Zambia’s Perfect Storm

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu addressing UN General Assembly, September 20, 2016.

Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu addressing UN General Assembly, September 20, 2016.

Since gaining independence from the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland – and by extension the British Empire – in 1964, Zambia has been a relatively peaceful oasis in southern Africa. The sole exception to this came in July 1990, when Zambian troops responded violently to protests for the ouster of then President Kenneth Kuanda and the establishment of multiparty democracy. However, tensions have begun to simmer, drawing concern from such international actors as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – a multilateral body comprised of Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

There are three main factors contributing toward Zambia’s slide into instability. The most immediate cause of dissent is the general election held on August 11, 2016. According to the official results of the vote, President Edgar Lungu was re-elected with 50.3% of the vote, defeating challenger Hakainde Hichilema, who received 47.6% of ballots cast. Hichilema disputes the official results and has accused the governing Patriotic Front of rigging the vote, though his appeals have been rejected by the High Court of Lusaka. For its part, a Carter Center election observer mission led by Sylvie Kinigi, the former Prime Minister of Burundi, assessed the vote as “satisfactory” but raised concerns about the safety of journalists while a SADC mission to observe the vote also reported the election was peaceful, free, and fair.

Presidential election results map. Blue denotes constituencies won by Lungu, and Red denotes those won by Hichilema. With a such distribution, tensions are almost inevitable.

Presidential election results map. Blue denotes constituencies won by Lungu, and Red denotes those won by Hichilema. With a such distribution, tensions are almost inevitable.

The dispute over the election results reflects the intense polarization of Zambian politics. In the east of Zambia, support among the Bemba, Nyanja, and Tumbuka speaking communities is squarely behind President Lungu and the centre-left Patriotic Front. Meanwhile, in the western regions of the country, support among the Tonga, Lozi, and Lunda speaking communities is almost uniformly behind Hichilema’s centre-right United Party for National Development (UPND). That the ideological differences between the UPND also touches on tribal and linguistic divisions gives these new tensions in Zambia some lasting power, especially as the opposition seems unwilling to abide by court rulings on the validity of the election results.

A second and equally important factor is a drought that has persisted in Zambia and elsewhere in southern Africa since 2013. The severe lack of rainfall has left water levels at the Kariba Dam, one of the world’s largest hydropower stations, at the minimum operating level. As such, rather than exporting part of the 6,400 gigawatt-hours (GWh) produced annually by the facility, Zambian communities suffer intermittent blackouts, especially in the summer months. Agricultural production, an important contributor to Zambia’s economic growth has also suffered to such an extent that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to grow only 3.6% in 2016 and 4.9% in 2017, compared to average annual growth rates of 6.7% in the years preceding the drought. The persistent drought could also potentially impact Zambia’s balance of trade, returning the country to the status of a net food importer rather than a net exporter and worsening the employment prospects for a significant number of Zambians.

Finally, the fall in copper prices globally has crippled the rural economy, particularly in the western regions of Zambia that have so strongly thrown their support behind Hichilema and the UPND. Copper is valued at approximately $2.07 US per pound as of this writing, whereas it was valued at roughly $4.50 US per pound in 2011. Producing more than 710,000 metric tons of the mineral each year, Zambia is among the world’s largest sources of copper and, on the African continent, is second only to the Democratic Republic of Congo for its scale of copper production. Despite the negative trend in copper prices, Zambia is doubling down on its production of the mineral and the government expects Zambian copper production to exceed 1 million metric tons in 2017. This will only serve to further depress prices for copper and is not likely to correct Zambia’s current economic trajectory, which entails rising unemployment and diminishing returns for those entrepreneurs who hopped to form part of Africa’s emerging middle-class.

Pherry Mwiinga, a hydrologist, looks out over the Zambezi River in Zambia, where water levels are at record lows (Photo: Joao Silva/The New York Times).

Pherry Mwiinga, a hydrologist, looks out over the Zambezi River in Zambia, where water levels are at record lows (Photo: Joao Silva/The New York Times).

Unless the re-elected Patriotic Front can find some means of correcting Zambia’s economic course or reach a power-sharing agreement with the UPND, the civil strife will only continue to worsen. Fortunately, the Zambian Defence Force (ZDF) is not likely to become a factor in determining where political power is vested in the near future. As Zambia does not exercise conscription, the ZDF lacks the mass infantry necessary to seize power and control the country as part of some military junta. However, on the other hand, the relatively small size and poor equipment of the ZDF also means that the formation of paramilitary groups by either or both of the main political parties could have severe consequences for the maintenance of law and order in the country. A diplomatic effort by the SADC or the African Union is necessary to avoid such an eventuality.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Pryce, Zambia.

One Response to Zambia’s Perfect Storm

  1. The Zambia Police Service has unveiled a new fleet of 18 armoured vehicles to be used for crowd control during protests. “We have acquired 3 Marauders for the Paramilitary Unit and 15 Mavericks for general policing. Officers will indeed undergo training in the use and maintenance of these vehicles,” said Zambian Inspector General of Police Kakoma Kanganja beginning of October 2016. Both kinds of armoured vehicles are manufactured by the South African Paramount Group.

    Already in January 2015, the Zambian Government announced that it had purchased three choppers for the Zambia Police Service to improve operations.

    Inspector General of Police Kakoma Kanganja posing on one of the acquired Marauders.
    Inspector General of Police Kakoma Kanganja posing on one of the acquired Marauders.

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