A Disappointing Debut for Zambia’s New President

Edgar Lungu’s first 90 days in office have frustrated hopes that he would put the country back on the path to democratic reform.

Edgar Lungu’s election as president of Zambia in January raised hopes that he would put the country back on the path to democratic reform. But his cabinet appointments, failure to make progress on a new constitution, and handling of an investigation into the chief prosecutor all suggest that further backsliding on democracy can be expected ahead of the next elections in 2016.

Lungu won the presidential by-election after incumbent Michael Sata, also of the Patriotic Front (PF) party, passed away in late October 2014. Under Sata’s rule, Zambia’s democratic space was threatened. Civil society organizations faced implementation of a law that would severely restrict their ability to operate, media freedoms were hampered and journalists arrested, by-elections became increasingly violent, and the opposition was prevented from holding rallies while their leaders were arrested on contrived charges.

By contrast, prior to the January election, Lungu received praise for positive steps he took while serving as justice minister and acting president. Most importantly, he opened up dialogue with civil society and released the long-awaited draft constitution.

When Lungu announced his cabinet and other appointments after taking office as president, he had the opportunity to address democracy challenges and revitalize his party. To an extent he did so by appointing Irene Mambilima, former head of the Electoral Commission, as chief justice. Her nomination, which the parliament ratified in February, filled a position that had been vacant since 2012, as the acting chief justice faced strong opposition from the Law Association of Zambia, among others. Mambilima is seen as progressive and respected by her judicial colleagues, and many applauded her nomination. 

However, the same cannot be said for the new minister of information, Chishimba Kambwili, who has already pledged to shut down Zambian Watchdog, a critical news website that had also been targeted by the Sata administration. During the election campaign he stormed the offices of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) after it aired a story on the suspended PF chairperson. The media reacted swiftly to Kambwili’s appointment, lamenting his record and erratic behavior. While coverage of the election was far more balanced than in the past, Lungu’s new information minister will likely make it harder for journalists to operate in the run-up to the 2016 polls.

A second point on which Lungu has fallen short of expectations involves the draft constitution. Although he released it as acting president, ending a long delay under Sata, holding a referendum to formally adopt the new charter has become one of President Lungu’s lowest priorities. While other major presidential contenders signed pledges to hold a referendum, Lungu avoided commenting at all during his campaign, eventually issuing a parliamentary roadmap and emphasizing that the matter was out of his control and instead in the hands of the Justice Ministry and parliament. The process has continued to stall in recent months, with the timeline provided by the parliament significantly behind schedule. While there have been some reports that citizens will vote on the constitution at the same time as the 2016 presidential election, it remains unclear whether Lungu will allow even this. He may attempt a piecemeal ratification process in the parliament that would enable him to control what portions are adopted. One provision, requiring presidential candidates to garner more than 50 percent of the vote to win, could hurt his chances of securing a full five-year term in 2016, as the contest in January was extremely close. 

The last concerning political development since Lungu’s election involves the director of public prosecutions, Mutembo Nchito, who was charged with abuse of office. After Nchito attempted to dismiss his own case, Lungu set up a closed tribunal to investigate the charges. While the process being conducted is within the bounds of the law, Nchito has alleged that Lungu is trying to bully him out of office. The ongoing debate over the closed tribunal and the authority of the president to lead the case against the top prosecutor has divided the legal community, with some arguing that the president should only use this power in extreme circumstances. Regardless of the veracity of the charges against Nchito, the way the process has been handled raises serious questions about judicial independence in Zambia. Furthermore, a compromised judiciary would be unable to serve as a check against restrictions on the media or civil society during the next presidential campaign period.

Despite the relative success of the January election and the transfer of power after Sata’s death, the international community must remain engaged in Zambia and remind the president of his commitments and obligations. Only if Lungu protects media freedom, judicial independence, and the constitutional process will his tenure have a positive impact on Zambian democracy.