14 March 2016

Zambia: Tough Times for Democracy in Zambia


Zambian elections are just five months away and incumbent President Edgar Lungu could once again face a tight race. Meanwhile the opposition is crying foul over political supression.

Zambia's president Edgar Lungu seems anxious and according to several observers, he is no longer able to hide it. Elections are set for August 11, 2016 and last year Lungu won by a slight margin when he took office to replace his deceased predecessor Michael Sata. In the presidential by-election of January 2015, Lungu (Patriotic Front, PF) beat his challenger Hakainde Hichilema (United Party for National Development , UPND) by only 1.6 percent.

Just five months ahead of the elections, the opposition feels muzzled. Last Thursday (11.03.2016) UPND vice president, Geoffrey Mwamba pleaded not guilty to training youths in the use of arms without the president's permission. Mwamba was also temporarily detained for allegedly having threatened "to go for [the president's] throat". That's according to the police.

Out-maneuvering out opponents

Whether the accusations are true is unclear. Yet many in Zambia believe that politics are at the heart of the matter. The PF is already in campaign mode and they are restricting other political parties from contesting, political analyst Nalukui Milapo from the University of Zambia told DW.

Milapo is concerned about cases like Mwamba's or the case of former PF lawmaker, Miles Sampa. Sampa who founded his own party, the Democratic Front, barely escaped a violent mob of youths who are believed to be aligned with the ruling party. Zambia's vice president, Inonge Wina later condemned the attack.

There are also more subtle ways in which the ruling party is undermining the opposition, explained Milapo. Public opposition events are being quashed, while the PF promotes itself through women's campaigns or prominent appearances on TV.

During an afternoon power cut in the Lusaka township of Bauleni, 52-year-old Stanford Mwanza varnishes a wardrobe and does what work he can in his carpentry workshop. "It's a hell of a problem," Mwanza says of daily 8-hour power cuts. "The power went at 10 a.m. this morning and now we just have to wait. Normally it takes me 3 weeks to finish a wardrobe but this one has taken 2 months."

For Bauleni's 15,000 residents, power cuts - called load shedding - follow a continuous 8-hour rotation, while schedules vary in the capital Lusaka (pop. 1.4 million). During blackouts people resort to generators - if they can afford to. An erratic rainy season from last October to March this year is blamed for the energy crisis in a country in which almost all power is hydroelectric.

There's little activity at welding workshops, during Bauleni's mid-afternoon power cut. The welders spend much of their time chatting. And because of the cuts much of the day goes to waste.

"If food defrosts, we have to throw it away so we must use a generator, which is expensive," says Bismark Musheke, 22, in a Bauleni butcher's shop. Power cuts cause 40 percent additional costs in emerging economies, the Wold Bank estimates. Too much for many local businesses. "The situation is creating high unemployment, then production goes down. It's affecting the whole economy," Musheke says.

Due to power cuts, demand for charcoal has increased significantly, as have charcoal prices for many living on just a couple of dollars a day. "Charcoal supplies are often sold out by ten in the morning rather than by four in the afternoon. Even before the power cuts Zambia had Africa's fastest rate of deforestation," conservationist Jo Pope says.

Ten-year-old Natasha makes the most of power returning to Bauleni to fill buckets of water from a communal tap - the four local water pump stations don't work during blackouts. "Then there's no water for toilets and it's hard to wash clothes," says 49-year-old Dinna, wife of Stanford Mwanza. "Sometimes we have to get up at 3 a.m. to fill the buckets."

Over in Tenderer East, a larger Lusaka township, 59-year-old taxi driver Grivin Phiri stands with his 19-year-old son Rabson next to a machine used to make about 50 jars of peanut butter a week to sell to neighbors for extra income. "I want to make it every day but can only do it when there's power," Phiri says. "So I don't care what time it is - if there's power I'll make peanut butter."

Phiri's household uses an electric cooker and a charcoal brazier to cook food and heat water. "During the day we cook with charcoal even if there's power as it's cheaper," Phiri says. "We use the cooker for supper as it's quicker, while we heat water on the brazier for bedtime." Each morning Rabson and one of his brothersnroll a 210-liter (55 US gallons) barrel to a communal tap to collect water.

"We lose customers," 24-year-old Clementina says at a Bauleni hair salon. "When we use the generator we must charge more, which annoys customers, plus it's not big enough to do power drying and blowing at the same time. Our lives depend on the salon, if we don't work, we don't eat." While unsure of what's caused the power crisis, she suspects a combination of lack of water and bad governance.

Most of Zambia's hydroelectric power usually comes from the Kariba dam and the world's largest man-made reservoir. But water levels are too low after poor rains, claim officials at the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO). On a lucky evening such as this one, 33-year-old Robbie Mwanza can watch television with his wife and son.

Once power does return to Bauleni, Jabulani Keswa is back to making window frames. He says his usual output of five a day is down to two. Looking at one on the ground, he says: "The owner wanted this yesterday." Then he switches on his blowtorch to quickly work on the order. "If power comes on at night, you don't feel like working and when you wake up there's no power," he says.

While two-thirds of all Zambians still live below the national poverty line, Lusaka's upper and middle classes spend their time in the city's luxury shopping malls. In the last year, Zambia's economy took a hard blow as copper prices dropped. Additionally the country is experiencing a severe drought as its population grapples with recurrent power outages. For many Zambians, the fight for survival is so great, that political participation is the farthest thing from their minds, explained Helmut Elischer who heads the German Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Zambia.

Immune to justice?

Poverty, missmanagement and rampant corruption are the issues that worry Lee Habasonda, head of the Zambian Transparency International chapter. "Lungu's main aim is to win the elections," Habasonda said. "What he is doing now is looking aside and ignoring cases of certain people who are supporting him but are facing corruption charges." Habasonda said. "I am referring to the former president of Zambia, Rupiah Banda who has rendered support to Lungu and all of a sudden his cases are dead. They are dropped."

Banda is accused of having personally profited from a million dollar oil deal with Nigeria during his time in office between 2008 and 2011. Banda belongs to the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), but he is said to be close to Lungu, who has given several high-ranking posts to members of the MMD. Only last Friday (11.03.2016) it was announced that the government plans to restore Banda's immunity from prosecution, which he lost three years ago.

Media under pressure

A few days ago, Zambia's anti-corruption chief, Rosewin Wandi resigned. According to one of the more critical Zambian newspapers, 'The Post', she had come under pressure for attempting to investigate a case very close to the president. The paper itself has had a few run-ins with the authorities. In July 2015, an editor with 'The Post' was shortly detained for allegedly publishing classified state documents. In December the paper's offices were raided for tax evasion.

In its Press Freedom report (2015), the US based watchdog Freedom House rated Zambia as 'Not Free'.

Incumbent presidents can lose

"By regional comparison, the Zambian press is incredibly free," Alastair Fraser an African politics lecturer from SOAS in London said. "You can say anything and people do say anything", he said. That's the reason why the papers are full of rumors and slander, he added.

There is no real threat to press freedom or democracy in Zambia, Fraser said. On the contrary: "It's perfectly plausible for political parties to be voted out, which is still not that common an occurrence across Africa. But incumbent presidents in Zambia can lose, have lost and might lose again."

In Zambia itself, however, some remain more skeptical. From outside, Zambia is often portrayed as a model democracy, political analyst Milopa told DW. "If you're on the ground here, you find that things are not okay."


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