Appraising intergroup contact in Zambia’s electoral politics

Contact hypothesis theory
The contact hypothesis theory posits that sustained interaction between diverse groups ultimately reduces prejudice and hostility and promotes friendship. (GETTY IMAGES)

Outlining the need in Zambia to build interactions and capacities of different players for enhanced political tolerance.


While senior leaders on both sides of Zambia’s political divide may communicate civilly when faced with differences, the majority of their rank and file members seldom do so. For the latter, the handling of political conflicts is synonymous with violence. The socialisation of the current cohort of political party stalwarts is devoid of peace-oriented mechanisms of dealing with political dissent. Electoral politics have continued to be characterised by skirmishes, discontent and violence, 54 years after the country’s political independence. Political players are no strangers to polarisation, and differences in ideologies or ascension to leadership positions have culminated in splinter parties.

Zambia Map

What is worrisome is the propensity for violent engagements when managing political disagreements, especially at the lower strata of the Zambian polity. There is very little effort invested in cultivating an environment that facilitates collegial contact among political party affiliates. Such an environment of contact may also promote and support mutual understanding, tolerance and a sense of coexistence. Contact and learning about other parties (outgroups) reduce preconceptions and negative assumptions that drive hostilities, antagonisms and violence within the polity. Elite interparty interactions, even if on a slighter scale, also ought to permeate all political party structures horizontally. This article therefore appraises intergroup contact in light of Zambia’s electoral politics and the emergent violence.

Understanding Intergroup Contact

The contact hypothesis theory posits that sustained interaction between diverse groups ultimately reduces prejudice and hostility and promotes friendship.1 It further holds that regular interactions between groups invariably engenders reduced intergroup tensions and conflicts. On the contrary, the isolation of groups fosters the emergence of negative attitudes, preconceptions and labels.2 Contact also leads to dissipation of the rigid political boundaries that breed hostility and impede conviviality among political entities and their respective members. There are two dominant approaches to intergroup contact. The “coexistence approach” encourages mutual understanding and tolerance to reduce stereotypes and outgroup discrimination, as well as identifying the commonalities and diversities between the opposing groups. The “confrontational approach” emphasises conflict issues and the power relations of the parties. It does not aim at cultivating harmony; instead, it attempts to allow participating groups to engage in direct confrontation.3 While of the two approaches the former is preferred and recommended, given its orientation to promote partnership and cooperation between parties, Zambia’s electoral politics appears to embrace the latter approach.

Women From The Kenyan Town Of Ki
Regular interactions between groups invariably engenders reduced intergroup tensions and conflicts. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

While electoral politics may be oriented towards the confrontational model, the coexistence approach parallels communication styles from Asia and Africa that merit mention. Sarwari, for example, argues that the Asian or Eastern part of the world practises a high-context style of communication that stresses politeness and indirectness.4 Similarly, in Kiswahili, Mtu ni Utu (“a person is humanness”) signifies the value in humanness. Utu highlights forgiveness, showing compassion and sharing with others. As Njogu adds, it encourages going beyond “self” to the “other” to get fulfilment.5 Just as language is shaped through interaction, so is our humanity, and our relationships are continually dialogic. The further we move away from this dialogic interaction, the more we are separated from our humanity.

The point of the high-context communication pattern and the value of humanness is that despite differences in ideologies, players across the political continuum in Zambia can communicate civilly. Africa is endowed with principles that can have a positive bearing on intergroup or interpersonal contacts within the polity. Thus, political interactions predisposed to violence can steadily be ameliorated. However, effective intergroup contact is realised in situations driven by six conditions or factors: mutual interdependence; common goal; equal status of group members; having informal and interpersonal contact; multiple contact with members of the outgroup; and social norms to promote equality.6 Before delving into these conditions, it is imperative to look at Zambia’s electoral politics and the resulting violence.

Zambia’s Electoral Politics and Violence

A fundamental understanding of electoral politics includes meetings, rallies and campaigns by political parties for purposes of informing would-be voters about their policies and programmes. The ultimate goal is to persuade voters to vote for the politicians. Mohapatra and Bhattacharyya associate electoral politics with the primary mechanism of citizen mobilisation, and the communication of ideologies and actions behind the process of choosing from among the candidates.7 They add that it is also about paying attention to the integration of voters’ individual choices into a collective expression. In the case of Zambia, there is an inextricable link between electoral politics and violence.

Electoral violence
Electoral violence encompasses any intimidation or harassing action that is directly related to the electoral process. (DAWOOD SALIM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Since 2015, the country has continued to witness unprecedented increases in electoral violence. Electoral violence encompasses any intimidation or harassing action that is directly related to the electoral process. This may be before elections, on polling day or immediately after an election has taken place, often as a result of the announcement of the outcome.8 The events that accompanied the 11 August 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections are aptly captured by this definition. The intensity of electoral violence prior to the elections, and when the results were announced, obligated the incumbent, President Edgar Chagwa Lungu, to constitute a commission of inquiry into electoral violence and voting patterns.9 The commission was instituted in October 2016 and concluded its work on 31 December 2018.

The findings of the commission have not yet been made public, but an independent conflict structural vulnerability assessment (SVA) revealed that electoral politics contributed to most of the country’s conflicts. Political party leaders and party members’ inclination to use violence as a means to achieve their goals during electioneering was cited as the thrust.10 This trend has remained, with nearly every local government and/or parliamentary election giving rise to incidences of violence. Examples of Zambia’s electoral violence can be seen in three such cases.

Edgar Lungu
President Edgar Lungu of Zambia constituted a commission of inquiry into electoral violence and voting patterns following the August 2016 presidential election. (UN PHOTO/LOEY FELIPE)

First, the parliamentary by-elections in June 2018 in Chilanga District of Lusaka Province witnessed unmatched levels of violence. Young political party cadres were reportedly blocking roads and intimidating people during the filing of nominations by candidates.11 Following the close of voting, when counting of votes was underway, these members from competing parties allegedly attacked journalists from several media organisations.12 Perhaps it is critical to highlight here that during the campaigns, some of the senior party leaders seemed to have endorsed the violent acts of “their cadres”. For example, two leaders firmly urged their supporters not to be scared, and to defend themselves whenever attacked.13

From what may be described as an attempt to sanitise their past records, the front-runner political parties during the Chilanga violence, the Patriotic Front (PF) party and the United Party for National Development (UPND), pledged to maintain peace through a joint communique. Signed by party representatives, the police and the district electoral officer, the 10-point plan was a commitment to end violence during future elections in the same district and across the country. Supervised by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) officials, some of the agreements in the communique that merit mention are:14

  • no political party shall import cadres from outside Chilanga during the campaign period;
  • the carrying of offensive weapons – for example guns, machetes, golf clubs, catapults and knives – during the campaign period shall not be tolerated;
  • campaign messages shall be issues-based and must avoid character assassination;
  • the resolutions taken at this meeting must be disseminated to all members in various political parties; and
  • door-to-door programmes are open to all political parties participating in the elections15
Zambian police
Zambian police intervene between supporters of the main Zambian opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) and the Zambian ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF) before the presidential election (10 August 2016). (DAWOOD SALIM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Second, despite these commitments, the Lusaka city mayoral by-elections were not devoid of violence. For example, it was alleged that PF members attacked the house of the UPND mayoral candidate, but the attack was thwarted by his alert security.16 The ECZ’s intervention was a firm indicator to participating parties of possible disqualification if the Electoral Act was abrogated. The Electoral Process Act No. 35 of 2016 part VIII under Section 83 (Election Offences), among other provisions, stipulates that a person shall not directly or indirectly, by oneself or through any other person – (a) make use of or threaten to make use of any force, violence or restraint upon any other person; and (b) do or threaten to do anything to the disadvantage of any person in order to induce or compel any persons –…“to vote or not to vote”; “to vote or not vote for any registered party or candidate”; or “to support or not support any political registered party or candidate”.17

While some of these provisions may have been violated with diminutive effect in previous elections, the Lusaka mayoral by-elections revealed a worrying result. Over 80% of registered voters did not vote, despite the election day being declared a holiday (only 131 777 people of 839 027 voted).18 This outcome was implicitly attributed by some to the violence that continued to characterise elections since 2016, claiming that if civility returned to elections, the situation would be different.

Third, another parliamentary by-election that saw unparalleled incidences of violence was that of Sesheke in western Zambia, held on 12 February 2019. Once more, the front-runner parties included the PF and UPND, which clashed in different locations during the pre-election campaigns. Allegations of possessing the voters’ register and distribution of money to voters in some areas triggered violence. This occurred in addition to mere provocation and attacks for belonging to the other party. It appears that the leaders of both political parties fully understand what makes areas holding elections, such as Sesheke, predisposed to violence. For example, the PF national youth leader attributed the propensity to violence to the transportation of cadres, mostly from cities such as Lusaka, into election areas.19 Both PF and UPND were guilty of this.

A UPND Lusaka Province chairperson, while denying the movement of cadres into election areas, affirmed his party’s “self-defence” whenever attacked, and doing so with full force.20 Both the PF and UPND leaders and their party members are more often in confrontation mode during electoral campaigns. When canvassing for votes, there seems to be very little commitment to peace and coexistence beyond campaign rhetoric, as these three cases attest. There is a need for improved civil interactions before any election, and generally in electoral politics. Thus, the recommendation of this article is for political party associates to consider cultivated contacts across the board in their politics.

The Value and Challenge of Intergroup Contact

In appreciating the value of intergroup contact, the six factors mentioned earlier, as espoused by Allport,21 are contextualised in response to electoral violence within the Zambian polity. First, mutual interdependence of two or more groups needing each other to accomplish a goal is anchored on the cultivation of coexistence, enhanced relationships and cooperation. Thus, the PF as the ruling party should accommodate “positive” checks and balances from the UPND and other opposition parties, as they all aspire to govern the Zambian people. Commitments such as those made during a joint press briefing in July 2018 – to be tolerant, and to promote coexistence and non-violence within rank and file – should be realised.

Second, implicitly or overtly, parties should commit to make contact with the “other”, because they theoretically share a common goal – to govern and provide leadership, including creating new trajectories and relationships. Parties on both sides of the political divide should be civil and allow the contacts at the top level of leadership to translate into cohesion. The contact and cohesion notion suggests that “contact initiation” should be followed by negotiation, cognition and finally cohesion.22 The PF and UPND (and other opposition party) leaders should allow contact to trickle down within their party structures. For example, youth cadres should demilitarise during campaigns, and there should be joint programmes held to denounce violence and propagate violence-free elections. There must be follow-through of all this.

Third, contact situations should symbolise equal status between the parties. A strong zero-sum-based competition between outgroup and ingroup members may perhaps “pollute” the mutual relationships, due to high stakes.23 One of the hurdles to civil contact between parties is the quest to win elections at all costs, and not even allow the other party to freely canvass for votes. Within the Zambian polity, party members must refrain from seeing themselves as above the law. The principle holds that the equal status of group members is important for contact. Both the incumbent and opposition parties should be able to enjoy equal status for effective and cohesive intergroup contact. In other words, all political players ought to have access to a level playing field devoid of unnecessary restrictions. For instance, some young party members have advanced no-go-area threats toward their opponents. Some senior leaders have been threatened and/ or barred from accessing perceived/claimed stronghold areas (wards, constituencies or towns). Although some have persisted as threats, most of such intimidations have resulted in clashes, especially between UPND and PF party members.

Zambia Lusaka Daily Life
Leaders from the main political parties committed to depoliticising markets and other trading places to create space for everybody to trade freely. Markets and bus terminals have often been the centre of clashes between members of different parties. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Fourth, informal interpersonal contacts between members of the ingroup and outgroup has a bearing on the overall outlook of the contact. Informal interpersonal contact has the potential to lessen prejudices, defined as an avertive and hostile attitude towards an individual simply because one belongs to a particular party. The UPND has suffered unsubstantiated accusations of being a tribal political party for simply having a slightly larger proportion of its membership and leaders from the southern region.

Fifth, beyond informal interpersonal contact, the contact hypothesis also calls for multiple contacts with members of the outgroup. In 2018, one of the attempts at cultivating peace between the UPND and PF had a special focus on young people. Leaders from both parties committed to depoliticising markets and other trading places to create space for everyone to trade freely. Markets and bus terminals have often been the centre of clashes between members of different parties. Intergroup contact calls for multiple interactions of different party stalwarts, including youth and women, beyond official party business. This, in keeping with Vezzali and Stathi, entails that “contact between individuals from groups (parties) can stimulate the development of more positive outgroup attitudes”.24

Lastly, some of the specific social norms that may be encouraged to foster contact between the two parties includes reducing group infrahumanisation – that is, the inclination to see the ingroup as more human than the outgroups. Sometimes, the predisposition to attack an opponent is driven by negative perceptions, such as hooliganism or criminality by the other group. Another norm that may support intergroup contact is “intergroup forgiveness”, or clemency for the others’ past wrongdoings.25 While the elite often communicate courteously despite their divergent political ideologies, and even cross over to other parties, their respective rank and file rarely do so. Thus, the call from an intergroup contact lens is for party stalwarts to appreciate political plurality. For example, senior party members should socialise/enlighten lower-ranking members to embrace the existence of other parties as equal stakeholders. Any differences should be handled civilly through dialogue and reconciliation.


There is a need in Zambia to build interactions and capacities of different players for enhanced political tolerance. Intergroup contact should not simply be for the sake of contact, but should instead include planned efforts to socialise party stalwarts differently. Put differently, it must be about creating the space for youth, women and other ordinary political party associates to engage civilly. The electoral violence associated with young people, especially, is not beyond redress or restraint. Thus, intergroup contact infused from the lower strata of party structures and horizontally across parties can be quite potent. The onus to implement this is on the UPND and PF, whose young party cadres continue to bear culpability for the violence experienced during elections.


  1. Pettigrew, Thomas (1998) Intergroup Contact Theory. Annual Review Psychology, 49, pp. 65–85, Available at: <> [Accessed 6 June 2019]; and Dovidio, J.F. and Gaertner, S.L. (1999) Reducing Prejudice: Combating Intergroup Biases. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8 (4), pp. 101–105, Available at: <> [Accessed 6 June 2019].
  2. Allport, Gordon (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. London: Addison Wesley.
  3. Weinberg-Kurnik, Galia, Nadan, Yochay and Ben Ari, Adital (2014) It Takes Three to Dialogue: Considering a Triadic Intergroup Encounter. International Journal of Conflict Management, 26 (1), pp. 68–84.
  4. Sarwari, Abdul Qahar (2017) The Contact and Cohesion Theory: A Conceptual Framework Based on the Eastern Context of Communication. Journal of Language and Communication, 4 (1), pp. 1–11.
  5. Njogu, Kimani (2013) Youth as Leaders: Transforming Society by Building Bridges. In Njogu, Kimani (ed). Youth and Peaceful Elections in Kenya. Nairobi: Twaweza Communications, p. 6.
  6. Allport, Gordon (1954) op. cit.; and Shield, David (2014) Deconstructing the Pyramid of Prejudice. Phi Delta Kappa, 95, pp. 20–25.
  7. Mohapatra, Bishnu and Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (1996) Tribal-Dalit Conflict Electoral Politics in Phulbani. Economic and Political Weekly, 31 (2 & 3), pp. 160–164.
  8. Burchard, Stephanie (2015) Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: Causes and Consequences. Boulder, CO: FirstForum Press, p. 12.
  9. Lusaka Times (2016) ‘President Lungu Appoints a Commission of Inquiry to Examine the Causes of the Political Violence’, Available at: <> [Accessed 6 June 2019].
  10. Namaiko, Tunji and Etyang, Oita (2017) ‘Conflict Structural Vulnerability Assessment (SVA) – Zambia’, p. 12, Available at: <> [Accessed 8 September 2018].
  11. Lusaka Times (2018a) ‘OYV Condemns Behaviour of PF Cadres during Chilanga Nominations’, Available at: <> [Accessed 9 August 2018].
  12. The Mast Online (2018) ‘MISA Condemns Cadres’ Attacks on Journalists in Chilanga By-election’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 June 2019].
  13. The Zambian Observer (2018a) ‘Apa Nomba Ni Panga for Panga, GBM tells Chilanga Residents’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 June 2019]; and Lusaka Times (2018b) ‘HH Now Calls for Peaceful Campaigns Ahead of the Mayoral Elections’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 June 2019].
  14. Non-adherence to these points is cited as the source of electoral violence witnessed in previous elections.
  15. Electoral Commission of Zambia (2018a) ‘Political Parties Pledge to Maintain Peace in Chilanga’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 June 2019].
  16. The Zambian Observer (2018b) ‘PF Cadres Attack Kangwa Chileshe’s House’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 July 2018].
  17. National Assembly of Zambia (2016) ‘The Electoral Process Act, No. 35 of 2016’, Available at: <[0No.%2035%2C%202016.pdf> [Accessed 7 June 2019].
  18. Electoral Commission of Zambia (2018b) ‘Press Release – Results for Chasefu, Chifunabuli, Chilanga, Chipangali, Kasenegwa, Lumezi, Lusaka, Lusangazi Mayoral/Council Chairperson and Six (6) Councillor By-Elections’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 June 2019].
  19. Chabala, Miriam (2019) ‘We Only Import Cadres to Elections when PF Starts Beating Us – Mwaliteta’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 June 2019].
  20. Ibid.
  21. Allport, Gordon (1954) op. cit.
  22. Ibid., p. 3.
  23. Sønderskov, Kim Mannemar and Thomsen, Jens Peter Frølund (2015) Contextualizing Intergroup Contact: Do Political Party Cues Enhance Contact Effects. Social Psychology Quarterly, 78 (1), pp. 49–76.
  24. Vezzali, Loris and Stathi, Sofia (2017) The Present and the Future of the Contact Hypothesis, and the Need for Integrating Research Fields. In Vezzali, L. and Stathi, S. (eds) Intergroup Contact Theory: Recent Development and Future Directions. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 1–7.
  25. Capozza, Dora, Trifiletti, Elena, Vezzali, Loris and Favara, Irene (2013) Can Intergroup Contact Improve Humanity Attributions? International Journal of Psychology, 48 (4), pp. 527–54.
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