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Zambia’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4, and it received a downward trend arrow, due to the restrictive environment for the opposition in the run-up to general elections, including unequal media access for opposition candidates and the use of the Public Order Act to ban opposition rallies.
Zambia is a multiparty democracy that holds regular elections. However, opposition parties face onerous legal and practical obstacles in their operations. The government regularly invokes the law to restrict freedom of expression, and peaceful demonstrations—particularly those organized by the opposition—are frequently restricted or banned.
- President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) won a narrow victory in a presidential election held in August.
- The opposition disputed the election’s result, but the Constitutional Court dismissed their petition on dubious procedural grounds.
- Police frequently invoked the Public Order Act and other laws to limit opposition activities.
- The government shut down the Post, a critical newspaper, and suspended the broadcast licenses of a number of private media outlets, particularly those that covered the opposition.
In August, President Edgar Lungu of the PF was narrowly reelected, with 50.35 percent of the vote. The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) disputed the result on grounds that the PF and Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) had worked together to manipulate the vote, and filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court. The court in early September dismissed the petition on procedural grounds, without holding a hearing on its merits. Lungu and his running mate, Inonge Wina, were sworn in for a full five-year term later that month. In concurrent parliamentary elections, the PF won 80 seats, followed by the UPND, which took 58.
Violence between supporters of the PF and the UPND had escalated weeks before the poll, leading to a localized 10-day ban on campaigning in July. Private media outlets that hosted opposition members were harassed, restricted, or shut down, while opposition political rallies were cancelled after authorities invoked the Public Order Act.
Just ahead of elections, newly appointed judges on the Constitutional Court ruled that 64 of Lungu’s ministers had unconstitutionally remained in office during the campaign period, allowing them improper access to government resources.
The president and the unicameral National Assembly are elected to serve concurrent five-year terms. The National Assembly is comprised of 156 elected members, and 8 members appointed by the president. In the August 2016 presidential election, Edgar Lungu of the PF was narrowly reelected with 50.35 percent of the vote, defeating Hakainde Hichilema of the UPND, who took 47.67 percent; presidential candidates were required to take over 50 percent of the vote for an outright win. In concurrent parliamentary elections, the PF won 80 seats, followed by the UPND, which took 58. A voter registration drive resulted in turnout of 56 percent, up from a historic low of 32 percent in the 2015 presidential by-election. Despite the high turnout, a concurrent referendum that would have made changes to the Bill of Rights failed to achieve the voting threshold of 50 percent needed in order to be considered binding. International election observers noted a number of serious issues, but deemed the polls generally credible.
Government repression of the opposition as well as violence during the campaign period contributed to the restrictive environment that surrounded the 2016 elections. In the weeks leading up to the poll, a number of private media outlets that had offered positive coverage of the opposition were harassed, restricted, or shut down by authorities. Opposition activities received little coverage in state media, and police improperly invoked the Public Order Act to curtail opposition events, notably those of the UPND. Political violence between supporters of the PF and the UPND escalated, leading in July to a 10-day ban by the ECZ on campaign activities in Lusaka, and in the southern district of Namwala.
In August 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that Lungu’s 64 government ministers had remained in office unconstitutionally after Parliament was adjourned in May. Among them were a number of deputy ministers whose posts had been abolished when Lungu signed an amended constitution into law in January. By remaining in office during the campaign period, the ministers had improperly retained access to government resources.
The opposition disputed the result of the presidential election, but the Constitutional Court dismissed the petition on dubious procedural grounds. On August 15, four days after the election, Lungu was declared victorious. On August 19, the UPND filed a petition at the Constitutional Court disputing the results, saying that the PF and the ECZ had worked together to manipulate the poll. After some procedural confusion, the Constitutional Court in early September, in a 3-to-2 vote, suddenly dismissed the UPND’s petition without holding a hearing on its merits, saying the time period it had to decide on the matter had expired. But while the constitution mandates that the Constitutional Court must hear such electoral complaints within 14 days of their formal submission, it does not stipulate a period in which a decision must be rendered. The court was criticized by the opposition and the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) the Carter Center, among others, as failing to meet its obligations to guarantee due process.
In January 2016, Lungu signed a package of constitutional amendments, which among other changes introduced a clause requiring presidential candidates to select a running mate who would take over the presidency in the event of the head of state’s death, and a threshold of over 50 percent for an outright win in the presidential election.
Separately, some elements of a new electoral law passed in June were not fully applied during the 2016 polls, in part because stakeholders did not have enough time to thoroughly review the law’s provisions, and due to discrepancies between its contents and elements of the constitution.
Political parties are registered under the Societies Act and do not regularly face onerous registration requirements. The major political parties are the PF and the UPND. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD)—which was in office from 1991 to 2011—splintered due to infighting and PF efforts to coopt its members.
In the 2016 legislative elections, the PF won 80 seats, down from the 87 it held previously; the UPND took 58 seats, up from 31 previously; and the MMD won 3 seats, down from the 36 previously. The Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) continued to hold just 1 seat, while independent candidates took 14 seats. During campaigning, authorities restricted numerous opposition events by invoking the Public Order Act, and made efforts to limit opposition figures’ access to media coverage, both through legal harassment of outlets covering their activities and by denying them coverage on state-owned media.
The constitution prohibits the formation of political parties aimed exclusively at representing the interests of a particular ethnic group. However, a number of political parties claim tribal areas as political strongholds. The government in practice does not limit the political rights of people belonging to ethnic minorities.
Political violence and restrictions on opposition activities ahead of the 2016 elections created an environment in which voters were less able to freely elect representatives to determine government policies.
Corruption is widespread, though the PF has taken some steps to fight graft. In 2012, the National Assembly reinserted the key “abuse of office” clause of the Anti-Corruption Act, which had been removed by the MMD-dominated legislature in 2010. The clause allows for the prosecution of public officials for abuse of authority or misuse of public funds. However, many prosecutions and court decisions in Zambia are thought to reflect political motivations.
There were some improvements in government openness and transparency in 2016. Throughout the year, ministers issued unprompted statements in parliament, while Lungu held one press conference in May—his second in two years and the PF’s second in five years. Access to information legislation was drafted in 2002, but was never approved.
Freedoms of expression and of the press are constitutionally guaranteed, but the government frequently restricted these rights in practice in 2016. The public media—consisting of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) and the widely circulated Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia—continue to report along progovernment lines, and generally failed to cover the activities of the opposition during 2016 election campaigns. The ZNBC dominates the broadcast media, though several private stations, a few of which are sharply critical of the government, have the capacity to reach large portions of the population.
Journalists at community and privately owned outlets continued to face harassment by police, government officials, and PF supporters throughout 2016, especially in retaliation for hosting opposition figures, and a high rate of such harassment further encouraged self-censorship. A longstanding harassment campaign against Fred M’Membe and his Post newspaper continued during the year, with authorities in June closing down the publication over claims it owed 68 billion kwacha ($6.3 million) in taxes—a charge M’Membe disputed. Police confiscated copies of the newspaper and arrested M’membe, as well as his wife, Mutinta Mazoka M’Membe, and deputy managing editor Joseph Mwenda. They were later released after being charged with forgery and trespassing. Separately, the Zambian Watchdog, an independent news outlet, was blocked and its Facebook page was taken down in September amid unexplained circumstances. There were numerous incidents in which police interfered with the operations of radio stations that hosted opposition figures, often by suspending their licenses on dubious grounds.
Constitutionally protected religious freedom is respected in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom. Private discussion is generally free in Zambia, though the government appears to monitor and periodically restrict access to opposition websites.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed under the constitution but is not consistently respected by the government. Under the Public Order Act, police must receive a week’s notice before all demonstrations. The police can choose where and when rallies are held, as well as who can address them. While the law does not require people to obtain a permit for a demonstration, the police in 2016 continued to deny and cancel permits for opposition demonstrations. In July, police cancelled two UPND rallies in Lusaka’s Chawama and Kanyama townships, and a UPND supporter was shot dead by police as they dispersed supporters protesting after the cancellations. In October, police in Luanshya arrested the UPND’s Hichilema and his deputy, Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba, for obstructing traffic, sedition, and holding a meeting in Mpongwe without a permit; their trial was expected to take place in early 2017.
Freedom of association is guaranteed by law but is not always respected in practice. NGOs are required to register and reregister every five years under the 2009 NGO Act, which had been signed into law but not implemented. In 2013, the PF attempted to implement the law, initially requiring every group to register or face a ban. A group of NGOs resisted it as a violation of the right to free association, and mounted a legal challenge. In 2014, the government and some NGOs agreed to resolve the dispute out of court, leading to a suspension of the forced registration provision and negotiations on a self-regulatory framework. No amendments had been made to the law by the end of 2016.
The law provides for the right to join unions, strike, and bargain collectively. Historically, Zambia’s trade unions were among Africa’s strongest, but the leading bodies, including the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), have faced marginalization under PF rule.
While judicial independence is guaranteed by law, the government often does not respect it in practice. Zambia’s courts lack qualified personnel and resources, and significant trial delays are common. In September, the Constitutional Court suddenly dismissed the UPND’s challenge of the presidential election’s result on dubious procedural grounds.
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 brutality are widespread, and security forces have generally operated with impunity. In October, state police in Lusaka assaulted Komboni Radio’s director, Lesa Kasoma, after the suspension of her station by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) had ended. In October, police in Luanshya assaulted UPND supporters at a police station after Hichilema and Mwamba were arrested. There are reports of forced labor, abuse of inmates by authorities, and deplorable health conditions in the country’s prisons.
Presidents since independence, including Lungu, have failed to honor the 1964 Barotseland Agreement, which promised the Western Province limited local self-governance and future discussions of greater autonomy. Several people accused of leading a separatist movement there have faced trial for treason in recent years.
Consensual sexual activity between members of the same sex is illegal under a law criminalizing “acts against the order of nature,” an offense punishable by prison sentences of between 15 years and life.
The government generally respects the constitutionally protected rights of free internal movement and foreign travel. However, movement is often hindered by petty corruption, such as police demands for bribes at roadblocks, for which perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. During the 2016 campaigning period, purported security concerns periodically resulted in restricted movements, including use of airspace, by opposition candidates and their supporters.
Most agricultural land is administered according to customary law. However, the president retains ultimate authority over all land in the country and can intercede to block or compel its sale or transfer. Zambia ranks low on indexes of economic freedom; processes for starting and operating businesses can be opaque and time-consuming.
Societal discrimination, low literacy levels, and violence remain serious obstacles to women’s rights. Discrimination against women is especially prevalent in customary courts, where they are considered subordinate with respect to property, inheritance, and marriage. Zambia’s child marriage rate is one of the highest in the world. Domestic abuse is common, and traditional norms inhibit many women from reporting assaults. Rape is widespread and punishable by up to life in prison with hard labor; however, the law is not adequately enforced. Spousal rape is not considered a crime.
Child labor in dangerous industries, including mining, is a problem in Zambia. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, the government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making efforts to do so.