Zambia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Civil society activists pushed in 2007 for the formation of a constituent assembly to reform the constitution, but the parliament instead created a 500-member constitutional conference that would propose reforms but leave the final decision to the legislature. During the heated sparring over the issue, the government introduced, then withdrew, legislation that would have placed greater controls over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The president warned that those interfering in the constitutional reform process would be charged with treason.

Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964. President Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party (UNIP) subsequently ruled Zambia as a de facto—and, from 1973, a de jureone-party state. Increasing repression and corruption, coupled with dramatic economic decline, led to widespread resentment against the Kaunda regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the face of domestic and international pressure, Kaunda agreed to a new constitution and multiparty democracy in 1991. In free elections that October, former labor leader Frederick Chiluba and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) captured both the presidency and the National Assembly by wide margins. However, in the 1996 elections, the MMD-led government manipulated candidacy laws, voter registration, and media coverage in favor of the incumbents. Most egregiously, constitutional reforms prior to the elections disqualified candidates whose parents were not Zambian by birth or descent, effectively barring Kaunda from seeking reelection. Most opposition parties boycotted the polls, and the MMD renewed its parliamentary dominance.

Dissent within the MMD, as well as protests by opposition parties and civil society, forced Chiluba to abandon an effort to change the constitution and seek a third term in 2001. Instead, the MMD nominated Levy Mwanawasa, who won with just 29 percent of the vote against a divided opposition. The MMD also captured 69 out of 150 elected parliament seats. Domestic and international election monitors cited vote rigging and other serious irregularities, and three opposition candidates petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn Mwanawasa’s victory.

Mwanawasa gradually asserted his authority over the MMD and the political arena, and in February 2005 the Supreme Court upheld his election. In the September 2006 election, Mwanawasa won a second term with 43 percent of the vote, followed by Patriotic Front (PF) leader Michael Sata, with 29 percent, and United Democratic Alliance (UDA) leader Hakainde Hichilema, with 25 percent. The polls were deemed the freest and fairest in 15 years. Of the 150 parliamentary seats that were contested, the MMD won 72, the PF took 46, and the UDA captured 27.

Mwanawasa had pledged to implement a new constitution, and in 2005 a constitutional review commission put forward a plan calling for the formation of a constituent assembly followed by a referendum on the resulting draft. However, the president resisted such a process. In 2007, Mwanawasa initially claimed that he would allow a constituent assembly only after a referendum approved constitutional changes to permit its formation, which the opposition and civil society criticized as costly and unnecessary. The president then convened an interparty meeting to develop a new plan. The result was the creation of a constitutional review conference, approved by the legislature in late August. Formally beginning work in December, it consists of nearly 500 members from the parliament, political parties, government, civil society, and other groups, and has been charged with submitting proposals to the parliament for final approval. The PF and key elements of civil society announced that they would boycott the conference, arguing that its composition and legal mandates strongly favored the president and the ruling party.

Deft economic management and anticorruption efforts have kept Zambia on good terms with Western donors. Economic progress has been evident in the appreciation of the kwacha currency, lower inflation, and some degree of poverty reduction. Zambia obtained considerable debt relief in 2005, and in 2007 Japan and Belgium cancelled additional debt. Relations with China, already the subject of local political debate, intensified during the year. Despite protests by opposition and labor groups, Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Zambia in February. During the visit, Hu announced an $800 million investment package and the cancellation of $3 million in debt.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Zambia is an electoral democracy. The 2006 elections represented a step forward in the ability of citizens to democratically change their government. Both the 1996 and 2001 elections had featured substantial flaws, and the Supreme Court criticized the 2001 presidential poll even while upholding its outcome. The parliament passed a government-backed electoral reform law in April 2006, providing for transparent ballot boxes, new voter cards, restrictions on the use of public resources, and requirements for balanced coverage by the state-owned media. However, the law also empowered the president to set the date for elections and prevented the media from publishing speculative analyses and unsourced opinion polls in the run-up to the contests. Meanwhile, Zambia’s Electoral Commission, under new leadership since 2005, received high marks in 2006 for consulting regularly with the parties and showing less bias toward the ruling MMD party.

The president and the unicameral National Assembly are elected to serve concurrent five-year terms. The National Assembly includes 150 elected members, as well as eight members appointed by the president.

The opposition has been able to operate, although under some duress. PF leader Michael Sata has been arrested and charged with various offenses, including sedition, since 2001. After his defeat in the 2006 presidential polls, rumors circulated about him setting up “parallel governments” on local councils where the PF held majorities, leading President Levy Mwanawasa to accuse him of treasonous behavior. In the months that followed, Sata and the PF became the target of considerable harassment. He was arrested on charges that were subsequently dismissed by the courts. The government also ordered police to deny his party permits to hold rallies. Sata remained a vocal opponent of Mwanawasa in 2007. A major critic of the Chinese presence in Zambia, he was accused of inciting protests prior to President Hu Jintao’s visit to the country. However, apart from one incident in which police clashed with PF supporters marching near the state house, there were no widely distributed reports of the party’s activities being curtailed in 2007.

The effort to fight corruption has been one of the primary themes of Mwanawasa’s public rhetoric since he took power. In his first term, he earned praise for banning senior officials from bidding on public contracts and for sacking his own vice president in 2003 for involvement in an irregular oil contract. In 2006, the Anti-Corruption Commission announced the formation of integrity committees in several ministries. Mwanawasa fired both the deputy minister and minister of lands in 2007 to allow for investigations into their allegedly corrupt land-allocation schemes. The former minister was formally charged in July. The head of the Drug Enforcement Commission was also arrested on corruption charges in November 2007. At the same time, Mwanawasa appears to have tolerated some corrupt individuals in his circle. He attempted to shield his ally, former health minister Kashiwa Bulaya, from prosecution in 2005. MMD chairman Michael Mabenga and national secretary Katele Kalumba have also been implicated in major corruption scandals.

Inconclusive anticorruption prosecutions and a somewhat selective pursuit of cases have been a source of frustration. In 2006, the former director of the state-owned Zambia National Commercial Bank was found guilty of inappropriately providing credit facilities to the executive under former president Frederick Chiluba. In 2007, Chiluba himself was convicted in a British court of conspiring to steal $46 million in public funds. Also during the year, Mwanawasa renewed the mandate of the task force on corruption, an institution created early in his first term to deal with crimes committed under Chiluba. Zambia was ranked 123 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed, but the government often restricts this right in practice. The government controls two widely circulated newspapers, and owing to prepublication review, their journalists commonly practice self-censorship. In September 2007, the minister of information and broadcasting warned reporters at the two papers not to criticize government. The state-owned, progovernment Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) dominates the broadcast media. An independent study indicated that although there had been improvement from previous years, the ZNBC continued to favor the incumbent during the 2006 election campaign. In 2007, the government won a major court case concerning who could appoint the management boards of ZNBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which regulates the industry and grants licenses to prospective broadcasters. The ruling left the appointments largely in the hands of the government. The government has also delayed passage of a bill designed to give the public and journalists free access to official information.

The independent media continue to play a significant role, although journalists have been arrested, detained, and harassed by MMD supporters in previous years. The Public Order Act (POA) and other statutes have at times been used to harass journalists. Other tools of harassment have included criminal libel and defamation suits brought by MMD leaders in response to stories on corruption. In 2007, police prevented an independent radio station from providing live coverage of an antigovernment demonstration. The minister of information and broadcasting is also alleged to have threatened to revoke the license of a radio station that aired an interview with Sata. The government does not restrict internet access.

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

Under the POA, the police must receive a week’s notice before all demonstrations; while the law does not require permits, the police have frequently broken up “illegal” protests because the organizers lacked permits. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely, but they are required to register with the government. Government relations with NGOs were somewhat contentious in 2007, as prominent civic groups challenged the government on constitutional reform. A highly regressive NGO bill, which would have increased government controls over NGOs, was introduced in July but withdrawn after a considerable outcry. Mwanawasa later claimed that opponents of his plans for constitutional reform could face treason charges.

Zambia’s trade unions are among Africa’s strongest, and union rights are constitutionally guaranteed. The Zambia Congress of Trade Unions operates democratically without state interference. About two-thirds of the country’s 300,000 formal-sector employees are union members. While collective bargaining rights are protected by statute, labor laws also require labor organizations to have at least 100 members to be registered, a potentially burdensome rule. Recent years, including 2007, have featured labor activism in the form of strikes and demonstrations, including some targeting Chinese investment and labor practices in the mining sector.

Judicial independence is guaranteed by law. While courts do act independently and have ruled against the government, they are undermined by capacity problems, corruption, and political influences. A lack of qualified personnel, in part because of poor working conditions, contributes to significant trial delays, and pretrial detainees are sometimes held for years under harsh conditions. Many accused do not have access to legal aid owing to limited resources, but in March 2007 the government announced plans to provide free legal services to the poor. In rural areas, customary courts of variable quality and consistency, whose decisions often conflict with the constitution and national law, decide many civil matters.

Allegations of police corruption, brutality, and even torture are widespread, but security forces have generally operated with impunity. In 2005, the police were accused of not cooperating with investigations by the Police Public Complaints Authority. Prison conditions are very harsh; severe overcrowding, poor nutrition, and limited access to health care have led to many inmate deaths. Prison commissioner Jethro Mumbuwa, who had once complained about overcrowding, was sacked in 2007 after the president publicly raised concerns about rape and the spread of HIV/AIDS in the prison system. In the months that followed, the government began efforts to reduce crowding, in part by pardoning over 800 convicts.

In March 2007 the government announced plans, the first of their kind under Mwanawasa, to demolish dozens of illegal settlements. This prompted concerns among NGOs and advocates that thousands could be left homeless. Some 100 unoccupied residences were destroyed by the government as part of the program. Those who lost their homes and others who feared further demolitions have begun to take legal and political action.

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. Domestic violence and rape are major problems, and traditional norms inhibit many women from reporting assaults. Women are denied full economic participation and usually require male consent to obtain credit. Discrimination against women is especially prevalent in customary courts, where they are considered subordinate with respect to property, inheritance, and marriage. In September 2005, an amended penal code banned the traditional practice of “sexual cleansing,” in which a widow is obliged to have sex with relatives of her deceased husband.