Are Zambia’s Ruling Parties Doomed After Losing Power? – Gershom Ndhlovu

Zambia Parties 2014
Zambia Parties 2014

Zambia is undoubtedly one of the supposedly successful democracies to have emerged out of the rubble of the wind of political change that swept the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) crumbled and the iron curtain was dismantled. The result of the crumbling of the USSR was that many countries were born out of the massive country that was one of the two superpowers of the time. Even Ukraine now at threat of war with Russia, was part of the USSR.

When the winds of change blew over Africa, a number of countries that were either one party democracies or were outright dictatorships, at least moved to accommodate a semblance of democracy by allowing some elections. Although Zambia held regular elections as a one party state between 1973 and 1991, the principal candidate was always the country’s first President, Dr Kenneth Kaunda challenged on the ballot paper by a frog. He always won the elections by 99.8 percent.

Taking a cue from unfolding events in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe, a group of intellectuals, trade unionists, journalists, businessmen and frustrated politicians under Kaunda, came together to challenge the man who had had a hold on power from independence in 1964 until he was voted out in 1991, to push for political and even economic change—from one party politics to multiparty democracy and from a socialist-oriented economy to a capitalist one.

The sails on the ship of change were so full of wind Kaunda could not resist the demands for him to abandon single-party politics. What made matters worse were the widespread riots that erupted in 1990, the second in four years, following a rise in food prices and the subsequent coup attempt that was made by soldiers called in to quell the riots.

The political movement formed to force Kaunda’s hand to change the nation’s political landscape, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy which later morphed into a political party of the same name, overwhelmingly won the 1991 elections after the dictator curtailed his tenure by over two years.

After losing the elections, Kaunda stepped aside as leader of his United National Independence Party (UNIP) leaving it to his erstwhile Prime Minister Kebby Musokotwane. It is either Kaunda was not happy with his successor or, most likely, he was bitter at being defeated by the MMD led by trade unionist Frederick Chiluba and his gang earlier in 1991. He ousted the party’s leadership and re-installed himself as president once again.

This, however, was one move that shook Chiluba’s government to an extent where it manipulated the country’s constitution to bar Kaunda from contesting the 1996 elections on account of his foreign parentage. Kaunda was likely going to win apparently because people had become disillusioned with the rapid economic changes that the new government was implementing under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its infamous Structural Adjustment Programme.

Parastatal companies that had provided the bulk of jobs were either being privatised or liquidated altogether leaving people jobless, hungry and frustrated.

Kaunda made the fatal mistake of pulling the entire party out of the 1996 election leaving the MMD to sail through with little or no opposition at all. Nearly 20 years later, UNIP has not had a single candidate elected to parliament. The political party, ironically headed by one of his sons, Tilyenji, exists but in name only. What holds it together is its asset base which includes one of the biggest office buildings in the capital, Lusaka’s central business district, Freedom House which was once the party’s headquarters.

When Kaunda finally stepped down in 2000, he bequeathed the presidency to former Bank of Zambia governor Francis Nkhoma who was later unceremoniously hounded out in favour of Kaunda’s son who had been elected secretary general at what is ostensibly the last national congress of the party of that year.

Hence comes the problem. It appears that the supposed demise of UNIP seems to be the script that Zambia’s political parties will be following after being voted out of power. Strangely enough, the MMD itself, barely two and a half years out of power, is going through serious challenges among its top leadership. Some senior leaders are challenging the leadership of Dr Nevers Mumba, a tele-evangelist turned politician whom some members consider an outsider.

Mumba was leader of a small opposition party before he was co-opted into the then ruling party and made Republican Vice President by the then President Levy Mwanawasa who died in office in 2008. Mumba did not last long as Vice President as he was fired after he made remarks that were diplomatically inappropriate concerning a neighbouring country. He was later appointed High Commissioner to Canada by Mwanawasa’s successor, Rupiah Banda whom he succeeded as party president.

The MMD has already expelled a national secretary, is in the process of disciplining its two vice presidents and other senior national executive committees and could face expulsion. The nation is yet to see how the drama in the former ruling party fully unfolds and how united it will approach the 2016 national elections.

A more interesting watch, however, is the cameo in the current ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF) led by President Michael Sata. What is alarming is the squabbling effectively amounting to people positioning themselves to take over the reins in the event that Sata, 76, does not contest the 2016 elections.

The PF was single-handedly formed by Sata in 2001 when he was by-passed by the then President Chiluba who anointed someone who had not even been in the picture of his possible successors at the end of his tenure. Mwanawasa, a former Vice Presdent who had quit the second most position in the land and stepped back from all political activity was picked as the replacement for Chiluba who had lost the battle to change the constitution to go for a third term.

There are suspensions, counter-suspensions and mud-slinging among senior members to an extent where political observers fear that the PF might not survive a post-Sata era.