Invoking KK’s ‘One Zambia One Nation’ for peaceful elections in Zambia

As Zambians head to the polls in August 2021, learning from past electoral experiences will be valuable. Bearing in mind that the country is still battling with many challenges associated with the outbreak of the pandemic, this piece argues that avoiding a twin struggle of COVID-19 impacts and electoral violence, by conducting free, fair, credible and peaceful August elections would be the best option to enhance democratic principles and maintain the international standard of holding peaceful elections that Zambia has set for many years.

Since independence, Zambia has been hailed as one of the countries in Africa that have  sustained substantive levels of peace. Although having gone through authoritarian and  one-party politics after the constitutional referendum of 1967 by the then Kenneth Kaunda (commonly known as KK) administration that ruled for 27 years, the conduct of elections that followed the introduction of multi-party politics in 1991 and the transition of power has been relatively peaceful, free, fair, and smooth, with the exception of the political violence during the 2016 elections. Results were contested in the constitutional court and parts of the country experienced some form of electoral violence or another including repressions of freedoms and rights. It culminated in the arrest and incarceration of the main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema. 

#KennethKaunda’s philosophy of humanism in a way, facilitated the creation of a social structure that paralyzed ethnic divides and encouraged unity of purpose @mwansa3Rodgers

Lessons from the past

The introduction of multiparty politics in Zambia was delicate yet, it turned out to be a relatively peaceful process. Like many other countries on the continent of Africa that experienced one-party politics for many years, Zambia had the potential to turn violent during the 1991 elections, however the situation was relatively peaceful. Kenneth Kaunda had the power to advance repression, manipulate the election results and indeed, maintain power. However, his conduct during elections, of putting the national interest first before his ego will remain a legacy for Zambia and a symbol of ‘revived quality of leadership’ that fostered unity. 

As Johan Broaché observes, Kenneth Kaunda deliberately set up a political legacy that prevented ethnic dominance – politically, economically, and socially. During one-party politics, he shaped political mobilisation and helped to counter ethnic based violence through his passionate ideology of Zambian humanism. Kenneth Kaunda’s philosophy of humanism in a way, facilitated the creation of a social structure that paralyzed ethnic divides and encouraged unity of purpose. Well piloted by the slogan of ‘one Zambia one nation’, Kenneth Kaunda’s humanism, as presented by Kanu Ikechukwo put the person at the centre of everything – believing that a  person was not defined according to his/her ethnicity, colour, nation, religion, creed, political leanings, material contribution or any matter. Nic Cheeseman and Sishuwa Sishuwa in the same way, believe that Kenneth Kaunda’s ideology which focused on the struggle for human progress influenced him to stand above ethnic politicking and tried to balance the representation of different ethnic groups in his cabinet. Indeed, his ideological belief and actions in many ways will continue to be remembered as flowing from an astute and a charismatic leader.    

Although having gone through several coup attempts, Kenneth Kaunda listened to the political mood of the country. As earlier mentioned, the country had the potential to turn violent just like it happened in other African countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe and Togo, among others. However, Kenneth Kaunda’s capacity to listen to the cry of the people regarding economic challenges and the need to allow more participation in the political space led him to promote elite collaboration. On several occasions he met with political party leaders and more importantly, with Fredrick Chiluba on a series of church-led meetings. On the one hand, it can be argued that his humanistic instinct that put human progress and peace at the centre of all activities and policies impelled him to be more collaborative in his leadership style. On the other hand, the local and international pressures of challenging economic experience and comprehensive sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN) immediately after the declaration of independence forced him to take a path of collaboration even though in some instances he acted repressively to those who were posing serious political threats. Regardless of this, his relatively peaceful conduct and acceptance of the 1991 electoral defeat, remain an epitome for lessons among the future political actors in the country.

As the #pandemic continues to aggravate economic, social, and political challenges, the promotion of the conditions conducive to the conduct of free, fair, credible and peaceful elections is of paramount value @mwansa3Rodgers

2016 electoral violence

Electoral violence has become increasingly detrimental in most African countries and to democracy as a practice. Of recent, Zambia’s democratic fabric has been wrecked and, the 2016 electoral process remains a testimony. A study by Kabale Ignatius Mukunto revealed that throughout the 2016 election process, young political cadres and some senior leaders from both the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and United Party for National Development (UPND) actively participated in political and election related violence. At the same time, there were about 99 cases of election related violence in 2016 alone. Although international institutions such as the UN (with caution to reject violence) and African Union (AU) congratulated Zambia for holding peaceful elections, the situation on the ground saw what others scholars called ‘democracy in reverse’ due to the violence that accompanied it, hence a worry for future election years. 

On 12th August Zambia goes to the polls and election campaigns have kicked off. This coincides with the death of the nation’s founding father Kenneth Kaunda and at the same time, the country is experiencing a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 18th June 2021, Zambia recorded 2,913 positive cases out of the 12,703 tests. A representation of 23% positive rate.  With the increase in the COVID-19 positive rate, schools have been closed while restrictions on social gatherings have been imposed including the halting of campaign rallies. Economically, the impact of the pandemic has been quite severe in the mining, tourism, and the foreign exchange sector with the depreciation of the local currency (Kwacha). Poverty levels increased from 58.6% in 2019 to 60.5% in 2020. This in a way, does not only project short terms costs of the pandemic but rather, both the medium and long term. 

Other than emphasizing the common measure of social distancing, masking, sanitizing, and washing hands, the government, through the ministry of health, launched the first phase COVID-19 vaccination campaign in April 2021. This is taking place across the 10 provinces of the country though with limited number of doses. To mitigate economic challenges, the Bank of Zambia (BoZ) introduced the Targeted Medium-Term Refinancing Facility (TMTRF) in order to strengthen financial sector resilience. These efforts may not yield fruit if the coming elections are not handled in a manner that is conducive for all . 

Already, the trajectory towards the polls is being tainted with experiences of discontent over voter registration process and election related violence in some parts of the country. As the pandemic continues to aggravate economic, social, and political challenges, the promotion of the conditions conducive to the conduct of free, fair, credible and peaceful elections is of paramount value. This on the one hand, could be possible by advancing elite collaboration among political opponents and on the other hand, by promoting ethnic tolerance and curbing  cadre politics that has infested Zambia’s political scene. Perhaps, learning from the 1991 electoral process, of emphasising oneness and human progress as exhibited by the late Kenneth Kaunda, would be advantageous to returning Zambia to the ranks of democratic models in Africa. 

Mwansa Rodgers is an MA Student in Peace studies and International Relations at the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations.

Article by:

Mwansa Rodgers
MA Student in Peace Studies and International Relations

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.