by Hervé Cheuzeville, translated from French by Bahati Jacques.
Originally published by Echo D’Afrique on September 23, 2011
A major event occurred on September 23rd, 2011. Yet it went largely unnoticed in Western countries. The stock market crisis and Mahmoud Abbas’s attempt to get recognition of a Palestinian State apparently monopolized the attention of mainstream media.
What happened and why should it attract our attention? The Zambian presidential election results were announced. Who cares, one would ask me? Elections are held almost daily worldwide. And who knows Zambia, a country too often confused with the Gambia? Zambia is located in the heart of southern Africa. It has no coastline and has a population of only twelve million in a territory much larger than France.
The importance of the Zambian elections are the results. Undeniably, it is the opposition candidate, Michael Sata, who won. And the outgoing President, Rupiah Banda, after the results’ announcement, called to congratulate him! “The people of Zambia have spoken and we must all listen,” he said.
Less than a year ago, presidential elections were held in Côte d’Ivoire. Again, the opposition candidate won. The outgoing president, Laurent Gbagbo, could have picked up his phone to call his rival, Alassane Ouattara, and congratulate him. He preferred to announce alternative results by a constitutional council loyal to him in order to declare himself the winner. In doing so, he plunged his country into a painful crisis for five months, which worsened the lives of Ivorians who experienced deadly conflict which they have yet to recover from.
Zambian people and its leaders’ lesson to Africa and the world must be recognized. This southern African country, which we rarely hear about, also endured single-party rule for 27 years after its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 until the first multiparty elections in 1991. I was in Zambia at that time. I remember the peaceful, exuberant excitement of Zambian youth singing and dancing in the streets as they were about to send the father of independence, Kenneth Kaunda, into early retirement. But Zambians quickly became disillusioned because the reign of newly elected president, former trade unionist Frederick Chiluba (1991-2001), was marked by high corruption, lack of transparent privatizations and a sharp increase in unemployment and poverty.
Besides agriculture, copper is Zambia’s main source of wealth. Since the price of this metal recovered, the country has found the path to growth and development. But this wealth also attracted envy. That of China in particular, whose companies have taken over the mines. The exploitation of man by man, Zambians by Chinese, caused numerous strikes, some of which would degenerate into riots. It is believed in Lusaka that these Chinese companies financed the campaign of the outgoing president. It is also said that the incoming president is close to Taiwan. If this is the case, his victory is also a defeat for China.
Either way, this Zambian political change is an event too rare in Africa not to be welcomed. “Do not hold an election when you are not able to win” said the late President Omar Bongo of Gabon once upon a time. This attitude seems to have been the norm in Africa. Since the ’90s, the multi-party system has been adopted by most countries of the continent. But the outgoing strong men of Uganda, Burkina Faso, Chad, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Gambia and other African countries always managed to be reelected.
Few countries gave an example of an alternative political change. Benin in 1991 and 1996, Senegal in 2000, Ghana in 2008 and Somaliland in 2010 are the only other examples where an opponent was able to win against an incumbent president. It is also ironic that such an example of democracy has come out of Somaliland, a State that was ostracized for declaring its independence in 1991. The international community, which failed to deal with the situation of war and famine prevailing in Somalia would do well to seriously consider recognizing the Republic of Somaliland, which has, over twenty years, moved out of instability to become a democracy.
Some African countries that had no “incumbent” president running also had peaceful change of government, as in the cases of Ghana in 2000 and Benin in 2006. There was also the elections in Guinea last year. The fact remains that Zambia, thanks to past presidents (Kenneth Kaunda in 1991 and Rupiah Banda twenty years later), has become a prime example for many nations that desperately dream of the day their strong men will retire.
These countries should also allow some observers and other African “experts” to review their “Afro-pessimism” theories! Zambia remains hopeful that superpowers will support its democracy, a country which remains poor with 60% of the population surviving on less than $2 per day. This country, which shares the majestic Victoria Falls with its neighbor Zimbabwe, has enormous tourism potential. A country with vast spaces, it has many national parks, some of which are huge, such as that of South Lwangwa, where I had the opportunity to stay. Elephants, giraffes and gazelles and antelopes abound, and one can still see rhinoceros. The Zambian people are peaceful and welcoming, it has a rich culture. Why couldn’t Zambia be, soon, a tourist destination, more attractive than Kenya and its mass tourism?
Next month, a neighbor of Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, will also hold presidential elections. Will this great country, which has hardly recovered from more than a decade of brutal invasions, war, and raiding on top of a “kleptocracy” dictatorship for 32 years have the chance to experience a truly free, democratic and transparent election? Unfortunately it is hard to believe!
Hervé Cheuzeville, is the author of three books on African issues : « Kadogo, Enfants des guerres d’Afrique centrale » , l’Harmattan, 2003; « Chroniques africaines de guerres et d’espérance » , Editions Persée, 2006; « Chroniques d’un ailleurs pas si lointain – Réflexions d’un humanitaire engagé » , Editions Persée, 2010)