The SADC region is generally known for Presidents who help each other rig elections. They invite politicians from each other’s country to monitor elections under the guise of regional observers. No matter how controversial the elections are, the drill is well known. They are always fair. These cowboy observers make a tidy income because power hungry dictators will always find money to stay in power as compared to investing in the economy or health. Some observers are in demand on the continent of Africa for their exceptional dexterity at manipulating the ballot box. They made rigging elections an art. If they keep going at the pace they are going, they will soon come up with a SADC doctrine of rigging.
It is this conduct that has undermined democracy in Africa. Voters have lost confidence in their electoral systems’ ability to conduct free and fair elections. Elections take the form of going through the motions. The outcome is fixed and known well in advance. Voters know this but they have been through these fake elections for a long time. They don’t know how to remedy their corrupt politics. There is no credible separation of powers or state institutions that function independently to uphold democracy.
In the SADC region, the President is effectively King. State institutions operate to advance the president’s agenda which is often at the detriment of the country and citizens. Disputed elections are allowed to go to the Supreme Court for Judicial Review to give the impression that there is rule of law, but it is all a farce. The appearance of wheels of justice in motion could not be further from the reality of the rot which is contained in the judgments delivered by the same justice system.
It is disheartening for citizens to see their highest court in the land, made up of people who swore to uphold the law and advance justice, utter shocking judgments devoid of the expertise, fairness and reverence expected of the institution. Dictators have no time to consider the damage caused by corrupt judges. The idea that the Supreme Court can be influenced to declare a winner against the people’s will does unprecedented damage to the country’s reputation. This damage can be seen everyday in the economy for investors will never put their money where there is no order or stability. This is the behaviour that has made the SADC region a security risk for its people.
Zambia went into August 2021 elections with all the signs of a SADC masterclass in managing elections. For an outsider, Zambia was destined for disappointment. To its credit, it has experienced smooth transfer of power before but its President at the time, Edgar Lungu, exhibited traits of a typical SADC President. The day before elections, he gave a brief speech saying he was expected to win, and he was looking forward to transferring power to himself. On the day of elections, he gave another speech saying the elections were not free and fair and his supporters had been killed by opposition members.
It was bizarre that an African president in control of the army, police, judiciary would give a speech complaining that elections were not free and fair. It’s unheard of. For a president to insinuate that there was violence which killed his supporters made people fear the worst. This unusual behaviour seemed to imply that the president knew he had lost. As such, there was a risk that the president would use the alleged violence to send the army to beat up people on the pretext of restoring order. In such circumstances, pandemonium would grip the country as people run away from the army. In this chaos, the captured electoral organisation would cook election results and essentially impose a defeated candidate against people’s will. That is the typical SADC election process. Fortunately, and through some miraculous intervention, Zambia avoided the SADC calamity.
Hakainde Hichilema’s victory in the Zambian 2021 presidential elections sent shockwaves across the continent of Africa. Not only was it a David and Goliath battle but in this instance, Goliath acknowledged that he was defeated. It’s unheard of in Africa for a seating president with the army and police at his disposal to acknowledge that he had lost. It goes against the dictator script. The defeated president received 1.8million votes and Hichilema got 2.8million votes. A strong mandate.
Although the numbers are huge and difficult to manipulate, some dictators are not phased by that. Robert Mugabe submitted that his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, received 73% of the votes in the 2008 presidential elections. This was way above and beyond the majority needed to form a government. But the system never allowed him to become president. It took more than 2 months for the results to be announced and they were cooked. They said there was no clear winner which opened the door for a run-off. The run-off was a violent process with more than 300 people losing their lives unnecessarily. In the end, a government of national unity was formed by the government and the opposition. If there was democracy and rule of law, Morgan Tsvangirai should have been president of Zimbabwe in 2008.
The dictators’ club which the former Zambian president belonged to, expected the result to be overturned through some dubious electoral gymnastics like what happened in Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2018. Peaceful transfer of power was a betrayal of the club. A breach of the dictators’ code of conduct. The losing president was meant to keep thy torch ablaze by driving a truck through the country’s constitution and disregard the principles on which the country governs itself.
Their leadership strategy derives its inspiration from volumes of the great tribulation. That is their prescription for majority of Africans who want democracy. A depressed and demoralised population is easy to control than a population with options. As a result, policies are designed to disempower citizens in order to put them in a position of weakness instead of empowering them and risk an uprising or revolution. Put simply, leading in bad faith. This has been Africa’s story after attaining independence from colonial powers. The liberators have stepped in the oppressive shoes left by colonial powers and are now oppressing their own people.
Fortunately, a precedent has been set at the heart of the dictators’ paradise. It left them fearing future elections because the whole region is excited and inspired to repeat what happened in Zambia in their own countries. It is a precedent they cannot ignore or diffuse with the army. The enthusiasm generated in the region is like a great fire, a democracy fire that is spreading from Zambia to surrounding countries and the whole continent. It seems this fire has an appointment with every dictator in the region.
Although these dictators have faith in their armies to stay in power, one would have expected them to at least prepare for the unthinkable like what happened in Zambia. They don’t understand that time and ideas change, they don’t believe in society evolving for the better. History has enough examples of leaders who thought they could never be moved but were eventually humiliated. There is a hubris which tends to accompany leaders with lack of foresight. Instead of getting out of power in an orderly fashion, they often have to buy one-way tickets out of the country at great risk to their lives and loved ones. All this could be avoided if common sense is given a chance. Unfortunately, power is an intoxicating drug. The African continent has suffered from that power addiction.
Hakainde Hichilema ran his campaign based on a vision of a “united and prosperous” Zambia. This was complimented perfectly by the national motto of “One Zambia, One Nation” which he’s determined to make a reality and not just a slogan. He highlighted rebuilding the economy as the top agenda given the debt the country is under. There is a sense of inclusivity in that there is a strong desire to build an economy that provides opportunities for everyone and to make Zambia a prosperous middle-income country. The poor and vulnerable in society who are often forgotten in the harsh politics of Africa have been promised “social protection” in his endeavour to transform the fortunes of his country.
There is an overwhelming sense of change. A determination to create a new way of doing government. There is talk of diversity, liberty and change of behaviour. To set a new standard that is different from the previous government. Selection of ministers is based on merit and competence. Media companies that were banned under the previous government were given their licences back. Those who lost their jobs through discrimination have been given their jobs back. As someone who got treated unjustly by the previous government, Hakainde Hichilema is acutely aware of the effects of violating people’s rights. His experience has driven him to ensure that the rule of law prevails and that no one should suffer from injustice.
He showed great magnanimity by not revenging the horrible experiences he endured. His first speech after confirmation of his victory made it clear that violence was not the way to do government. He wasn’t going to imitate the deeds of the previous government. He was arrested 20 times by the previous government since 2010. His longest stretch was 100 days in prison with 8 days in solitary confinement. It took a court order to release him from prison. The harassment was designed to sabotage his campaign. There is no sign of bitterness or talk of settling scores even when 300 police officers invaded his home and destroyed his property. His main mission is to transform the country.
“We are not about to copy those who treated us badly” he said. “We are going to show a higher moral ground, we have been given a strong mandate to correct the ills and violence of the last government.” He urged his supporters to put the past behind them and focus on the future. There is always room for improvement especially in giving young people a fair representation in government. The victory was driven by young people who were tired of not having opportunities. However, a ministry was set up to help small and medium size businesses. There is a drive to promote entrepreneurship especially from young people as well as a ministry to address the country’s technological needs and a ministry for environmental protection.
There is a dangerous disconnection between the large populations of young people in Africa and their leaders. Leaders are of touch with modern realities. It’s stifling progress and causing brain drain on a frightening scale. Some of the effects can be seen in high numbers of unemployment, weak state institutions and dysfunctional ministries.
What happened in Zambia is a wake-up call. There is hunger for democracy and competent leaders. Even the armies that impose dictators against people’s will, are tired of suffering when their bosses are living in luxury. Zambia has shown its neighbouring countries and the whole continent what is possible. It is a massive boost for the oppressed opposition parties in Africa. They believe what happened in Zambia should also happen in their countries. Most African countries are one leader away from transformation. For that to happen, the old must give way so the new can be born.