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Peter Henriot

Less than one month ago, Zambia underwent an historic presidential by-election. The by-election was necessitated by the death of Levy Mwanawasa, only two years into his second term. On 30 October, Rupiah Banda won a 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 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’d like to briefly develop here four points: 1) historical review of Zambian elections, 2) problems of attitudes and structures, 3) role of the church and the church 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 President and served in that position until 1991. Although initially in name 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.

It is interesting to note that the 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 cost of food 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 Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Anglican) during which some compromises were reached between UNIP and MMD. This Cathedral meeting has sometimes been referred to 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 peaceful elections of officials who would truly serve the people.

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

The democratic electoral process then came in for difficult days under Chiluba. Prior to the 1996 elections, Chiluba manipulated constitutional reform to effectively bar Kaunda from seeking a return to the presidency. And as the 2001 elections approached, the MMD campaigned for a change in the Constitution in order to allow Chiluba to run for a third term.

Here again the three church mother bodies intervened, calling for the protection of the Constitution. An anti-third term campaign evolved, called the Oasis Forum. It was composed of the churches (moral voice), Law Association of Zambia (legal voice) and Non-Government Organisation Coordinating Committee (social voice). 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” as the MMD candidate Levy Mwanawasa. A hotly contested 2001 campaign saw Mwanawasa emerge as winner with only 28% of the popular vote. This meant that 72% of the voters wanted nothing more to do with the MMD government. But because the Constitution provided for election by plurality of votes, Mwanawasa was sworn in as third Zambian President.

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

As the 2006 elections approached, a constitutional change process was in place which would have assured significant electoral reforms (e.g., independence of Electoral Commission, election by 50% plus one), but Mwanawasa resisted this, calling for some minor changes by legislative action with postponement of major constitutional reforms until after elections.

Mwanawasa won a second term, with approximately 43% of the vote. A populist candidate, Michael Sata, won 29% 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%. Sata demanded recounts and his PF did gain some new seats in Parliament.

But 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 (45% 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 41% for Banda, 39 % for Sata, and 20% for Hichilema. Sata significantly won the urban areas but did poorly in the rural areas of the country. He again asked for court action for recount but subsequently withdrew his petition.

Banda was sworn in as fourth Zambian President less than one hour after the count had been concluded and he had been declared 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 probably will block much change. The main church mother bodies have boycotted participation in the NCC, pointing to major discrepancies in its composition and competence.


The problems that Zambia faced in the 2008 elections are typical of the challenges faced since Independence, but particularly heightened since the time of multi-partyism’s arrival in 1991. These can be characterised as 1) problems of the attitudes of the people, and 2) problems of 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 the level of literacy (quite low, especially in the rural areas) and a widespread apathy that questions whether holding elections really makes any difference in the service that citizens get from their government. 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 just concluded 2008 elections – something more strongly present than in previous elections. A politics of personalities rather than a politics of policies mars intelligent debate and leads to name-calling, insults and ignoring of real issues. There is also an attitude of irresponsibility on the part of many elected officials, manifesting itself in a disregard of local issues once they are elected. It seems that 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. As mentioned earlier, efforts for constitutional reform of the way elections are conducted in Zambia have been repeatedly thwarted. For example, the 50% plus one requirement for election of the President was in previous versions of the Constitution, but was removed by Chiluba in 1996 as he was looking forward to the chance to run for a third term in 2001. Another constitutional issue, faced dramatically with the unanticipated death of Mwanawasa in 2008, is the question of succession, or who takes over from a deceased President and with what sort of powers. The effort to clarify these constitutional structures relating to elections is 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 questioned, since it is solely appointed by the President. In recent elections, there have been complaints about how the ECZ has acted, for instance, in registration of new voters and in the printing of ballots. Complaints made to the ECZ seem to many observers to be handled very slowly with no effective follow-up made.

A major issue of electoral process structures, of course, is the misuse of government resources such as vehicles and the public media. It is certainly difficult for opposition parties to compete with the number of vehicles commandeered by the party in power. And favouritism to the Ruling Party of the day has been a characteristic of the government-owned newspapers, radio and TV. .

Post-30 October election questions are many. One important issue that needs to be faced is whether “free and fair” as a judgment applies primarily to the Election Day or does it also include much of the activities preceding and following the Election Day. What exactly does “rigging” mean and how is it done, how is it stopped? And what is the role of national and international “monitors” that seem to increase in number with each election?


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 has a record of being a unified organisation, with Bishops committed to a common spiritual and social agenda. When the Catholic Church speaks, it is listened to attentively even if there might be some disagreement with what it says. But of particular significance is the role played by the three main church “mother bodies.” As mentioned earlier, the ZEC, CCZ and EFZ have put out joint pastoral letters which reach the majority of Christians in the country. These church bodies have cooperated together to assure that a message of political responsibility goes out to all the people.

It should be noted, however, that 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 church social teaching (CST) was presented in a strong pastoral letter from the mother bodies prior to the 30 October election. 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 were to be a candidate! But the letter went on to appeal to the people to reject any candidate who engages in a campaign "that is characterized 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 spell out their policies on agriculture, education, health care and infrastructure. They said: “Let us hear that a presidential candidate recognizes the truth that the much-acclaimed economic growth of recent years has not in fact benefited the majority of Zambians," and noted that candidates needed to explain their plans to deal with "the dehumanizing condition of impoverishment for the majority of Zambians."

It is significant that 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 steps to be taken to correct the electoral malpractices that marred the process. And it called upon 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.”


In looking at the lessons that can be learned from the church involvement in the elections of Zambia, it is important to honestly ask about the efficacy of the role played by the church. It is certainly true that 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 by and large there is an impact of the role of the church and the CST. But that role should not be over-exaggerated.

But one sign that the church is indeed 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. That is, 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 up by tribes or regions. By the people in the sense everyone able to participate easily, not complicated by unfair structures and practices. For the people in the sense of everyone benefitting from the work of government, not simply Ruling Party affiliates.

The values of the 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 of the CST values are central to the good governance so much needed today in Zambia.

The church itself, of course, should be a “model” of democracy in any way it can. It is very difficult to call for more democratic spirit if the institution itself is seen as closed to dialogue or 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 faces the challenge of reconciliation. And it is significant that 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. There are at least seven contexts of reconciliation that are significant at this time in Zambia:

· Political context: reconciliation between political parties, between government and civil society

· Economic context: reconciliation in a new “prosperity” threatened by the global economic crisis

· Social context: reconciliation amidst a growing gap between the rich and the poor

· Ecological context: reconciliation with the community of creation amidst economic and social pressures

· Cultural context: reconciliation amidst globalisation challenges to Zambian values

· Ecclesial context: reconciliation necessary for “relevant and credible” church mission facing Second African Synod.


“Faith and Elections in Zambia” is a topic of wide-ranging implications. What I’ve attempted to sketch here are 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 to be faced in the future.

Our African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching (AFCAST) has always stressed the contribution of CST to public policy. The 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.”

Peter Henriot, S.J.

Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection

Lusaka, Zambia

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Presentation made to AFCAST Seminar on “Elections in Africa”

Cape Town 24 November 2008