Zambia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2009

2009 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Zambia’s civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to continuing improvements in judicial independence, including increased assertiveness by the courts vis-à-vis the government and the government’s appointment of highly qualified individuals to judicial posts.


President Levy Mwanawasa died in August 2008, raising concerns that political instability might undermine Zambia’s economic and governance accomplishments of the last few years. While calm initially ensued under the leadership of Vice President Rupiah Banda, opposition and civil society groups raised concerns about electoral rigging and improprieties by the incumbency as presidential by-elections approached. Government harassment of the media increased considerably in the period surrounding the election. Rupiah Banda was elected president in October with 40 percent of the vote, but the outcome was being challenged in court at year’s end. Nevertheless, judicial independence improved during the year, illustrated by greater assertiveness by the courts vis-à-vis the government and the government’s appointment of highly qualified individuals to judicial posts.

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 went on to win the elections with 29 percent of the vote. The MMD also captured a plurality of 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. The Supreme Court upheld his election in February 2005. In the September 2006 election, Mwanawasa won a second term with 43 percent of the vote.  Of the 150 parliamentary seats that were contested, the MMD won 72, the Patriotic Front (PF) took 44, and the United Democratic Alliance captured 27. The remaining seats, were split between smaller parties and independents, or were undetermined because of legal disputes over the results. The polls were deemed the freest and fairest in 15 years.

Levy Mwanawasa suffered from a stroke in July2008 and died in August, less than two years into his second term. His death came at a time when Zambia was increasingly heralded as an emerging success story with respect to economic development and improved governance. With respect to the latter, Mwanawasa and opposition leader Michael Sata publicly declared an end to their longtime feuding in April 2008, which had been a source of tension. Contentious public conflict with key civil society groups, which had struggled with Mwanawsa over the process and pace of constitutional reform, also dissipated. Although civil society activists had pushed for the formation of a constituent assembly to reform the constitution, parliament in August 2007 created a 500-member constitutional conference that would propose reforms but leave the final decision to the legislature. Elements of civil society and the opposition declared their intention to boycott the conference, arguing that its composition and legal mandates strongly favored the president and the ruling party. However, when the conference undertook its work in 2008, public outcry was quite limited.

There was relative calm in the period prior to and immediately following Mwanawasa’s death in August, as Vice President Rupiah Banda established himself in a caretaker role and the MMD national executive committee chose Banda as its candidate for the presidential by-elections. However, this calm dissipated considerably as the October election date approached and other contenders, including Michael Sata of the PF and Hakainde Hichelema of the United Party for National Development (UPND), positioned themselves for the contest. Opposition and civil society groups raised concerns about pre-election improprieties and the prospects of electoral rigging, while government and ruling party activists intimidated journalists from the public and private media. Banda was elected president with 40 percent of the vote, against Sata’s 38 percent and Hichelema’s 20 percent. Sata claimed that the elections were fraudulent and filed a legal challenge calling for a recount.

Deft economic management and anticorruption efforts initiated under Mwanawasa 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. The growth rate for 2008 was estimated to be just below 6 percent. Zambia obtained considerable debt relief in 2005 and 2007, and China also agreed to a substantial investment package for Zambia in 2007. The IMF has applauded Zambia’s economic progress and, pledged $79 million dollars to support poverty alleviation and economic growth in 2008.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Zambia is an electoral democracy. Although the 1996 and 2001 elections featured substantial flaws, parliament passed a government-backed electoral reform law in April 2006 that improved the elections framework, and the 2006 elections represented a step forward in the ability of citizens to democratically change their government. In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, both opposition parties and civil society groups raised concerns about fraud, including the printing of additional ballot papers and the incumbent government’s use of state resources for campaigning. Although local and international observers declared the elections to be free and fair, opposition candidate Michael Sata did not accept the results. 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 8 members appointed by the president.

The opposition has been able to operate, although under some duress. PF leader Sata has been arrested and charged with various offenses, including sedition, since 2001. After the 2006 elections, 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. While violent clashes took place between supporters of the PF and the MMD in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential polls, there were no reports of manifest harassment of the PF by the government. Both the PF and other opposition parties suffer from internal divisions.

The effort to fight corruption was one of the primary themes of Levy Mwanawasa’s public rhetoric. In his first term as president, he earned praise for banning senior officials from bidding on public contracts. Several government officials were removed during his time in office amid allegations of corruption, including his own vice president. Corruption charges were brought against the minister of lands and head of the Drug Enforcement Commission in 2007, and the minister of Southern Province in 2008; one was aquitted in 2008, while trials for others were ongoing during the year.At the same time, Mwanawasa appears to have tolerated some corruption in his inner circle. Although Banda has pledged to continue the policies of his predecessor, many raised concerns about corruption in the lead-up to the 2008 polls, including Banda’s alleged payment of money to a small opposition party in exchange for their support.

Although progress has been slow and uneven, some successes have been registered in efforts to prosecute members of the former administration of Frederick Chiluba. In 2007, Chiluba was convicted in a British court of conspiring to steal $46 million in public funds. Also in that year, Mwanawasa renewed the mandate of the task force on corruption, an institution created to deal with crimes committed under Chiluba. In 2008, the task force questioned Chiluba on his involvement in a suspicious maize deal in the 1990s. Zambia was ranked 115 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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, journalists commonly practice self-censorship. The state-owned, progovernment Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) dominates the broadcast media. The government has the authority to appoint the management boards of ZNBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which regulates the industry and grants licenses to prospective broadcasters. 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 government and MMD supporters in previous years. The Public Order Act (POA) and other statutes have at times been used to harass journalists and Ministry of Information officials have threatened to revoke licenses of stations deemed mouthpieces of the opposition. Other tools of harassment have included criminal libel and defamation suits brought by MMD leaders in response to stories on corruption.

In 2008, media freedom deteriorated considerably in the period surrounding the presidential election. Prior to the poll, Banda obtained a court order forbidding the leading independent newspaper, The Post, from running defamatory articles against him. The minister of information then claimed he would “sort out” the newspaper after the elections. Reporters with The Post were later threatened and mistreated by MMD cadres while covering campaign events. Independent radio also became a target of government harassment. Before the polls, Ministry of Information officials directed private stations to screen calls for popular call-in programs to discuss the elections. Another reporter from the independent station Radio Phoenix was harassed by police in late October. After the elections, police arrested the manager of a Catholic-owned radio station in conjunction with a call-in program that was accused of inciting unrest; the charges against him were subsequently dropped. 

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

Under the POA, 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 have been contentious in recent years, 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 2007 but was withdrawn after a considerable outcry.

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. While unions remain engaged in public affairs, they have become weaker both financially and organizationally in recent years.

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. Although the government announced plans in 2007 to provide free legal services to the poor, many accused lack access to legal aid owing to limited resources. In rural areas, customary courts of variable quality and consistency, whose decisions often conflict with the constitution and national law, decide many civil matters. Nevertheless, judicial independence improved in 2008, illustrated by an increased assertiveness by the courts vis-à-vis the government and the government’s appointment of very qualified individuals to judicial positions, including the highly regarded Irene Mambilima to the post of deputy chief justice.

Allegations of police corruption, brutality, and even torture are widespread, but security forces have generally operated with impunity. Prison conditions are very harsh; severe overcrowding, poor nutrition, and limited access to health care have led to many inmate deaths. In 2007, the government began efforts to reduce crowding, in part by pardoning over 800 convicts;more than 100 prisoners were pardoned in 2008.

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.