Zambia’s political system features regular multiparty elections, and some civil liberties are respected. However, opposition parties face onerous legal and practical obstacles to fair competition, and the government regularly invokes restrictive laws to narrow political space. In 2021, Zambia experienced its third democratic transfer of power when the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) won presidential and legislative elections.
- In August, UPND candidate Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) in the presidential election. The election was marred by widespread violence, the selective enforcement of the 1955 Public Order Act (POA) and COVID-19-related regulations, and a polling-day social media blackout.
- In August, the UPND won legislative elections held concurrently with the presidential contest, displacing the PF as the largest party in the National Assembly. While the results were considered credible, the contests were similarly marred by violence and the selective enforcement of the law to impede the opposition.
- In March, the PF government enacted the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act (CSCCA). The law requires telecommunications providers to install hardware and software that can facilitate the interception of messages, among other measures.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is directly elected to serve up to two five-year terms. In August 2021, UPND candidate Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu of the PF in what was Hichilema’s third attempt against Lungu. Hichilema won 59 percent of the vote, while Lungu won 38.7 percent. Turnout was high, at 70.6 percent. Lungu initially questioned the results but later conceded; Hichilema assumed office in late August.
The electoral period was marred by violence, with PF and UPND supporters clashing in several provinces as the vote approached. In mid-June, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) ordered a halt to PF and UPND campaigning in four districts, including Lusaka, because of violence, though those restrictions ended by late July. Lungu deployed military forces in parts of Zambia in early August, and military personnel remained on patrol through polling day.
The electoral period was also affected by hate speech. In late June, the ECZ suspended former information minister Chishimba Kambwili from campaign activities for engaging in hate speech against the Tonga ethnic group. The restriction was lifted after Kambwili apologized in July, though he continued to espouse those views afterwards.
Zambian internet users were unable to access social networks including Facebook and WhatsApp on election day, though some users were able to connect using virtual private networks. The High Court of Lusaka overturned the order to disrupt connectivity the day after polling.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The unicameral National Assembly comprises 156 elected members, up to 8 members appointed by the president, and 3 seats allocated for the vice president, the speaker, and a deputy speaker.
The August 2021 polls were held concurrently with the presidential election and featured the same problems. The UPND won 82 seats, up from 58 in the last legislature. The PF initially won 59 seats, a fall from 80 in the last legislature. The Party of National Unity and Progress won 1, while independents won 13. The PF won a special election for an Eastern Province seat in October, bringing their total to 60.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The ECZ is responsible for managing the election process but lacks capacity. The US-based Carter Center, which monitored the August 2021 polls, noted that the government did not implement previous observers’ recommendations to independently select commissioners. The Carter Center also criticized the ECZ for managing the electoral process “without proper consultation with stakeholders.”
The ECZ conducted a voter-registration drive in 2020 to build a new voter roll. As part of that process, over 16,000 prisoners were also registered to vote as of that December. The ECZ’s overall management of that process was criticized by observers and the UPND. In March 2021, Hichilema claimed that younger Zambians were underrepresented and that the ECZ was more effective in registering PF voters. African Union (AU) observers noted that the ECZ dismissed calls to audit the roll.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Political parties are registered under the Societies Act and do not regularly face onerous registration requirements. Independent candidates may also run for office. However, the authorities selectively enforced COVID-19 restrictions and the POA to impede opposition rallies during the 2021 electoral period.
Political party members faced official harassment and arrest as well as violence during the electoral period. In March, authorities in Copperbelt Province arrested 25 members of a UPND youth cadre as they reportedly prepared to take part in a rally. The UPND criticized the arrest, noting that PF youth cadres appeared to operate without official interference. In late July, two PF members were killed, with police suspecting that UPND members had murdered them. On election day, PF provincial chairman Jackson Kungo was killed; UPND members who suspected Kungo of possessing premarked ballots were allegedly responsible for killing him.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
In 2021, Zambia experienced its third democratic transfer of power between rival groups. Opposition parties regularly win National Assembly seats. Laws against election-related violence are poorly enforced, however.
The UPND won the August 2021 presidential and legislative elections despite PF efforts to impede their campaign. The PF benefited from bias among state media and some private media outlets, along with the selective enforcement of the POA and COVID-19 regulations and restrictions on the movement of then candidate Hichilema.
Score change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because opposition candidates won the presidential and legislative elections despite government efforts to impede their campaigns.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The people’s political choices are largely free from domination by groups that are not democratically accountable, though the PF has at times been accused of undemocratic tactics including vote-buying to ensure election victories.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Suffrage in Zambia is universal for adult citizens. Women have equal political rights under the constitution. Gender-equity legislation took effect in 2015, though regulations to enact its measures have not been put into force since its passage.
Women have been dissuaded from seeking office due to candidate-registration fees and educational requirements, though registration fees fell in March 2021. Women held only 15 percent of National Assembly seats as of September. Female cabinet representation is also low; in September, President Hichilema appointed only five women to cabinet posts. Legislators also approved the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender later that month, with its functions moving to the president’s office.
Presidents since independence have failed to honor the 1964 Barotseland Agreement, which promised the Lozi ethnic group of Western Province limited local self-governance. In August 2021, Barotse separatist leader Akufuna Mumbotwa, who was arrested for treason in 2014, was pardoned by outgoing president Lungu.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Flawed elections have undermined the democratic legitimacy of executive and legislative officeholders. The executive has also exhibited dominance over legislators in the past. Candidates who won posts in the August 2021 elections were able to assume power smoothly, however. The UPND, which became the largest party in National Assembly after the elections, is able to pass legislation with little effective resistance from opposition legislators.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption in government is widespread, and impunity is common. Prosecutions and court decisions on corruption charges, when they do occur, are often thought to reflect political motivations. Limited funding and enforcement restrict the efficacy of institutional safeguards against corruption, and PF leaders have sometimes undermined anticorruption efforts. In September 2021, President Hichilema moved the Anti-Corruption Office, the economic crimes commission, and the public prosecutor’s office under his own office.
In 2020, the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC), a government anticorruption watchdog, disseminated 14 reports covering suspected corruption worth as much as 2.2 billion kwacha ($121 million) to authorities. The FIC reported that government officials awarded noncompetitive contracts for payment and that overvalued contracts were often awarded without the expectation of work being completed.
In September 2021, Transparency International called on law enforcement agencies to investigate a patronage network allegedly profiting from the illegal trade in mukula wood.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Zambia continues to struggle with government transparency and accountability. There is no access to information law. The Anti-Corruption Act requires some public officeholders to make financial declarations, but is only loosely enforced.
|Are there free and independent media?
Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed but restricted in practice. Public outlets have exhibited a pro-PF bias while private outlets are largely polarized. Self-censorship remains common.
Outlets that are perceived as aligned with PF opponents have faced arbitrary closure, while critical journalists risked damage to equipment, frivolous lawsuits, arrest, and harassment from the PF and its supporters. In 2020, for example, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) shuttered privately owned Prime TV following a protracted dispute with the PF government. In mid-August 2021, the IBA restored Prime TV’s broadcasting license.
Several outlets were targeted by PF supporters during 2021. In early February, PF supporters reportedly attacked Liberty Community Radio in the northern district of Mporokoso after it hosted Democratic Party leader Harry Kalaba. In early March, PF supporters forcibly entered the facility of Chete FM, which featured UPND members in a broadcast. Opposition members at the station were assaulted, while PF supporters used tear-gas and pepper spray against station staff. In early June, equipment at Kalungwishi Radio was damaged by unidentified arsonists.
Journalists may also be affected by the CSCCA, which took effect in March 2021. In May, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) criticized the CSCCA, warning that journalists could face surveillance under the new law.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Constitutional protections for religious freedom are generally respected. However, the constitution declares Zambia to be a Christian nation. The PF government was criticized for blurring the separation of church and state, including by attempting to include “Christian morality” in the constitution, backing an annual National Day of Prayer, building an interdenominational church, and appointing a minister of national guidance and religious affairs. In September 2021, the UPND government abolished that ministry, though it maintained the National Day of Prayer in an October decision.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
The government generally does not restrict academic freedom. However, authorities have pressured student unions in response to protests, while student demonstrators have risked arrest by police. University professors face intimidation for pursuing academic activities of a political nature.
The PF government targeted academic Sishuwa Sishuwa for authoring a March 2021 opinion piece in which he discussed the possibility of unrest following the August elections. In late March, Emmanuel Mwamba, then Zambia’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the AU, implied that an opposition party paid Sishuwa for his article. In April, Mwamba accused Sishuwa of sedition in a letter to the inspector general of police, reportedly prompting an investigation into the academic.
Score change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because a professor faced a police investigation in connection with his political commentary.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
There is some freedom of private discussion and personal expression in Zambia, though the PF government appeared to monitor citizens’ speech on social media, at times resulting in arrests. Zambians can also face prosecutions for defamation.
Zambians also face surveillance under the CSCCA, which was enacted in March 2021. Under the law, service providers must install hardware and software that allow for the interception of communications. Section 59 of the CSCCA, meanwhile, prohibits communications that can “corrupt morals.”
Access to social media was restricted on polling day in August 2021, though the High Court of Lusaka ordered an end to the restrictions the day after.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed but has not been consistently respected by the government. Peaceful anti-PF protests and opposition meetings were frequently restricted under the POA. Police must be notified in advance of all public gatherings and often denied permission for political events to proceed.
Political rallies and assemblies were affected by the PF government’s use of the POA and COVID-19 regulations ahead of the August 2021 elections. In its report, the Carter Center noted that authorities disproportionately halted or restricted UPND events using pandemic-related rules, while PF events were largely unrestricted.
Assemblies were also impacted by violence during the year. Cadres of PF and UPND supporters engaged in acts of violence, property destruction, and intimidation to disrupt peaceful assemblies during the electoral period, though PF supporters were likelier to perpetrate such acts against their opponents. The ECZ suspended campaigning in Lusaka and three other districts because of violence between June and July 2021, while then president Lungu deployed the military in parts of Zambia in August for the same reason. Authorities also used force to disperse some opposition rallies.
Score change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because COVID-19 restrictions and a public-order law were disproportionately used to restrict opposition gatherings and because authorities forcefully dispersed opposition election rallies.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in a restrictive environment and are required to register every five years under the 2009 NGO Act. In November 2020, the PF government amended the law to increase monitoring of NGO funds for possible illegal activities such as money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Human rights defenders and activists often experience intimidation and cyberharassment from political party supporters.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The law generally provides for the right to join unions, strike, and bargain collectively, though workers in essential services do not have the right to strike, and the category is defined to include the mining industry. Zambian trade unions, which were once among Africa’s strongest, faced interference and marginalization under the PF.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Judicial independence is guaranteed by law, but in practice the judiciary is subject to political pressure. In late 2018, the Constitutional Court, then composed entirely of Lungu appointees, issued a unanimous ruling that appeared to support Lungu’s eligibility for another term.
President Hichilema appointed judge Mumba Malila as Supreme Court chief justice after taking office, a decision legislators ratified in December 2021. Legislators also ratified President Hichilema’s appointment of a Judicial Complaints Commission member that month.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Pretrial detainees are sometimes held for years without trial owing to case backlogs. Many of the accused lack legal representation. Bail is frequently denied to detainees. In rural areas, customary courts of variable quality and consistency—whose decisions often conflict with the constitution and national law—decide many civil matters.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Allegations of police brutality, including the use of torture to extract confessions, are widespread. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Conditions in pretrial detention facilities and prisons are poor, with reports of forced labor, abuse of inmates by authorities, and deplorable health conditions.
While the death penalty remains on the books, no executions have taken place since 1997. In January 2021, then president Lungu commuted the death sentences of 246 people.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Women are constitutionally guaranteed the same rights as men, but gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment are prevalent in practice.
Same-sex sexual activity is punishable by up to life in prison. A same-sex couple sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in 2019 was pardoned in 2020.
Refugees are protected under local and international law but often suffer from limited access to basic services and gender-based violence (GBV). Some 75,000 refugees resided in Zambia as of December 2021.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
The government generally respects the constitutionally protected right to free internal movement and foreign travel. However, internal movement is often impeded by petty corruption, such as police demands for bribes at checkpoints. Authorities also restricted the movement of UPND supporters and then candidate Hichilema during the 2021 electoral period.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Agricultural land in rural areas is mostly administered under traditional authorities. However, the president retains ultimate authority over all land and can intercede to block or compel its sale or transfer. Women are frequently discriminated in property and inheritance matters. The process of meeting regulatory requirements for starting and operating businesses can be lengthy and opaque.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Personal status issues such as marriage and divorce are governed by either statutory or customary law, with customary practices varying among different ethnic groups. Due in large part to a government-backed strategy in place since 2016, the rate of child marriage has decreased significantly in recent years, though more than 30 percent of women aged 20 to 24 were married before age 18 according to 2018 UN Children’s Fund data.
Domestic abuse is common, and traditional norms inhibit many women from reporting assaults. While rape can draw a maximum penalty of life in prison with hard labor, the problem is widespread, and the law is not frequently enforced. Police recorded a 19.8 percent increase in GBV between the third quarters of 2019 and 2020. In January 2021, police recorded a 10.7 percent rise in GBV between the third and fourth quarters of 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Labor exploitation, child labor, and human trafficking remain prevalent despite laws meant to prevent them. Zambian authorities continue to struggle in sustaining antitrafficking efforts. Most human trafficking in Zambia reportedly entails cross-border trafficking of young men and exploitation of women and children from rural areas in economic pursuits ranging from domestic work to mining and agriculture.
The 2021 edition of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report noted that while some trafficking survivors received assistance, few male survivors were accommodated in shelters. Some forms of sex trafficking are criminalized, though sex-trafficking survivors were often charged with prostitution while alleged traffickers escaped investigation. The State Department also noted that Zambian children faced higher risks of sex trafficking and forced labor during COVID-19-related school closures.
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Global Freedom Score54 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score59 100 partly free