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Faith and Elections in Zambia

Faith and Elections in Zambia

Peter Henriot

Less than one month ago, Zambia concluded a historic presidential by-election necessitated by the death of President Levy Mwanawasa only two years into his second term.  On 30 October 2008, Rupiah Banda won the still-contested election and was immediately sworn in as the nation’s fourth President since Independence in 1964. 

What can be learned from this election? Two clear messages were voiced by Zambians of whatever political persuasion. 

·         First, no to any Kenyan post-electoral experience of violence and no to any Zimbabwean experience of pre-electoral violence. 

·         Second, no to any Kenyan and Zimbabwean “power-sharing” arrangement to secure tentative peace even if without lasting justice.

Are there any lessons that can be learned from the Zambian experience that have relevance to the topic of “Faith and Elections”? In answering that query, I would like to review four points:  1) Previous Zambian elections, 2) Problems of attitudes and structures, 3) The role of the church and Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and 4) Challenges for the future.

Historical Review

Zambia achieved independence from Britain in 1964 after a fairly non-violent struggle. Kenneth Kaunda became the first Pesident and served in that position until 1991. Although initially (even if by name only) a two-party state, Zambia officially became a one-party state in 1972. Periodic elections were more or less formalities, as the United National Independence Party (UNIP) fielded all the candidates and won all the elections without opposition.

Interestingly, churches more or less accepted the one-party system as an assurance of political stability and socio-economic development in a new nation state.

Multi-partyism was introduced in 1991, along with the wave of “democratic reform” across the African continent. After serious civil unrest (prompted by “IMF riots” over increased food costs and an attempted military coup), Kaunda agreed to a change in the constitution to allow for a multi-party election. He fully expected to win and resisted some of the electoral reforms demanded by the main opposition party, the newly formed Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD). 

At this point, the churches intervened and sponsored a meeting in the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross during which some compromises were reached between UNIP and MMD.  This cathedral meeting has sometimes been referred to as a type of “constitutional conference” and its sponsorship earned the churches the title “midwife of multi-partyism.”

During the October 1991 elections, the main church mother bodies – Zambia Episcopal Conference (ZEC), Christian Council of Zambia (CCZ) and Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) – formed a monitoring team to promote free and fair elections. Through instructions in churches and via media (e.g., television adverts), the churches urged for the peaceful elections of officials who would truly serve the people. 

In a statesman-like action, Kaunda accepted the results of an overwhelming defeat (winning only 25 percent of the popular vote) and gracefully stepped down. Frederick Chiluba was inaugurated as the second President of Zambia. 

Democratic electoral processes suffered under Chiluba. Prior to the 1996 elections, Chiluba manipulated constitutional reform to effectively bar Kaunda from seeking re-election. Yet as the 2001 elections approached, the MMD campaigned for a constitutional change in order to allow Chiluba to run for a third term.

Again, the three church mother bodies intervened, calling for the protection of the constitution. The churches along with the Law Association of Zambia and the Non-Government Organisation Coordinating Committee formed the Oasis Forum to campaign against third-term presidential bids. With strong moral teaching from the churches, this campaign succeeded and Chiluba was forced to vacate office at the end of his term.

Before leaving office, Chiluba imposed Levy Mwanawasa as the MMD candidate. A hotly contested 2001 campaign saw Mwanawasa emerge as winner with only 28 percent of the popular vote. The majority (72 percent) clearly wanted nothing more to do with the MMD government. Nevertheless, Mwanawasa was sworn in as the third Zambian President since the constitution provided for election by plurality of votes in which the winning candidate needed only to secure the highest number of votes, not an absolute majority.

A court petition was filed by losing candidates, arguing that the elections were not free and fair. The Supreme Court ruled three years later that there were problems on all sides, but not enough to remove Mwanawasa from office.

As the 2006 elections approached, Mwanawasa resisted a constitutional change process which would have assured significant electoral reforms (e.g., independence of Electoral Commission, election by 50 percent plus one vote). Instead he called for minor changes through legislative action. Major constitutional reforms were postponed until after the elections.

Mwanawasa won a second term, with approximately 43 percent of the vote. A populist candidate, Michael Sata, won 29 percent of the vote and his Patriotic Front (PF) party swept the urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt. Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) received 20 percent. Sata demanded recounts and his party did gain some new seats in parliament. 

The electoral scene was radically altered when Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and died in September 2008. Unclear constitutional succession procedures blurred the transition, but finally Vice President Rupiah Banda assumed the role of Acting President and presidential by-elections were called for at the end of October.

Strong church calls for free and fair elections were heard, but low turn-out ( only 45 percent of those registered) brought a rather lack-lustre victory for Banda  who defeated Sata by little more than 35,000 votes out of 1.8 million. The votes were Banda (41 percent), Sata (39 percent) and Hichilema (20 percent). Sata won significantly in the urban areas but did poorly in the country’s rural areas.  He again asked for court action for a recount but subsequently withdrew his petition. 

Banda was sworn in as fourth Zambian President less than one hour after the official ballot count had declared him the winner. Future electoral reform is now in the hands of the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) but there seems to be little hope of significant reform. A “built-in majority” of NCC members belonging to the MMD ruling party is likely to block much change. The main church mother bodies have boycotted participation in the NCC, pointing to major discrepancies in its composition and competence. 

Problems of Attitudes and Structures

The problems faced in the 2008 elections mirror those faced since Zambia’s Independence, and more particularly since the birth of multi-partyism in 1991. These can be characterised as problems with the attitudes of the people and the structures of the electoral process.

Among the problems that hinder effective, free and fair elections in Zambia today are the attitudes of people resulting from low literacy (especially in the rural areas) and a widespread apathy which questions whether citizen’s lives improve as a result of the electoral process. Voting is also heavily influenced in some areas by promises of development (e.g., new roads, clinics, schools) and outright bribes or buying of votes (“chitenge and chibuku” − cloth and beer!). 

Tribalism and regionalism also affects voting patterns. This was particularly true in the 2008 elections.  A politics of personalities rather than a politics of policies mars intelligent debate and leads to name-calling, insults and lack of attention to real issues. Irresponsible officials often disregard local issues once they are elected. An obligatory sense of a “social contract” does not exist to bind elected officials to their duties.

Another set of problems relates to the structures of the electoral process. Efforts for constitutional reform have been repeatedly thwarted. For example, the “50 percent plus one” requirement for presidential elections was removed by Chiluba in 1996 as he prepared to run for a third term in 2001.  Another constitutional issue in question is that of succession in the event of the death or removal of the current President. Efforts to clarify these constitutional structures relating to elections are currently in the hands of the NCC – with minimal hope of significant change.

A structure of considerable importance is the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ). Its independence has been compromised since it is solely appointed by the President. In recent elections, the ECZ’s actions in voter registration and printing of ballots have been questioned. Those with queries complain that the ECZ handles them very slowly with no effective follow-up.

A major issue of electoral process structures is the misuse of government resources such as vehicles and the public media. Opposition parties cannot compete with the number of vehicles commandeered by the party in power. Government-owned newspapers, radio and TV characteristically favours the ruling party of the day.  

The recent election has raised many questions. Does the decision whether elections are “free and fair” apply primarily to Election Day or also to the activities preceding and following Election Day? What exactly does “rigging” mean? How is it done and how is it stopped?  And what is the role of national and international “monitors” that seem to increase in number with each election?

Role of Church and CST

In Zambia, the church is a highly respected body with a long history of spiritual vitality, service, development and the promotion of justice. The Catholic Church, in particular, is seen as unified with bishops committed to a common spiritual and social agenda. When the Catholic Church speaks, Zambians listen attentively even if some may disagree with what she says. But of particular significance is the role played by the three main church mother bodies. The ZEC, CCZ and EFZ have issued joint pastoral letters which reach the majority of Christians in the country. These church bodies have cooperated to assure that a message of political responsibility goes out to all the people. However, many of the Pentecostal Churches choose to remain “independent” and are not associated with the mother bodies.  Moreover, their record has usually been one of strong support of the ruling party, the MMD.

The mother bodies highlighted the church’s social teaching in a strong pastoral letter prior to the 30 October election. [1] This joint letter emphasised that voting is both a right and a duty. Voters were encouraged to take seriously their responsibilities:

From all the people of Zambia is required a love of country and its people, a political love that works to maintain the ‘One Zambia, One Nation’ spirit that is above any party affiliation, above narrow considerations that are divisive and destructive of any real development.

A spirit of nationalism, not tribalism or regionalism, should prevail. And voters were called upon “to renounce and denounce any practice of bribery that cheapens the precious worth of a citizen's vote." 

The letter did not endorse any candidate or party, but urged that

The candidate must be God fearing, honest, compassionate, hard-working, wise, selfless, and have profound love for the poor. Integrity and humility, with a desire to serve and not to be served, should mark the candidate’s past, present and future.

Surely a difficult portrait to fulfil completely – unless Jesus Christ was a candidate! But the letter went on to appeal to the people to reject any candidate who engages in a campaign "that is characterised by lies and half-truths, making false promises and threats, bribery or corruption to secure votes or any threat or violence to influence outcomes."

Recognising the need to improve the scope of debate for the elections, the church leaders urged the candidates to reveal their policies on agriculture, education, health care and infrastructure. They said: “Let us hear that a presidential candidate recognises the truth that the much-acclaimed economic growth of recent years has not in fact benefited the majority of Zambians." They also noted that candidates needed to explain their plans to deal with "the dehumanising condition of impoverishment for the majority of Zambians."

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZEC) issued a post-election pastoral letter, just two weeks after Banda was sworn in as fourth Republican President. While acknowledging the calm that prevailed during the elections, the letter called for remedies to the electoral malpractices that marred the process.  It asked voters to exercise their right and duty to vote, overcoming voter apathy. “Never get tired of voting,” the bishops urged, “as your apathy will only deny you the choice of your preferred candidate.”[2]

Challenges for the Future

In looking at the lessons learned from church involvement in Zambian elections, we must honestly ask about the efficacy of the role played by the church. A unified ZEC, a cooperative group of mother bodies and a nationwide structure of justice and peace committees does provide a strength for the CST voice of faith values about elections in Zambia. But one can always ask, for example, whether the message is really heard, the letters actually read, the lessons actively discussed. It is probably fair to say that the church and CST by and large do impact the election process. But that role should not be over-exaggerated.

One sign that the church is heard is that it comes under attack from the ruling party over some of its messages. The MMD often views any criticisms of its policies and activities as taking sides with the opposition. Thus, the church is accused of being “political” – in the sense of being partisan or supporting a particular party position. Such attacks did come especially to the Catholic Bishops after their strong post-election letter. 

What are the challenges for the future that our churches should face? One is the need to promote a culture of democracy. Zambia needs to strengthen a commitment to governance that is truly of, by and for the people: of the people, in the sense of everyone in a unified spirit, not divided by tribes or regions; by the people, in the sense everyone can participate freely, without complications from unfair structures and practice; for the people, in the sense that everyone benefits from the work of government, not simply ruling party affiliates.

The values of CST can surely be used to promote that culture. Justice, human dignity, rights and duties, common good, equity, concern for the poor, gender, integrity of creation: these and many more CST values are central to the good governance needed today in Zambia.

The church herself should be a model of democracy in any way she can. To call for a more democratic spirit is difficult if the institution proclaiming this message is seen as closed to dialogue, participation in decision-making or monitoring and evaluation. This is not to say, for example, that elections should be introduced into the selection of bishops – though there are historical grounds for such a process! But a general spirit of respect for members and their diverse opinions and abilities should mark any institution that wants to promote democracy.

A strong democracy in Zambia must address the challenge of reconciliation. The theme of the forthcoming Second African Synod (Rome, October 2009) is “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.” Thus, it is possible for the Catholic Church, in its promotion of reconciliation, to be a promoter of better democracy. At least six contexts of reconciliation are significant at this time in Zambia:

1)    Political reconciliation between political parties, between government and civil society.

2)    Economic reconciliation in a new “prosperity” threatened by the global economic crisis.

3)    Social reconciliation amidst a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

4)    Ecological reconciliation with the community of creation amidst economic and social pressures.

5)    Cultural reconciliation amidst globalisation challenges to Zambian values.

6)    Ecclesial reconciliation necessary for “relevant and credible” church mission facing Second African Synod.


“Faith and Elections in Zambia” is a topic of wide-ranging implications. I have attempted to review the ways in which elections have played a significant role in the development of democracy in Zambia, some of the problems of attitudes and structures that affect the quality of elections, the role of the Church and the CST in promoting values in elections and some of the challenges for the future.

Our African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching (AFCAST) has always stressed the contribution of CST to public policy. CST is a value-added dimension to the debate and decisions of public policy.  Surely this should be clear in the analysis offered in this paper on “Faith and Elections in Zambia.” 

[1] EFZ, ZEC and CCZ, “On the Forthcoming Presidential By Election: Opportunities, Challenges, Lessons,” October 2008, http://www.catholiczambia.org.zm/archives/2008/Joint%20Pastoral%20Statement%202008.pdf> (accessed 9 June 2009). All quotes until next footnote are from this letter.

[2] Zambian Episcopal Conference, “A Pastoral Statement on Presidential Elections - 30 October 2008,” <http://www.sceam-secam.org/newsInfo.php?id=109> (accessed 9 June 2009)