COVID-19, Issues of Governance and Mounting Political Unrest in Zambia

Photo by SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images
Photo by SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images

The impact of COVID-19 has become far-reaching and multidimensional in nature. It ranges from social, cultural, physical, economic to political dimensions. While many countries are working hard to ensure that the impact is minimised, new challenges are emerging. It is clear that the pressure of the pandemic has exacerbated a mounting economic crisis.

Citizens in many countries have also been condemning governments for heightened measures that have limited the supply of goods and services, thus increasing poverty levels among the people. Economic pressures brought by COVID-19, coupled with misappropriation of funds have in some countries led to the holding of demonstrations against governments. In Zambia, the youth and opposition political parties have also seized the opportunity to condemn the government for failing to introduce measures that could cushion the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and corrupt practices. They have organised demonstrations together with concerned citizens calling for the government to be more accountable and transparent over public expenditure and about the pandemic itself. The impacts of COVID-19 and allegations of mismanagement of public goods have increased political unrest. For example, in June 2020 a group of young people live streamed a protest on the outskirts of Lusaka to express their current discontent over corruption, police brutality and marginalisation. In response, the government deployed the police in the streets of Lusaka to stop the protest from spreading into the city. Again in December 2020, two people were killed in a protest outside the police headquarters of Lusaka where a top opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was being interrogated. Hence, in the midst of all these happenings, there is a need to handle the pandemic in a manner that is more transparent and accountable for the purpose of minimising the chances of political unrest that could be triggered by underlying grievances.      

At times, grievances which are as a result of corruption and economic exclusion of the citizens, are leading to demonstrations among the youth. This reality in Zambia has become even more exposed in the context of COVID-19. 

Just like in other countries, both in Africa and beyond, corruption in Zambia has been one of the contributing factors to underdevelopment. In a similar vein, Thomas Isbell agrees with Transparent International and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, that corruption is one of the impediments to economic growth, human development, and alleviation of poverty in Africa. Indeed, corruption is particularly harmful to the poorest and most vulnerable, who depend most heavily on the state for services. According to the 2018 report by Transparent International, Zambia was among the most corrupt countries in the world. It scored 35 out of 100 and ranked 105 out of 180 countries measured. As of 2019, corruption levels have increased.  Zambia scored 34 and was ranked 113 of the total countries measured. The 2020 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) also puts Zambia into the category of countries to Watch after dropping another point by scoring 33 and ranking 117 compared to the scores of 2018 and 2019 respectively. Again, two-thirds of Zambians, about 66%, up from 55% in 2015, believe that the levels of corruption have increased over the past years and 7 in 10 Zambians (70%) know that the government is handling the fight against corruption “fairly badly” or “very badly”.  

From the above indications, corruption remains a longstanding socio-economic challenge to the development of Zambia. It has become endemic and affects people’s access to essential public services, thus increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. Political leaders have become more privileged economically compared to the electorates. Politics is therefore seen as the fastest route to riches by most young people. On the one hand, people are aware of the reality of corruption in the country and on the other hand, their grievances are slowly intensifying and removing the current government through a ballot, as the only way to addressing some of these grievances, is perceptible among the people. At times, grievances which are as a result of corruption and economic exclusion of the citizens, are leading to demonstrations among the youth. This reality in Zambia has become even more exposed in the context of COVID-19. 

Zambia is one of the countries that looked ready to respond effectively to the reality of COVID-19. The United Nations System in Zambia recognised and commended the efforts of the government of the Republic of Zambia in taking the lead in scaling up the response and putting preventive measures in place to stop the further spreading of the virus. Different organisations, institutions, companies and people of concern came on board contributing various items and funds to tackling the pandemic. However, reports have shown that there has been misappropriation of funds that were meant for tackling the pandemic. For example, the interim audit report on the utilisation of COVID-19 funds  for the period of February 1 to July 31 2020, released by the Auditor-General’s office, shows that a total of 1.3 billion Zambian Kwacha (about 62 million U. S. dollars) was mismanaged in various unexplained transactions, a sign that there is a weakness in the accountability and public financial management (PFM) systems. Furthermore, frustrations increased among the citizens and there was also a loss of confidence in the use of PFM systems by some of the external development partners. 

Arising from the above situation is an affirmation of past corrupt tendencies of the government, thus triggering grievances particularly among the youth who took to the streets seeking explanation from the government on corruption and appropriation of public funds. Unfortunately,  the youth, opposition political leaders, media houses and other groups of people that have spoken out against corruption or planned demonstrations on the same matter have received threats and attacks by the police. Such a situation has escalated political unrest. The relationship between authorities and the citizens has become porous. Different individuals aligned to various political parties have clashed with the police leading to deaths. 

Indeed, COVID-19 has revealed that corruption is a problem in the country which is one of the principal factors hindering economic growth and mounting frustrations among citizens. The multifaceted impacts of COVID-19 cannot be ignored. While problems that come with this pandemic are being addressed, new ones are emerging. For example, corruption and misuse of public funds meant for tackling the pandemic have shown that the PFM in Zambia is weak. It needs reconstruction accompanied by moral standards. If these requirements are not met, COVID-19 will further reveal the levels of corruption in the country and this will give rise to movements against corruption. If such movements are not well handled by authorities, political unrest will escalate. Therefore, there is a need to tackle the pandemic in a manner that treats transparency and accountability as core values in promoting peace, economic growth, human development and alleviation of poverty. 

Mwansa Rodgers is an MA Student in Peace Studies and International Relations at Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations, Nairobi, Kenya. He is a Member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa; A Roman Catholic Religious Institute. He is a Researcher and currently acting as a Research assistant at the Center for Research Training and Publication (which is part of Hekima University College). He tweets at @Mwansa3R 

Article by:

Mwansa Rodgers
MA Student in Peace Studies and International Relations

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