Over the last three decades, Zambia, largely flying below the international radar, has become something of a beacon of hope for democracy enthusiasts and Africa optimists alike. The country has avoided the kind of political violence that has plagued its neighbors, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. It has also conducted largely peaceful elections and is the only country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that has twice achieved a democratic transfer of power to an opposition party since independence. In fact, Zambia is one of only four SADC countries to ever experience a transition of political power at all, the others being Lesotho, Malawi, and Mauritius. Meanwhile, its economic performance has, at times, been impressive, averaging around seven percent real GDP growth per annum as recently as December 2015.

That doesn’t mean that everything in the country is going well, however. Absent the kind of negative headlines generated by its more repressive neighbors, leaders in Zambia have had tremendous leeway to implement more covert forms of control. In fact, the country has been backsliding on many indicators of democracy over the past decade. That reality has become especially stark in recent weeks, which have seen an increase in abuses by Zambian security forces and in outbursts of political violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by the ruling Patriotic Front (PF). Indeed, slightly over a month away from the country’s general elections on August 11, it seems that Zambia’s democratic façade, always fragile, is crumbling.  

Perhaps no event captures Zambia’s democratic reversals more than the Zambian Revenue Authority’s decision, late last month, to shut down the country’s most popular independent newspaper, The Post, which has a reputation of giving equal—and, some would argue, favorably biased—coverage to the country’s main opposition movement, the United Party for National Development (UPND). The rationale for the closure was that the newspaper failed to pay some 53 million kwacha (around $5 million) in taxes, an allegation that The Post’s editor, Fred M’membe, has denied. The warrant used to shutter the newspaper also came under scrutiny, and for good reason: the newspaper had previously obtained a legal order allowing production of the paper to continue until the tax dispute had been settled in court.

The government’s broadside against press freedom and access to information (both of which are protected by the constitution) earned swift rebuke from inside the country and around the world. For many observers, the move seemed a cynical maneuver by the PF and President Edgar Lungu—in power since winning a tight by-election race in January 2105—to tilt the playing field in his favor. In a strikingly strong statement, Amnesty International noted that “The shutting down of one of Zambia’s main independent newspapers in the run up to an election is an affront to media freedom and the authorities should immediately reverse their decision.” Similarly, the International Press Institute labeled the move an “assault on democracy” and all the more “disturbing” given its proximity to the August election. The European Union, the United States Embassy, and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), of which Zambia is a member, raised similar concerns.

Zambia's President Edgar Lungu speaks at a rally in the capital Lusaka, Zambia January 19, 2015.
Zambia's President Edgar Lungu speaks at a rally in the capital Lusaka, Zambia January 19, 2015.
Rogan Ward / Reuters
To be sure, this is not the first time that Zambian authorities have targeted The Post, nor is it the first time that M’membe has come under personal attack. He was forced into hiding as far back as 1996; in July 2010, he was sentenced to four months in prison with hard labor for “contempt of court”; and in July 2015, he was arrested and accused of publishing “classified documents,” a move that was roundly criticized by several press freedom and human rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called on Zambian authorities to drop the charges and to release M’membe immediately. It is for these reasons, and others, that global watchdog Freedom House, which publishes an annual report on the worldwide state of press freedom, downgraded Zambia to its lowest “Not Free” category in 2015.

Most recently, on June 28, M’membe and several of his colleagues, including his wife, were reportedly beaten, arrested, and then later charged with “breaking into a building with intent to commit a felony” and “criminal trespass” after they tried to access their offices. According to deputy editor Joseph Mwenda, who was also arrested on the scene, Zambian police were “acting on direct orders from the State House.” He and the rest of those who were arrested were released on bond later in the day and vowed to keep printing copies of the newspaper from a different location, at one point setting up shop across the street from their barricaded office.

Perhaps most troubling, the PF had brazenly signposted its intentions long ago, most notably in a document that seems to outline a strategy to rig the August 11 election and “brutalize” the political opposition. An entire section of the alleged PF document was devoted to stifling the media and explicitly advocated the closure of The Post newspaper, saying: “No form of media should be given to the UPND in the form of news or campaign advertisements.” The document also outlined a plot to “assassinate” the character of Lungu’s chief challenger, the UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema.

United Party for National Development (UPND) Presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema looks on during a rally in Lusaka, January 18, 2015.
United Party for National Development (UPND) Presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema looks on during a rally in Lusaka, January 18, 2015.
Rogan Ward / Reuters
Zambia’s evident media crackdown would be concerning on its own. That other forces are also at play should force SADC and Zambia’s foreign donors, including the United States, to pay attention. Thousands of foreign nationals have allegedly been added to the electoral register; the government has issued thousands of blank voter registration cards; the legislature has passed changes that provide immunity from prosecution for electoral commission officers suspected of wrongdoing; a previously unknown Dubai-based firm is printing the official ballot papers, raising rightful suspicions due to the company’s involvement in Uganda’s disputed February 2016 election; Lungu has threatened to “sort out” the opposition; and the UPND has faced brutal violence and the repeated destruction of its campaign materials.

Zambians deserve a free, fair, transparent, and credible election. If the country continues heading in its current direction, such an outcome will be impossible. The first step will be putting the Lungu government on notice that the world is watching. Second, SADC leadership and the country’s top donors will have to support a pre-election assessment team to ensure that conditions are conducive to a legitimate poll and that the safety of the voting public is safeguarded. If the determination is made that free and fair elections are unfeasible in Zambia, then both SADC and the African Union should demand reforms before August 11 and vow to not dispatch poll observers if conditions remain troubling. These actions would send an unequivocally strong message to leaders in both Zambia and throughout the region that such blatant electoral rigging is wholly unacceptable.

For too long, the world has accepted that peaceful elections—or those that avert widespread violence—are somehow enough. They are not. By lowering the democratic threshold, the world has permitted undemocratic leaders and their corrupt regimes to flourish and provided incentive for others to follow in their path. SADC, the African Union, and other shareholders in Zambia’s future cannot afford to let it slide further off the rails. For Zambia, there is still time, but it is undoubtedly running short.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now