Zambia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Friction escalated in 2004 between civil rights groups and President Levy Mwanawasa, whom they accused of dominating the country's constitutional reform process. The government's drive to punish graft under the previous administration showed signs of flagging, with just one conviction to date amid alleged mishandling of cases by the president's anticorruption task force.

President Kenneth Kaunda and the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled Zambia from independence from Britain in 1964 until the transition to a multiparty system in 1991. Kaunda's regime grew increasingly repressive and corrupt as it faced security and economic difficulties during the long guerrilla wars against white rule in neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Portuguese-controlled Mozambique. UNIP's socialist policies, combined with a crash in the price of copper, Zambia's main export, precipitated an economic decline unchecked for two decades.

In the face of domestic unrest and international pressure, Kaunda permitted free elections in 1991. Former labor leader Frederick Chiluba and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) won convincingly. By contrast, the November 1996 presidential and parliamentary polls lacked legitimacy, largely because of a series of repressive measures instituted by the government. State resources and media were mobilized extensively to support Chiluba and the ruling MMD, and serious irregularities plagued election preparations. Voter lists were incomplete or otherwise suspect; independent monitors estimated that more than two million people were effectively disenfranchised. Candidate eligibility requirements were changed, which resulted in the exclusion of Kaunda, the most credible opposition candidate. Most opposition parties boycotted the polls, in which the MMD renewed its parliamentary dominance. International observer groups that did monitor the polls, along with independent domestic monitors and opposition parties, declared the process and the results to be fraudulent.

Prior to the December 2001 presidential elections, the incumbent Chiluba supported a move within his party to change the constitution so that he could run for a third term. Dissension within his party, the opposition, and civil society forced him to retreat from that plan. Instead, the MMD nominated Mwanawasa, who narrowly won the vote by only 29 percent against a divided opposition. Both domestic and international election monitors cited serious irregularities with the campaign and election. The country's high court has so far withheld judgment on a petition by opposition candidates to overturn Mwanawasa's victory. During concurrent parliamentary elections, the MMD captured 69 seats out of 150 elected members. Hotly contested by-elections in 2003 increased the number of seats held by the MMD to 75. The main opposition party rejected the results.

Although widely perceived as former president Chiluba's handpicked successor, Mwanawasa has backed wide-ranging legal inquiries into alleged corruption by Chiluba and his senior associates while they were in power. However, a lack of concrete results has started to erode public confidence in the process. Only one official, Chiluba's former aide Richard Sakala, has gone to prison for corruption (in 2003). The government's campaign was dealt a further blow in August 2004, when a court dismissed more than 100 counts of corruption and theft against Zambia's former intelligence chief and its former ambassador to the United States, who had fled the country and were deemed beyond the court's jurisdiction. The two were considered key players in the plundering of an estimated $40 million from state coffers during Chiluba's tenure.

Despite promises of greater transparency and inclusiveness in the country's constitutional reform process, the government has relied on a commission whose members were mostly appointed by Mwanawasa, who has final authority over its proposals. A coalition of religious and civil society groups called the Oasis Forum is seeking the creation of a more representative Constituent Assembly to steer the review process, which would involve a national referendum.

Zambia was suspended from World Bank and IMF programs in 2003 because of a $125 million budget deficit. In July 2004, after the government slashed spending and announced a six-month freeze on the salaries of civil servants, the IMF approved a new $320 million loan. However, it postponed a final decision on forgiving a large portion of Zambia's crushing $6.5 billion debt until December. Independent monitors said in February that some funding intended for poverty relief had been spent on contracts that enriched top officials. The government's privatization drive ground to a halt in 2004, with no new sales of state-owned companies. Some 25 out of the original 284 state-owned enterprises are in various stages of transfer.

The country is among those suffering most from the AIDS pandemic; government figures indicate that Zambia already has nearly 700,000 AIDS orphans. UNAIDS estimated infection rates in 2002 at 21.5 percent.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Zambians cannot change their government democratically. While Zambians' constitutional right to change their government freely was honored in the 1991 elections, both the 1996 and 2001 elections won by the ruling MMD were subjects of intense controversy. President Levy Mwanawasa, who was reprimanded by Acting Chief Justice Ernest Sakala in 2002 for intimidating witnesses during the 2001 presidential election, has said he intends to drag the case out until the next election. The president and parliament are elected to serve concurrent five-year terms. The National Assembly includes 150 elected members, as well as 8 members appointed by the president and the Speaker of the Assembly.

Although the opposition is fragmented, together the biggest parties - the United Party for National Development, the United National Independence Party, and the Forum for Democracy and Development - hold a majority of 73 seats in the National Assembly.

High levels of corruption have burdened development, although Mwanawasa has taken the initiative in rooting out state graft. He earned praise for banning cabinet ministers and senior officials from bidding on government contracts and for sacking his own vice president, Enoch Kavindele, for involvement in an irregular oil contract. However, the long-awaited corruption trial of former president Chiluba has been repeatedly delayed, and a multi-agency task force appointed in 2002 has been accused of wasting taxpayer money and failing to produce results. Zambia was ranked 102 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, although these rights are restricted in practice. The government dominates broadcasting, although an independent radio station, Radio Phoenix, presents nongovernmental views. The Public Order Act, among other statutes, has at times been used to harass and intimidate journalists. Other tools of harassment have included criminal libel suits and defamation suits brought by MMD leaders in response to stories on corruption.

A bill to expand the right of access to information and liberalize the broadcasting sector was abruptly withdrawn in November 2002 by Kavindele, who cited global security concerns after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Independent media organizations have since lobbied unsuccessfully for its passage. The government does not restrict access to the Internet.

Constitutionally protected religious freedom has been respected in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in promoting human rights, such as the Zambian Independent Monitoring Team, the Zambian Civic Education Association, and the Law Association of Zambia, operate openly. In 1999, however, the government drafted a policy that would closely regulate NGOs. The police frequently denied rally permits to opposition and citizens' groups, and forcibly broke up demonstrations, resulting in one death in 2004.

Zambia's trade unions remain among Africa's strongest, and union rights are constitutionally guaranteed. The Zambia Congress of Trade Unions, an umbrella organization for Zambia's 19 largest unions, operates democratically without governmental interference. The 1993 Industrial and Labor Relations Act protects collective bargaining rights, and unions negotiate directly with employers. About two-thirds of the country's 300,000 formal (business) sector employees are union members.

The judicial system, which has at times been subject to political influence, is under considerable pressure, with several high-level cases pending. In late 2003, Frederick Chiluba was formally charged with the theft of $41 million in state funds during his tenure as president, having lost his immunity from prosecution the year before. After nearly a year of delays, prosecutors dismissed the case against Chiluba in September 2004, only to re-arrest him hours later on six reduced charges that alleged the theft of $1 million. The change of strategy was due in part to the loss of two key witnesses and co-defendants who had fled the country in May. The new corruption trial of Chiluba and two businessmen is set for December.

The court system is severely overburdened. Pretrial detainees are sometimes held for years under harsh conditions before their cases reach trial. The Magistrates and Judges Association identified congestion in prisons and delayed trials as extremely serious problems; malnourishment and poor health care in prisons cause many deaths. Although Zambia technically has a death penalty, Mwanawasa is an outspoken opponent of capital punishment and has implemented a de facto moratorium. He has refused to sign any death warrants since taking office and has commuted the death sentences of dozens of death-row prisoners. The country's Constitutional Review Commission has taken up the issue of eliminating the death penalty altogether. Customary courts of variable quality and consistency, whose decisions often conflict with both national law and constitutional protections, decide many civil matters. The government human rights commission investigated frequent complaints about police brutality and denounced the torture of coup suspects, but it has no power to bring charges against alleged perpetrators.

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, tribe, gender, place of origin, marital status, political opinion, color, or creed. However, societal discrimination remains a serious obstacle to women's rights. A 1998 regional human development report noted that Zambia was one of the lowest-performing countries in southern Africa in terms of women's empowerment. Women are denied full economic participation and are discriminated against in rural land allocation. A married woman must have her husband's permission to obtain contraceptives. Discrimination against women is especially prevalent in traditional tribunals that are courts of first instance in most rural areas. Spousal abuse and other violence against women are reportedly common. An October 2004 survey by the U.S. Agency for International Development found that 48 percent of Zambian women have been subjected to physical or emotional abuse by their spouse or partner.