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Zambia Electoral Commission
Zambia voting

This post is part one of a two-part series on the Zambia 2021 elections. Click here to read part two.

Zambians woke up to a new dawn on Monday, August 16, 2021—the election of business mogul-turned-politician Hakainde Hichilema as the seventh president of the Republic of Zambia. Will Hichilema deliver on the hopes of 18 million Zambians bruised over the past 10 years by false and broken promises?

The jury is out.

The August 12, 2021 election was one of the most bitterly contested polls in the history of the southern African nation, now 30 years into its democratic journey.

President-elect Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND) gave an electoral drubbing to outgoing President Edgar Lungu and his Patriotic Front (PF) party. The election and Lungu’s promise in his farewell speech to the nation of a peaceful handover of power is a major vindication for Zambian democracy which, unlike many other countries where opposition parties struggle to remove incumbents, has seen sitting presidents ousted before.

Elsewhere, incumbency and impunity have too often largely driven a one-sided race in which opposition parties are suffocated under the weight of autocratic state institutions.

Hichilema’s win makes him Zambia’s seventh president to be elected to lead the former British colony since independence in 1964 and the sixth since multi-party politics were reintroduced in 1991.

For Lungu, his defeat graphically illustrates how the invincibility of a ruthless state machinery can easily melt away when confronted by an angry, desolate, dejected, and yet determined population.

There are multitudes of political crimes that Lungu and his administration are deemed guilty of committing in the minds of the voters, mainly amongst jobless youths who have found expression in the outcome of the vote.

The issues that drove thousands of Zambians to wake up as early as 02:00 am, while many more spent the night at polling stations, are numerous but chiefly include Lungu’s attempt to circumvent the constitution by pressing for a third term in office in violation of the mandatory two terms limit.

Although Lungu eventually received majority endorsement from the Constitutional Court of Zambia to stand in this year’s election, the judicial victory was, by and large, in the court of public opinion perceived to have been doctored by Lungu. The Court is packed with Lungu’s former law school colleagues and friends, a situation that, rightly or wrongly, led many to believe the court process was being abused to favor Lungu.

Having stopped Zambia’s second president, Frederick Chiluba, from seeking a third term in office in 2001, and having ended founding president Kenneth Kaunda’s 27-year rule, Zambians were determined to punish Lungu for what was perceived, again rightly or wrongly, to be judiciary trickery to circumvent the law and will of the people.

In addition, there were other pressing issues that include excruciatingly high unemployment levels—mainly among youth who roam the streets with university degrees in their hands—corruption, and mismanagement. All of this has taken place in an undeniably resource-rich country—the world’s seventh and Africa’s second-largest copper and cobalt producer.

While the election has ended in tears for Lungu, who came to power unexpectedly in 2015 when his then-boss and founding leader of the PF party, the populist Michael Sata passed away, it is no doubt a huge celebration for Zambia and Africa along the continent’s path to democratic consolidation.

However, for Zambia, Lungu’s defeat must also send a clear and loud message that if a revered leader such as Kaunda could be toppled from power, as occurred in the elections in 1991, then Zambia would never again allow a politician to take it for granted.

To Hichilema and his team from the UPND, the message is equally palpable.

Hichilema and his UPND party faced an uphill battle in these elections—challenges ranged from being excluded from coverage by state media to being barred from campaigning in almost half of the country to being subjected to regular and unending police harassment and beatings.

Zambia’s democratic credentials were tested to the limit. With Hichilema’s landslide confirmed by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), we must now interrogate the reasons for Lungu’s humiliating downfall, as these will serve as useful lessons for posterity on a continent where the “Big Man” syndrome still lingers.

This post is part one of a two-part series on the Zambia 2021 elections. Click here to read part two.

About the Author

Buchizya Mseteka

Political Commentator, Johannesburg, South Africa
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our Africa Up Close blog, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more