independent, it has only known one ruling party and two executive presidents, one of which gained power through a “soft” coup.

Many would argue that this country has never experienced a free and fair election, at best it has gotten one or the other but often neither. The accountability factor becomes moot when the result of an election is virtually pre-ordained due to an uneven playing field.

As was the case in Zambia, real sacrifices have been made by Zimbabweans to secure democratic freedoms and the end of tyranny and oppression, but when one sees the same tactics being employed by their government as those by their former colonial tormentors in order to hold onto power, one has to ask the question: is this what people died for?

A huge problem we see from any government formed from a liberation movement is an entitlement syndrome whereby the liberators think the country they have liberated belongs to them and not to the people of that country.

This then leads to the notion that they can do whatever they please. Unfortunately, without accountability it is usually mainly bad.

If you want to build a nation and you feel you can play a part, by all means put yourself forward to represent your constituents. But remember, the unwritten agreement you sign up for is that you are to be held accountable by those same voters who have the right to judge your performance and decide your fate when the time comes.

If you have delivered and want to continue then you should have nothing to fear.

If you have failed to deliver and you are turned out of office, you should have nothing to complain about, just let someone who is more capable or dedicated take over and move the country forward, simple. Just follow Zambia’s lead.

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