The COVID-19 pandemic made it very difficult to maintain the delicate balance between safeguarding the right to health for citizens and promoting participatory democracy. But bearing in mind that elections are the heart and soul of liberal democracy, it is imperative for African states to advance both democracy and human security simultaneously. Failure to maintain the democracy-human security balance could reverse democratic gains in Africa. Already, there is a loud hue and cry over the biased enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions especially in the run up to and during elections. Meanwhile, several countries have had to postpone elections on account of the pandemic. It is therefore refreshing that under this dark cloud of the deadly ‘third wave’ of the COVID-19, many countries have nonetheless proceeded to hold elections; Zambia being one of such countries.
The #COVID19 pandemic made it very difficult to maintain the delicate balance between safeguarding the right to health and promoting participatory democracy @ebklegacyTweet
At the invitation of the Government of Zambia, and as part of its mandate to deepen democratic governance in Africa, the African Union (AU) deployed a Short-Term Election Observation Mission (EOM) to Zambia on 4 August 2021. The Mission consisted of 30 observers, four independent electoral experts and a technical team. I had the honour of leading that Mission, supported by the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye, and the former Vice President of the Republic of Uganda, Dr Speciosa Naigaga Wandira Kazibwe. The AUEOM’s mandate was hinged against the backdrop of its statutory obligation as contained in the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG), the 2002 OAU/AU Declaration on Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa and the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). In essence, our activities were informed by the AU’s Guidelines for Election Observation and Monitoring Missions, the 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and, of course, by Zambia’s national legal framework governing elections.
The Mission held consultations with multiple key electoral stakeholders, including the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), political parties and candidates, security agencies, representatives of civil society organisations notably the Christian Churches Monitoring Group, the media, the Zambian Human Rights Commission and Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Southern African nation.
Through these consultations the AUEOM assessed the preparedness of the respective stakeholders, particularly the ECZ, regarding the holding of the multi-tier elections. We were impressed that ECZ had carried out essential activities on time, and per its electoral calendar. Though fraught with some challenges, their accreditation and support of the active participation of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) was an important step in enhancing the credibility and transparency of the electoral process. The consultations by the AUEOM also found that the media in Zambia was diverse; yet highly polarised along party lines, which resulted in a noticeable increase in hate speech, misinformation, and cyberbullying. Most of the stakeholders informed the AUEOM that the election coverage provided by the national broadcaster, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), was biased in favour of the ruling party.
The @AUC_PAPS Electoral Observer Mission #AUEOM found that during the election the media in #Zambia was diverse; yet highly polarised along party lines, which resulted in a noticeable increase in hate speech, misinformation, and cyberbullying @ebklegacyTweet
Nonetheless, on 12 August 2021, Zambians went to the polls for the 7th time since the re-establishment of multi-party democracy in 1991. The election resulted in the incumbent Edgar Lungu losing to his long-standing rival, Hakainde Hichilema. Many commended Zambia for holding credible and peaceful elections and rightly so. As in many other countries, there was near unanimity among Zambian stakeholders that while many social restrictions may be justifiable in the face of the pandemic, such restrictions where disproportionate and tended to extend the powers of the government at the peril of the opposition.
Typically, emergency measures, ostensibly to curb the pandemic, have increasingly become a subterfuge to clip democratic freedoms – more so of political opponents. This uneven enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions (and other factors including insecurity) has significantly affected voter turn-out in Mali (35.58% and 35.25% respectively during the March and April Polls) and Benin (49.14%). Low voter turn-out strips electoral outcomes of their credibility, undermines the legitimacy of governments borne out of such elections. Invariably, these could serve as antecedents for post-election political violence and instability.
Thankfully, unlike what has transpired in other countries; where elections had been conducted under the cloud of COVID -19, the voter turn-out during the Zambian election stood at around 76%. Worthy of note is that the ECZ had put in place a number of preventative measures including hand washing stations, alcohol-based sanitizers and the majority of voters wore their face masks. However, the huge voter turn-out meant that the COVID-19 preventative measures, particularly physical distancing, were not systematically adhered to. Additionally, many polling stations were not accessible for people in wheelchairs, thus limiting voting accessibility for the physically challenged. For the visually impaired however, there was sufficient provision to aid them in casting their votes.
Clearly, while there were some challenges, the process was largely well-organised and well- managed. For instance, a greater majority of polling stations were set up in a manner that ensured secrecy of the ballots. The presence of the security personnel was not overbearing, and their conduct was professional. Election day procedures with regard to the verification and inking of voters, the display, stamping and sealing of ballot boxes, were transparent and inclusive of party agents. And so, Zambians elected a new leader, one of the growing examples in Africa where the opposition successfully, and peacefully, unseated the incumbent President.
The elections in #Zambia has done Africa proud, and it is worthy for other African nations to learn from one another’s success stories @ebklegacyTweet
Our Mission was not only to observe elections and leave. The AU, for the first time, decided to include what it called ‘preventive diplomacy’. This is a proactive initiative designed to mediate and resolve any disputes that might arise following the polls. The AU was spot on. There had been a long running feud between the two protagonists which could have erupted into violence with a propensity to undermine the entire electoral process. Coming from a country which had experienced a brutal war and having undertaken the difficult task of rebuilding Sierra Leone’s battered infrastructure and crucially, building on and consolidating peace; I was well placed, with the support of other African leaders – former Presidents Rupia Banda of Zambia, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and former Vice President of Uganda, Dr Speciosa Kazibwe – to convince the two candidates to put aside their personal differences in the best interest of their nation. We entreated all parties to refrain from violence, hate speech and intimidation and to use the appropriate channels to resolve disputes regarding the elections. Preventive diplomacy worked! Despite early reports of politically motivated violence, ultimately the incumbent conceded defeat, congratulated the president elect and Zambians upheld their enviable record of being a beacon of democracy, peace and stability in Africa.
What this underscores is the indisputable fact that Africans are capable of handling their own challenges; that politicians should never endanger the lives of citizens by trying to hold onto power, the incumbent should never harass opponents and newly elected leaders should accommodate the outgoing rather than persecute them. When that happens, transitions will be peaceful, and democracy will flourish. I am committed to these efforts in pursuit of the Africa we want in which democracy thrives for a cohesive integrated Africa as espoused in Agenda 2063.
I am very optimistic that the outgoing President Lungu and incoming President Hichilema will keep to their gentleman’s agreement. Hichilema has a much bigger task of attending to the aspirations of the millions of Zambians who so resoundingly voted for him. He should not allow himself to be distracted because the citizens elected him for a change and that he must start delivering on as soon as possible before the honeymoon euphoria starts to fizzle out.
Zambia has done Africa proud, and it is worthy for other African nations to learn from one another’s success stories.
H.E Ernest Bai Koroma, President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, 2007-2018.