Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Zambia received an upward trend arrow due to the conduct of the September presidential election and the peaceful transfer of power to opposition leader Michael Sata, ending two decades of rule by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy.
The September 2011 presidential election led to a peaceful handover of power to the opposition Patriotic Front’s Michael Sata, ending two decades of rule by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy. In his first months in office, Sata took steps to reinvigorate anticorruption efforts and loosen restrictions on journalists.
Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964. President Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party subsequently ruled Zambia as a de facto—and, from 1972, a de jure—one-party state. 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 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 2001 elections. The MMD also captured a plurality of elected parliament seats amid charges of vote rigging and other serious irregularities. In September 2006, Mwanawasa won a second term with about 42 percent of the vote. In concurrent legislative elections, the MMD won 72 seats in the 150-seat parliament, and the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) took 44. The polls were deemed the freest and fairest in 15 years.
Mwanawasa suffered a stroke in June 2008 and died in August; he was succeeded by Vice President Rupiah Banda. A presidential by-election followed in October, with Banda winning around 39 percent of the vote, the PF’s Michael Sata claiming 38 percent, and Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) taking 20 percent. Sata claimed that the election was fraudulent and filed a legal challenge calling for a recount, but his request was rejected by the Supreme Court in March 2009.
Banda’s presidency was characterized by contentious politics, increasing infringements on civil liberties, and weakened anticorruption efforts. A 2008 National Constitutional Conference—boycotted by elements of civil society and the opposition—completed a draft constitution that was distributed to the public for commentary in June 2010. While the draft was praised for expanding protections for economic, social, and cultural rights, it was criticized for failing to sufficiently curtail executive powers and expanding the size of the parliament. In March 2011, the Constitution Amendment Bill failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority in the legislature. Meanwhile, the government and MMD supporters took aggressive and violent actions against the political opposition and elements of civil society that they considered hostile to the president.
In the September 2011 presidential election, Sata defeated Banda, 43 percent to 36 percent. Banda accepted the result, marking the second time in Zambian history that an incumbent peacefully surrendered the presidency after losing an election. In concurrent parliamentary elections, the PF won a small majority, taking 61 seats, to 55 for the MMD and 29 for the UPND. Although the elections were characterized by fierce campaigning, the misuse of state resources by the MMD, and isolated rioting that claimed at least two lives, the polls were deemed free and credible by international observers. Shortly after his election, Sata pledged to appoint a committee to rewrite the constitution.
Sata is often described as a populist, and in his previous campaigns had harshly criticized the growing role of Chinese companies in Zambia’s mining sector, even threatening to expel them if elected. However, he moderated his tone in 2011, focusing instead on improving conditions at Chinese-owned mines and ensuring that Chinese companies followed Zambian labor laws.
Zambia is an electoral democracy. While the opposition had alleged fraud and harassment in recent elections, the ruling MMD relinquished control of both the presidency and the parliament in 2011, and local and international observers declared the year’s voting to be generally free and credible. 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.
Prior to the election of opposition PF leader Michael Sata as president in September 2011, opposition parties had been able to operate, but often faced intimidation and violence. Sata had been arrested and charged with various offenses, including sedition, since 2001. In March 2009, the PF joined forces with the UPND to challenge the MMD in the 2011 elections, and the leaders of both parties subsequently faced threats of violence and sexual assault by MMD cadres. In 2010, members of the opposition were harassed and detained by the police, while others were violently attacked by individuals associated with the MMD. In 2011, however, the preelection period was generally calm.
Corruption is believed to be widespread. The government of Sata’s predecessor, Rupiah Banda, proved willing to protect political figures and weaken the legal regime against graft. Most visibly, Banda aided the political rehabilitation of former president Frederick Chiluba, who died in June 2011 after being acquitted of embezzlement by a Zambian court, even though a 2007 finding in a separate case by the High Court in London indicated that he had stolen $57 million during his presidency. In June 2010, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis suspended $300 million in funding out of concern over corruption, and the Dutch and Swedish aid agencies, as well as the European Union, have also withheld some funds for the same reason. In October 2010, the National Assembly passed legislation to remove an “abuse of office” clause from the Anti-Corruption Act. However, Sata soon after taking office fired several high-ranking officials who had been implicated in corruption. He also dismissed Godfrey Kayukwa, the director general of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), who had been accused by the local chapter of Transparency International (TI) of destroying the reputation of that institution. Zambia was ranked 91 out of 183 countries surveyed in TI’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed. The MMD government had often restricted these rights in practice; however, there were signs that Sata and the PF would provide for a more open media environment. 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, although several independent stations have the capacity to reach large portions of the population. 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 Banda government had delayed the passage of a freedom of information bill, but Sata’s government promised to advance the measure.
While the independent media play a significant role in Zambia, journalists have faced aggression from law enforcement officials, threats of violence from MMD members, and persistent warnings from government authorities that they might enact legislation to regulate the media. Criminal libel and defamation suits have been brought against journalists by MMD leaders in response to stories on corruption. In July 2011, more than 100 MMD supporters violently attacked members of a crew from the independent Muvi TV station and seized their equipment.
Constitutionally protected religious freedom is respected in practice. However, the Catholic clergy, occasional critics of the MMD government, became the target of threats by MMD activists in 2010, and one priest known for political activism was briefly detained by police. Sata became the country’s first Catholic president in 2011. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Under the Public Order Act, 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. The police can choose where and when rallies are held, as well as who can address them. Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have operated freely in the past, legislation passed in 2009 placed new constraints on their activities, such as requiring registration and reregistration every five years. The law also established a board to provide guidelines and regulate NGO activity in the country.
The law provides for the right to join unions, strike, and bargain collectively. Zambia’s trade unions are among Africa’s strongest. 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. However, there is significant labor exploitation in some sectors of the economy. Tensions between workers and management at Chinese-owned mines have been increasing. In November 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on labor abuses in Chinese-operated copper mines, detailing unsafe working conditions, resistance to unionization, and much lower pay than at other Zambian mines.
Judicial independence is guaranteed by law. However, several recent decisions, especially those concerning Chiluba, tainted the public image of the judiciary and raised concerns that the executive branch was exercising undue influence. Legislation passed in 2009 allowed the executive to increase the number of judges serving on the High and Supreme Courts. However, the courts continue to lack qualified personnel, in part because of poor working conditions, which contributes to significant trial delays. Pretrial detainees are sometimes held for years under harsh conditions, and many of the 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.
Allegations of police corruption, brutality, and even torture are widespread, and security forces have generally operated with impunity. In 2010, HRW, the Prisons Care and Counseling Association, and the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa released a report that decried forced labor, abuse of inmates by authorities, and deplorable health conditions in Zambia’s prisons.
In January 2011, two people were reported killed, and several others wounded, in clashes between police and activists demanding secession for an area of western Zambia called Barotseland. Sata after his inauguration appointed a commission to look into the killings. Secession activists have been denied permission to hold public meetings, and some media outlets have been threatened for covering the issue.
Societal discrimination remains a serious obstacle to women’s rights. Women won just 17 of the 150 elected seats in the National Assembly in the September 2011 polls; 2 were later appointed to the 20-member cabinet, and 5 to the 11-member Supreme Court. 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. Domestic violence and rape are major problems, and traditional norms inhibit many women from reporting assaults. In 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. In an alleged effort to intimidate members of civil society, then vice president George Kunda stated in 2009 that the government could prosecute known homosexuals in the country using 2005 legislation against homosexuality. People living with HIV/AIDS are routinely discriminated against in society and for employment.