Are African presidents who lose elections too honest to steal votes?

Monday August 30 2021
Zambia's outgoing President Edgar Lungu.

Former Zambia President Edgar Lungu at a past function. FILE PHOTO | AFP


When Lusaka tycoon Hakainde Hichilema (HH) beat incumbent Edgar Lungu to become Zambia’s seventh president, there was much talk down here about the country and its people’s electoral culture.

The very fact of evicting a sitting president is news to many Tanzanians who have never had that experience, and who might just as well think it’s an impossibility in their country.

But this is a far cry from the situation in Zambia, where electoral musical chairs have had been people dancing since 1991, when the founding president Kenneth Kaunda (KK) was felled by Frederick Chiluba to become one of the earliest political casualties of the then novel multiparty dispensation on the continent.

Since the Kaunda ouster, Zambia has had seven other changes at the very top, with only one of them occasioned by the death in office of Levy Mwanawasa.

Three times, the Zambian electorate has cast out a president and installed another, a remarkable feat in a continent that boasts a number of some very old and tired people presiding over old and tired political systems.

From the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of Chiluba (1991) to the new United Party for National Development (UPND) of HH, Zambians have eaten through four different political formations, all the time transferring power peacefully.


This bewildering versatility has daunted Tanzanian opposition supporters, who yearn for a similar situation at home but who see no indication it will arrive any time soon, and they have tried to understand why the two neighbouring countries have had such differing political fortunes.

A number of explanations have been advanced as factors that have influenced the way the two nations vote.

One explanation has been the dynamic demographic character of Zambia, which has a very young population —which Tanzania and the rest of Africa sure have — but which is also much more highly urbanised, and therefore much more mobile.

Zambia has for long been a mining country, from Hugh Masekela’s Coal Train in Stimela to the mass urbanisation of North Rhodesia’s “Copper Belt,” denoting transformative changes in the people’s lifestyles, perceptions and outlooks.

Uprooted from their rural tethering, they are mobile physically, psychologically and politically. They have been disabused of their erstwhile “rural idiocy” and thrust into the lap of “urban hustling”.

They will listen to, and embrace new and adventurous notions, including the possibility of overthrowing the hitherto untouchable, omnipotent government.

Even before the arrival of the multiparty dispensation and the overthrow of KK, Zambians showed themselves to be quick to react every time they thought they were being “hit” by the government.

A couple of times when the government increased maize-flour prices to “unacceptable” levels — maybe a five percent rise — there were riots which would be quelled only by police shootings, but government would back down and bring the prices to their former levels.

So much for the dynamism and volatility of the Zambians, but there is something more there. The KK factor. By 1991, urban Zambia wanted to see the founder president back. But, as we witnessed only a few weeks ago when the grand old man was summoned by the ancestors, his people showed deep-seated adoration.

The fact that he ceded the presidency to Chiluba when the latter trounced him in 1991 has, I suspect, had an enduring pedagogical hold on the Zambians. It gave them invaluable education in what civilised societies do in a competitive situation: When you tussle in a wrestling match and you lose to the other man, you congratulate the winner, bow to the watching crowd and make your exit, till the next time.

Now, that sounds much easier than it actually is in the African electoral experience. For me, it was telling that a former head of state in our neighbourhood actually openly chided KK for “losing an election you have organised yourself”! He thought KK was an irredeemable fool.

This statement said it all. It was the verbal manifestation of the hooliganism that our rulers aspire to every time they are constrained to have an election: organise it in a way you cannot lose it. That is to say, go through the motions of organising an election, only make sure it is not one.

Needless to say, this is what happens in almost all our countries. There is always much ado about what we term “elections.”

We get our people to register; to arm themselves with voter registration cards; to check the voter registers to make sure their names are reflected; to go to the “polling stations” and line up in long queues; to “hide” behind a screen in the “polling booth” so your vote is secret; to get their fingers soiled with some filthy ink….

All that for there to be no election at all! What is all that rigmarole in aid of? We now know that some rulers in Africa no longer bother to steal the votes; they simply steal whole elections: Just gather a large number of people in “tallying stations” and send them “ballot boxes” and order them “to count” the “votes” that were cast last week by state security agents. Then declare the “winner”!

Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]