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"Inevitably, much of the time I spent in Zambia last November as a monitor of the elections, I was comparing the mood of the country to the time I had been there over 30 years before, during the nation's first non-racial multi-party elections ..." (jbv)

vol 12 no 2

"Not much of an election": Zambia 1996
Jim Kirkwood

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 2, February 1997
Page 27



Jim Kirkwood works with the Inter Church Coalition on Africa. He was in Zambia in November during the elections and spent from 1962 to 1976 in Zambia as a pastor with the United Church of Zambia.

Inevitably, much of the time I spent in Zambia last November as a monitor of the elections, I was comparing the mood of the country to the time I had been there over 30 years before, during the nation's first non-racial multi-party elections.

In 1963, I had been overseeing the postal vote for a remote part of Luapula province, ensuring that those who couldn't get back to where they had registered still had an opportunity to vote. In 1996, I was in Zambia for just under two weeks, covering the period a few days before and after the elections on November 18th. I was representing the United Church of Canada which was invited to be part of the international monitoring contingent by the Christian Council of Zambia.

Thirty years before, there had been a sense of a common purpose among the populace, whatever candidate they might favour. Political independence was the driving force and everyone was prepared to take part. Each party did voter education and mobilization, with workers often travelling village to village on bicycles. Village branches were strong, budgets were minimal and volunteerism was enthusiastic.

The country swung behind a UNIP majority, with 96 per cent of the eligible voters exercising their right to cast a ballot.

In 1996, I found a radically different situation. There was no unifying force. Politicians there, as here in Canada, seem primarily out for power and self-advancement, often forgetting their constituents between elections.

Nothing to choose

Other than the incumbent Movement for a Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), led by Frederick Chiluba, the only parties to run candidates last November were small and presented no alternative point of view. The other major Zambian political force, Kenneth Kaunda's United National Independence Party (UNIP), had been effectively sidelined by MMD's manipulation of constitutional reform.

The campaign was based mostly on personalities rather than issues. Indeed, there seemed to be no real policy differences in the platforms - all parties called for less government, freer trade, more privatization. In short, the SAP agenda. And every candidate declared themselves for greater national dignity and independence and stronger anti-crime measures.

One of the few exceptions was the relatively young Zambian Democratic Congress (ZADECO), headed by Dean Mungomba, a former Cabinet minister under Chiluba. ZADECO's manifesto calls for affirmative action for women and of the 60 female candidates in the electoral race, 40 ran for ZADECO. At ZADECO rallies, most of the `warm-up' speakers were women candidates.

It was indicative of the deep disappointment and misgivings about the most recent electoral process in Zambia that the Committee for a Clean Campaign (CCC), the umbrella group representing international and national NGOs, didn't wait for voting to declare, "It's not much of an election."

Registration figures disappointing

The glumness expressed by the CCC was widely felt. Even big budgets, an expensive computerized registration system and a registration period that was extended three times could manage to register only half of eligible voters. Not that apathy was the only problem. The process required that people make at least two trips to the registration centre and, in remote areas, that's a lot of kilometres to walk, before you even think of going to vote!

The registration process cost $18 million, paid for by foreign donors, and was done by an Israeli company, NIKUV, that local gossip linked to Mossad, Israel's security branch, and which was thus assumed to have experience skewing elections. Others thought NIKUV might have been chosen because they would kick back a substantial part of their fee to the government.

Election Day underscored the difference between 1963 and 1996. A mere one million voters went to the polls - about 25 percent of those eligible.

When the ballots had been counted, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, led by Frederick Chiluba, had 130 parliamentary seats out of a possible 150 parliamentary.

One-party state returns

Ironically, the name Movement for a Multi-Racial Democracy was coined in the 1991 election campaign to reflect public pressure to end the virtual one-party state that Kaunda had overseen for nearly three decades. But MMD seems to have effectively brought back the one-party state, multi party elections notwithstanding.

During the country's last elections, in 1991, the MMD had promised a new constitution during its term of office. People were enthusiastic and NGOs and others organized the `Green Convention', where hundreds of delegates met for days at Mulungushi Hall to produce detailed recommendations for changes to the existing constitution. They also called for a referendum to be held on any major constitutional changes. But in what was one of a long list of manipulative government actions, the recommendations and the referendum idea were rejected, and just a couple of amendments were made and pushed through parliament, where MMD had a clear majority.

The changes included the controversial amendment that not only did presidential candidates have to be Zambian citizens, but both their parents had to be as well. No one I spoke to doubted that this was aimed at Kaunda, whose parents came from Malawi. The constitutional changes also limited the number of terms a president could serve to two, also ruling out Kaunda who had already been in office 27 years.

NGOs led by the Committee for a Clean Campaign, churches, the Christian Council of Zambia, and other religious organizations, opposed the amendments and lobbied hard for a referendum. They lost.

This seemed to be the last straw for UNIP which resolved to boycott the elections; a number of small parties joined them. Kaunda and some of his senior people played golf on election day.

Some opposition parties petitioned the High Court to postpone the elections. Their basis for doing so was to require President Chiluba to prove that his grandparents were Zambian-born. In a move that did nothing for its credibility, the High Court, four days before the election, ruled against the opposition, saying that the proper time to present such a petition was 14 days after the election!

Committed to democratic ideal

Despite this cynical decision and the apathy that it helped engender, many ordinary people continued to believe in the process. In the Luapula polling station in Mandevu constituency, Lusaka, where I ended up at closing time, workers and the agents and the monitors, scrutinized and counted ballots by the light of two candles; silent mostly, always non-partisan, respectful, sometimes counting the votes in unison; almost an atmosphere of worship.

In our polling station, Prof. Nkanda Luo of the University of Zambia won by a wide margin for the MMD. Unfortunately, she was one of less than a dozen women elected.

The MMD's victory would have been better tolerated if the party had not blatantly manipulated the constitutional reform process to remove the only other major force, Kenneth Kaunda, however shopworn he and his UNIP had become after 27 years in office. But that raised the question for many people of why Chiluba bothered to manoeuvre Kaunda out of the election? Many people thought Chiluba would have been smarter to let Kaunda run and lose, an outcome almost everyone expected.

It was clear to us all that the international community, especially SADC, the former front-line states, wanted to see their old ally, Kaunda, in the race. He had given refuge to people and liberation movements from every member state in SADC and they didn't like seeing him treated shabbily. Nelson Mandela, SADC chairman, made several last ditch efforts to have Chiluba change his mind, to no avail.

`Free and fair': no agreement

There was no agreement among either national or international observers about whether or not the elections were `free and fair'. The officially sanctioned Electoral Commission, mandated by the Constitution to guide the elections, was appointed late and had limited powers to correct or solve problems. That, and the doubts expressed by some that it represented all parties, cast some cloud over its declaration that the elections were `free and fair'.

The Committee for a Clean Campaign concluded that the electoral process was not free and fair, although the day itself was admitted to be free of violence and intimidation, and little voter cheating. Most groups agreed on this evaluation of voting day, but one Zambian monitoring group, the Foundation for Democratic Process, a member of the CCC, declared that the process "was not acceptable by international standards."

My group, the Christian Council of Zambia, limited its opinion to Election Day and, on that basis, said that voting had been free and fair. Moreover, CCZ also made it clear that its statement was limited to one small area of the country. CCZ had about 30 monitors, working together in teams of three or four, and all monitoring at voting stations within a 40 km. radius of the capital of Lusaka. Within those limits, we declared that what we had seen had been `free and fair'. We pointed out that there were both positive and negative factors in the pre-election period, but we were only commenting on the day itself. Our decision put us at odds with the CCC, while the government papers headlined our approval, downplaying the qualifications we made.

The government's reaction to criticism of the elections did little to reinforce democratic values. Within a week, police had searched the CCC offices for their financial records and Chairmen Ngande Mwananjiti and Albert Zulu both spent a few hours in jail. Government press referred continually to outside interference in the monitoring process, implying that international donors had ordered the conclusion.

International community miffed

Most diplomatic observers were unhappy with the process, many objecting that Kaunda was so blatantly excluded. In protest, the IMF and World Bank held back on approving Zambia's economic performance. The USA cut aid by 10 percent; others froze it. However, by November 22nd, only the USA embassy had spoken out officially, declaring the elections not `free and fair', other foreign representatives such as Canada's High Commissioner, Mary Mosser, more diplomatically suggesting that Zambia was moving the wrong way on the path to democracy.

Despite the diplomatic disagreements, it's not likely to have further repercussions. During the week following the election, a delegation from the South African Chamber of Commerce was in Zambia to discuss the lowering of trade tariffs.

The elections aren't likely to bring any new ideas or energy to the resolution of Zambia's economic problems. Zambian manufacturers and small businesses, early victims of globalization and privatization, are predictably suffering from competition from South Africa and beyond. Zambia has sold about 80% of parastatal companies to the private sector and more will follow. ZCBC, one of Zambia's biggest and most profitable chain stores, has been bought out by South African interests, as has Mwaiseni Stores. Now they sport well-known South African names - PEP, Ackermans and Shoprite. Falconbridge (Canada) and Anglo American of South Africa are recent investors in Konkola mines, just two more of the many foreign companies that are gobbling up national assets at low prices.

For international business these developments are great, but for the people whose little purchasing power is quickly dwindling even further, the situation parallels the political - it's "Not much of an Economy."

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