Zambia is on the verge of being a one-party state

Zambia President Hakainde Hichilema

Zambia’s former ruling parties have typically fared poorly after losing power. The United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled for 27 years but gradually collapsed following its defeat in 1991. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) led the country for the next 20 years yet similarly dissipated after losing power in 2011.

When the Patriotic Front (PF) went into opposition after losing elections in 2021, many expected it to follow the same route — including the new president, Hakainde Hichilema. Just two months after the election, he declared the PF to be dead and buried. “The dead do not come back from the graveyard. Do not make the mistake of voting for a ghost,” he warned ahead of a by-election. Yet, in that poll, voters overwhelmingly backed the PF. And since then, the opposition party has showed that there is life left in it.

The resilience of the PF

There are several reasons that explain why the former ruling party has not crumbled since 2021.

First, it has benefited from changes to the constitution introduced by former president Edgar Lungu in 2016. Those amendments made it harder for MPs to cross the floor, which now trigger a by-election in which the incumbent is barred from running. This enforced discipline has enabled the main opposition party to retain control over its members. The abolition of the position of deputy minister and the limit of 30 cabinet ministers have also reduced Hichilema’s capacity to dispense patronage, aiding the PF’s survival.

Second, the former ruling party retains a stable base both among the electorate — especially in the Copperbelt, northern, and eastern parts — and in parliament, where 58 of 59 opposition seats belong to the PF. Unlike after previous instances transfers of power, the losing party has not suffered mass defections to the new ruling party.

Third, the PF has not yet held a convention to elect the successor to Lungu, who formally quit active politics in August 2021. This has kept different factions jockeying for power and the chance to lead the party and country. These factors — alongside an uncertain economic outlook and an incumbent seen as promoting ethnic-regional appointments — have left the PF relatively intact.

Ahead of two by-elections in October 2022, it looked like the “ghost” party was set to win again.

This time, the ruling United Party for National Development (UPND) manipulated both Zambia’s electoral body and the judicial process to exclude the PF candidates from the ballots. Pitted against weaker rivals, the ruling party won easily. At the same time, the UPND seemingly decided to crush the opposition going forwards.

The first expression of this strategy arose in April 2023 when the government threatened to deregister the PF for failure to provide an updated list of office bearers following Lungu’s retirement. Public backlash against the move forced the UPND to back down.

The second occurred this May when the Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Jack Mwiimbu, issued a bizarre notice that conferred powers on the Registrar of Societies to order political parties to hold elective conventions “within sixty days” to fill any vacancies. Failure to comply, Mwimbu warned, would have serious consequences. Although the notice applied to all political parties, it was primarily intended to force the PF to choose Lungu’s successor so that Hichilema could know his rival for the next election well in advance. In early-October, the Registrar of Societies used its new powers and ordered parties to hold elective conventions or face deregistration. When the PF refused and threatened to challenge the legality of the directive, the UPND moved to essentially take over the main opposition party.

Hichilema’s coalition

To better understand this final element of the UPND’s strategy, it is important to locate its campaign within a broad coalition of domestic and international interest groups that stand to benefit from the PF’s suffocation.

The first group consists of international, mainly Western, actors. The PF is believed to ideologically lean towards China and Russia. Western nations seek Zambia’s alignment not only in terms of diplomacy but access to precious minerals essential to energy transition. In Hichilema, they have a malleable partner, which explains why they have been largely restrained in their criticism of him. For them, overlooking Hichilema’s attacks on democracy is a small price to pay for having a leader who serves their interests.

The second group is made up of prominent domestic and foreign businessmen who aligned with the UPND for financial reasons. They bankrolled Hichilema’s election campaigns and now seek a return on their investment. One five-year term is insufficient to recoup their investment, so they are pushing for his re-election. One or two of these businessmen are reportedly financing a faction that recently sprouted within the PF and is generally seen as working with the UPND to weaken the main opposition party from within.

Another set of local businessmen is made up of Hichilema’s close allies from the 1990s when major state enterprises were dismantled for privatisation. Their reference point is former President Frederick Chiluba (1991-2002), who opened the door of accumulation for them but got side-tracked by a life of fancy suits and shoes. The nationalistic impulses of Chiluba’s successors adversely affected this cohort’s aspirations, but the election of a privatisation-minded leader has thrust the country back into their hands. Added to this local network of businessmen is the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, Hichilema’s long-term supporters, that serves as a lobby for foreign mining capital. Its head appears to be a key member of the shadow state that seems to be deciding government policy.

A third group comprises budding presidential hopefuls within the UPND. Hichilema is eligible to stand for re-election in 2026, but this group is looking to the longer-term and the need to maintain the party’s position. Supporting Hichilema in weakening the PF secures their collective future prospects.

The fourth group is made up of professional elements of urban middle-class Zambians embedded in civil society, academia, and the private media. They are not card-carrying UPND members, but their personal, ethno-regional, and business interests make them kowtow to Hichilema. These elites were vocal critics of abuses of government power under the PF but now either have been sucked into various government bodies or are tacitly supporting the president for reasons that have little to do with public considerations. The private media, for example, has positioned itself as a loyal mouthpiece of Hichilema. On the rare occasions it offers criticism, the tone is one of annoyance that the leader’s activities may jeopardise his electoral prospects.

Aware that the PF’s survival threatens their long-term material interests and business aspirations, this group’s members – who help shape public opinion using diminishing credibility gained from criticising Lungu-era wrongs – are shielding Hichilema from blame, discrediting his critics, and delegitimising the opposition by persuading voters to see them as dangerous. This group is focussed less on defending UPND than on discrediting the opposition and critics of Hichilema.

The final group is made up of Hichilema, Mwiimbu, and the loyalist officials around them. A cabinet minister who requested anonymity revealed that no amount of criticism is likely to dissuade the president (also known as HH) from destroying the PF. “He harbours an intense dislike for the PF that makes him totally inadvisable on the issue. It is like the former ruling party reminds him of the atrocities committed against him in opposition and annihilating it is a form of closure for him or enacting revenge. If the PF was a building, I am convinced that HH would have razed it to the ground.”

While there may be truth to this reading, the president’s undemocratic manoeuvres are also driven by a desperate desire for re-election.

A questionable convention

The PF’s voting base has not disintegrated and if the opposition was to find a new credible leader or form an alliance with other parties, it could well win the 2026 election. The UPND is therefore eager to nullify the PF and acquire its supporters — either directly after destroying the PF or indirectly by installing its own leadership within the opposition party.

This explains why, when the PF refused to comply with the directive to hold an elective convention, the UPND moved to effectively organise the convention on behalf of them. On 24 October, Miles Sampa, a renegade PF MP and one of the eight individuals who had formally expressed interest in replacing Lungu, caught his party unaware when he held a hitherto unannounced meeting that he dubbed “the PF convention to elect new office bearers”. The use of a key government facility as the meeting’s venue, the heavy presence of state security normally reserved for the president, and the live broadcast of proceedings on the national television provided earliest prima facie evidence of the state’s involvement in this scheme.

Under Hichilema’s rule, police only appear at opposition gatherings to disrupt not protect them, and the state-run broadcaster serves as the mouthpiece of the governing party. A day later, the convenors submitted a list of new office bearers, with Sampa as PF president, to the Registrar of Societies.

The same day, the leadership of the PF accused Sampa of gross indiscipline and expelled him from the party. They asked the Speaker of the National Assembly, Nelly Mutti, to declare his seat vacant. Mutti, an ex-UPND lawyer, refused, saying that only the Constitutional Court has the authority to do so. Zambia’s constitution states that an expelled MP “shall not lose the seat until the expulsion is confirmed by a court, except…where the member does not challenge the expulsion in court.” Sampa has, to date, not filed such a challenge.

On 26 October, Sampa’s faction, which retains the support of only one or two MPs, wrote to the Speaker asking her to accept the changes it had made to the party’s leadership in parliament. For context, the constitution provides that “the opposition political party with the largest number of seats in the National Assembly shall elect a Leader of the Opposition from amongst the Members of Parliament who are from the opposition.”

On 30 October, the Clerk of the National Assembly Roy Ngulube wrote to the Registrar of Societies, ThandiweMhende, seeking clarity on the leadership of the PF. She responded the same day, saying that the process of confirming if Sampa’s faction had complied with the PF constitution “has not yet been completed”. “Kindly note that the office will give official notification of complete change as soon as the process is finalised,” she concluded in the correspondence that was received by Ngulube and not made public but has been seen by African Arguments.

Despite this ongoing process, the Public Relations Officer of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Collins Hikalinda, told the state-run ZNBC that they had received “a submission from the Patriotic Front, which ushered in Honourable Miles Sampa as its new president”. The following day, the Speaker accepted the proposed changes to the PF’s parliamentary leadership.

This sparked protests from at least 40 PF MPs who, alongside several independent lawmakers, notified the Clerk of the National Assembly on 3 November about their intention to impeach the Speaker for, among other charges, abrogating the Constitution. In a move that was widely seen as aimed at frustrating the impeachment motion, Speaker Mutti on November 7 issued 30-day suspensions to 19 of these MPs for alleged lawlessness.

Amidst intense public criticism that the Speaker had “gone rogue”, the Clerk of the National Assembly released a carefully-worded press statement on  November 7, stating that: “Before the announcement of the changes were made, the office of the Clerk wrote to the Registrar of Societies to confirm the office bearers of the Patriotic Front. In the response to the Clerk, the Registrar of Societies confirmed being in receipt of the new office bearers of the Patriotic Front, among whom was Mr Morgan Ng’ona as Secretary General”.

This misleading statement — the Registrar had indeed listed the submitted names but made it clear that “verification…has not yet been completed” — was the first official attempt to cover up the Speaker’s misconduct. The second occurred about a week later after Mhende, in fulfilment of a court order submitted by the PF, issued a printout of the electronic registration records showing that the office bearers of the PF had not been changed. This put Mutti and the UPND’s attempt to kill the PF in an awkward position. The government acted quickly.

Mhende was immediately removed from her position. Government spokesperson Cornelius Mweetwa said the official was being transferred as “she had become inimical to the requirement of her office” and said that she had released “certain documents” to a PF lawyer that she was not supposed to have. This revelation seemed to confirm the authenticity of the printout, contradicting the Minister of Home Affairs who had earlier attempted to discredit it.

According to parliamentary sources, Mhende had been hesitant to accept the Sampa faction’s submission of new office bearers due to the lack of evidence they had complied with several articles of the PF constitution. Article 46, for instance, provides that a convention shall only be legal if it is attended by “up to 500 delegates from each province selected in accordance with rules made by the Central Committee” and “all members of the National Council”. Article 50 (1) explains that the National Council, which is also required to approve candidates for the party presidency prior to the convention, consists of “(a) Members of the Central Committee; (b) Members of the National Assembly; (c) Provincial Secretaries; (d) District Chairmen; District Secretaries; (f) District Chairmen and Committee members of the Women’s and Youth Leagues; (g) Senior officers from the Party’s National Headquarters.” Article 55 (c) stipulates that the national party chairperson must preside over the convention.

None of these requirements were met. Furthermore, the secretive nature of Sampa’s “convention” effectively excluded the other seven candidates who had expressed interest in standing for the PF presidency. This exclusion violated Article 60 of Zambia’s constitution, which obliges political parties to “respect the right of its members to participate in the affairs of the political party” by standing as candidates and voting.

Anatomy of a doctored letter

Well-placed parliamentary sources suggest that, on 14 November, Hichilema’s group started to manufacture evidence that the Registrar of Societies had completed Sampa’s verification process two weeks earlier and cleared the Speaker to effect the changes she had made to the PF’s leadership. For a start, the contents of the letter Mhende had written to the Clerk of the National Assembly on 30 October were altered. The original sentence stating that the “verification of the submission and attachments has not yet been completed” was amended to delete the words “not yet”. The final paragraph stating “Kindly note that the office will give official notification of complete change as soon as the process is finalised” was removed.

This done, Mhende’s deputy Jason Mwambazi, was made to sign the tampered letter on behalf of the Registrar of Societies. The letter nonetheless retained the 30 October date, a day on which Mhende was still in position and working – as confirmed by the original letter.

In what appears to have been a clumsily orchestrated move, this letter was leaked and widely publicised on UPND-aligned platforms. This was done for two possible reasons.

The first was to cast doubt on the Mhende’s integrity. If the letter was real, she would have known that the Sampa faction’s choices had been installed when she printed the electronic record of the (in this case, former) PF office bearers. An inconsistency in this narrative, however, is that two days after Mhende’s removal, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Infernal Security Dickson Matembo publicly admitted that his ministry were still having challenges completing the process of verifying Sampa’s submissions. “Once the process is completed, the nation will be informed,” he said.

The second reason for leaking the letter was to absolve Mutti by making it seem that she had changed the PF’s parliamentary leadership based on information provided by the Registrar of Societies. One of the biggest publicists of the altered letter was Laura Miti, a commissioner on Zambia’s Human Rights Commission and vociferous Hichilema supporter, who wrote on Facebook minutes after the leak: “[The letter] releases the Speaker from any blame. She is the only one in this matter who can ask – so what was I supposed to do?”

The government then appointed Mariah Mulenga, a junior legal officer under the Ministry of Home Affairs, to act as Registrar of Societies. A well-placed source at Cabinet Office told a leading private newspaper that Mulenga was only considered after the three officers immediately junior to the Chief Registrar of Societies declined the position.

“The structure is that there is the position of Chief Registrar, which is at Director level. Then follows Deputy Chief Registrar (Jason Mwambazi), then Principal Registrar who is followed by M & E Registrar (Ms Cecilia Malawo). After this, there is a level of support staff. But the powers that be have appointed a legal counsel, Maria Mulenga, who is at level four of the Registrar to act as Chief Registrar of Societies. Her job description has quickly been amended to include functions of Chief Registrar for purposes of effecting the changes which all the other senior officers refused to effect”, The Mast newspaper quoted an unnamed government source on 20 November.

Ten days later, the new acting Registrar of Societies wrote to Sampa’s lawyers confirming that the record of PF office bearers had finally been changed. Enclosed in the letter, publicised by Sampa and state media, was the list of office bearers in the form of an official electronic record. This time, the government spokesperson Cornelius Mweetwa did not protest that the Registrar of Societies had wrongly released the documents to lawyers.

Meanwhile, when PF leaders moved to challenge the legality of Sampa’s convention, the decisions his faction makes in the name of the party, or the Speaker’s actions, the judiciary kept postponing the cases. Even when Sampa was sued for criminal perjury and forgery of PF documents, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Gilbert Phiri, Hichilema’s former lawyer, moved to block his prosecution.

Expulsions begin

Emboldened by support from Hichilema, Sampa’s faction has since moved to expel nine PF MPs for alleged gross indiscipline and insubordination. Those targeted are considered presidential hopefuls and have led the opposition to the PF takeover. The choice of the expelled MPs was made to intimidate them into submission and send a warning to the remaining lawmakers.

In case the nine MPs challenge the expulsions, the UPND has reportedly already lined up a few friendly judges. If the courts do not confirm the expulsion, Article 72 (6) of Zambia’s Constitution allows the victorious MP to either remain a member of their political party or retain their seat as an independent. If, as expected, the expulsions are confirmed, by-elections will be held. In this instance, the Electoral Commission of Zambia, led by another ex-UPND lawyer, is expected to only accept the nomination of PF candidates who belong to Sampa’s faction.

Under these conditions, it is likely the UPND will win the by-elections. Their only opponents would be official PF contestants that lack legitimacy and poorly funded smaller opposition candidates. Hichilema is desperate to win these seats for several reasons. First, the UPND has no parliamentary representation in one or two of the provinces where the expelled MPs come from. Winning a few seats would fix this unwanted record and give the ruling party a cosmetic but important appearance of national character. Second, Hichilema’s party is about seven seats short of a the two-third majority needed in parliament to make changes to the constitution. Amendments could be made to make it easier for the president to gain re-election, extend presidential terms, or lift the immunity of former president Lungu. Third, winning seats from the opposition would be a step forwards in what the highly regarded retired Archbishop of Lusaka TelesphoreMpundu calls the “state-orchestrated murder of the PF”.

Zambia becoming a one-party state

I was an opponent of the PF’s undemocratic actions when it was in power and a regular critic of then President Lungu. But one does not have to support the PF to see that the absence of a viable opposition party will be a terrible development for Zambia’s multiparty democracy. Over the last decade, the country has evolved into a two-party system. Out of the 156 parliamentary seats directly elected under first-past-the-post, the UPND and PF share 142. If one of these parties disappears or if Hichilema succeeds in his efforts to obliterate the PF, Zambia will effectively be a one-party state.

The President, increasingly authoritarian and bidding for absolute power, has already done much to weaken the usual sources of resistance. He has co-opted into government bodies most of the critical voices from civil society that challenged Lungu’s authoritarian tendencies, packed the courts and electoral body with his own appointees, and secured the silence of Western actors who have traditionally condemned attacks on democracy.

The UPND and its supporters like arguing that Hichilema will easily retain power in 2026 not because he has delivered on his many campaign promises but because “there is no credible opposition”. What is clear is that his administration is systemically and ruthlessly crushing any semblance of opposition. As the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops recently pointed out, the police have blocked all public rallies called by opposition parties outside of by-elections, always citing unspecified security concerns or inadequate manpower, since 2021.

In addition to the ongoing theft of the PF, many of its presidential hopefuls have been saddled with court cases, while one of Hichilema’s supporters has petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare Lungu ineligible to stand in 2026. Another promising candidate, Fred M’membe of the Socialist Party, has been targeted for electoral exclusion with multiple court cases out of which the UPND hopes to secure a dubious criminal conviction that would disqualify him from running in the next election. So committed to this outcome is Hichilema’s group that the DPP has personally travelled for M’membe’s court hearings outside Lusaka.

Lungu left weak formal institutions such as the judiciary, electoral commission, and police. Hichilema is weakening them even further by sapping any semblance of remaining professionalism. Herein lies the real danger. Once public trust in these and other institutions is totally eroded, opposition to the UPND may find expression in undemocratic means or informal outlets. Already, growing levels of frustration with the government’s failure to address the escalating cost-of-living crisis have left many areas, especially in towns and cities, teetering on the brink of social unrest. It may not take much to torch this simmering discontent. Not even Hichilema may survive the potential consequences of what he is, in effect, brewing.

Who, or what, will stop Hichilema?

  • SishuwaSishuwa is a Zambian writer, historian, and Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

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