THE 2021 Zambia general elections are a choice between continuity of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) or change of government to the United Party for National Development (UPND). Widely described as a two-horse race between President Edgar Lungu who is seeking to be elected for the third time and UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema.

Security reinforcement

On Sunday 1st August, 2021  Lungu deployed military personnel to assist police in curbing escalating political violence ahead of the country’s August 12 election.

“Defense personnel have already been deployed in some parts of Lusaka and will be deployed in other parts of the country where the need arises… I have taken this step in order to ensure that the electoral process – the work of the Electoral Commission of Zambia – is not interfered with nor undermined.”

Lungu said the Zambia Army, Zambia Air Force and Zambia National Service will assist with security. He added that the move was necessary following the Friday deaths of two members of the ruling Patriotic Front party in Kanyama, a Lusaka district, in the run-up to the elections.

Police Inspector General Kakoma Kanganja announced on Tuesday 10 August 2021 a further reinforcement from other security agencies which include personnel from the correctional service, immigration, Zambia Wildlife and the Defence Force.

Inspector-General of Police Kakoma Kanganja explained that police will be deploying a total of 12,152 officers to man the polling stations.

Secretary to the Cabinet Simon Miti announced on the eve of elections that security has been heightened in some identified hotspots, specifically where violence has been recorded. In the rest of the country, about 95 per cent of the country, regular policing by the Zambia Police Service is expected to be adequate to maintain law and order.

Zambian authorities insist that the heavy deployment of security and armed forces was not meant to scare away or intimidate members of the public but a proactive measure put in place to guarantee peace, order and the safety of citizens and voters at polling stations. The police have warned that they will arrest individuals and groupings with the tendency of posting alarming and unverified statements on social media as well as posting unverified election results.

Some commentators have observed that this election would go down in history as the most militarised election in the history of the country with adequate power to adequately repel any public protests arising from the outcome of the election.

The threat of US Sanctions

On Saturday 7th August Lungu warned western countries against interfering with the elections, “I will not be intimidated by western countries who are trying to intimidate me. Zambian people will decide who gets into State House. All those monitors are here to monitor and not to interfere. Campaigning and the electoral process is for Zambians and allow them to choose their leaders.”

U.S. Embassy Lusaka Chargé d’Affaires David Young in a statement on democratic elections in Zambia announced the US government resolve to hold accountable through the application of visa restrictions, travel bans and financial sanctions any individuals who promote violence, undermine electoral processes, engage in fraudulent or corrupt behaviour, or otherwise violate democratic rights and the foundations of free elections.

On Monday 9th August 2021 Lungu met the Commonwealth election observer team, led by former President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, and also had a separate meeting with the African Union Observer Mission head of delegation, Former President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma at State House.

He urged the international observers to do their work without partiality or ulterior motive to influence the outcome of the elections. He also talked about the need for all political players to accept the approved outcome of the polls. We must all respect the will of the people.

Copperbelt politics

A significant election voting block lies on Zambia’s Copperbelt Province home to most of Zambia’s mining industry which remains the mainstay of the economy over 50 years after attaining political independence. The province is widely perceived as a swing province as the direction of their votes often influences the outcome of presidential elections.

The growing popularity of the opposition on the Copperbelt has unsettled Lungu as the margin of votes that secured his victory in 2016 would easy be eroded if the Copperbelt vote completely swung to the opposition.

In the final week to the poll day, Lungu made a few trips into the Copperbelt to launch an international airport that is yet to become visibly operational and launched scathing attacks on his main rival coupled with a threat of arrest.

In a bid to appeal to the mining communities the president resurrected an old privatisation narrative that tries to implicate the leading opposition leader.

He claimed to have information that Hichilema had been soliciting favours from Vedanta Resources promising to give them back the mines if he wins the elections.

“He has been going to Vedanta and telling them that the US$ 100,000 he has received to help them get back the mines is not enough, he now wants Vedanta to give him US$300,000 and he will surrender the mines to them if he wins,” President Lungu claimed.

He threatened to arrest UPND Leader Hakainde Hichilema after winning next week’s general polls for privatizing the mines.

Addressing the Mines Unions in Kitwe Saturday, Lungu said Hichilema had an insatiable appetite to sell the country to foreigners and that time has come for Hichilema to pay for benefiting from the privatization exercise before adding that he will not allow the sale of mines to happen as long as he remained head of state.

In a statement published on his page opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema wondered why President Lungu and his team had continued preaching hatred and pure lies against him instead of talking about what they will do for the suffering Zambian masses.

“In his usual way of addressing the nation at the airports even on serious issues, Lungu threatened to arrest me should he win elections, for whatever imaginary crimes again like he has been doing it. Even more shocking are the pure lies he told about me receiving money from Vedanta in return for their mine. Our policy position on KCM and other mining houses in the country has been very consistent with regards to the poor conditions of service and generally the low production in the sector due to unstable policies. To us, the problems that the mines have endured have been due to poor leadership and lack of supervision by Lungu’s government. As UPND we shall ensure the mines are properly capitalised and we believe the country has well qualified local experts who can run our mines profitably, if well supported without any undue political interference like has been under him.”

The threat of internet shutdown

Credible foreign media reports including South Africa’s Daily Maverick pointed to the Zambian government’s resolve to completely shut down access to the internet on poll day. Quoting a highly placed government source, access to the internet will be throttled from Thursday in an effort to maintain peace and order during the voting period.

The source that opted to remain anonymous said the decision has since been communicated to the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA )for implementation.

“Yes, the internet will go down from Thursday. There will be a total blackout. We will start to slowly restore access around Saturday in selected areas, we may get full access maybe on Sunday or Monday, depending on the situation,” the source said. The source added that Lungu has sanctioned the move as a way to counter any possible unrest that may emerge when results start trickling in.

“There is fear that some negative elements might use the internet to incite and organize protests and this is why we are shutting it down altogether,” the source stated.

However, a government representative Amos Malupenga in a statement released to the media the information was false and was calculated to cause alarm among the peace-loving Zambians.

“The Government wishes to assure the people of Zambia, both at home and abroad, that it remains committed to the free flow of information, even during the election period, ” the statement read

The Government also urged what it described as law-abiding citizens to continue using the internet and other social media platforms responsibly and in conformity with the provisions of the Electoral Process Act and other laws, such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act and the Penal Code Act, which prohibit the dissemination of falsehoods and inflammatory statements that have the potential to destabilize national peace and security.

But Head of Public Policy at Facebook, Southern Africa, Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa urged the Zambian government to keep the internet open during the election period.

Gongxeka-Seopa said in an interview with Hot FM a local Zambian radio station from South Africa that Facebook has been engaging the Zambian authorities on the importance of keeping internet access open.

“We know that we rely on social media platforms to communicate and if there are Internet shutdowns, it separates people from reaching out to their families and friends and even their livelihoods and speaking of livelihoods, we know that with the advent of Covid 19, most businesses have moved online to reach out to their customers, so if there are internet shutdowns, it undermines economic activities and growth by harming small businesses and disrupting the whole startup ecosystem,” she said.

She added, “So for us, we hold the view that instead of ordering shutdowns and blocking access, perhaps authorities should seek to use and work with online platforms to address emerging issues through maintaining their own online presence and supporting appropriate culture speech.”

“For us as Facebook, we are happy to work with government and law enforcement to provide education and training on how to do this,”  Gongxeka-Seopa said.

Zambia’s major mobile phone providers MTN and Airtel have failed to offer guarantees that they will not shut down internet access over the election period.

MTN Group told the Daily Maverick that its subsidiaries, including MTN Zambia, respected digital human rights, including “the right to communicate, to share information freely and responsibly, and to enjoy privacy and security regarding their data and their use of digital communications”.

MTN said if the Zambian government ordered it to shut down its services during the elections, the company would have to consider the order in light of its digital human rights policy.

But MTN did not say that it would not shut down its services or censor them.

And the company confirmed that it had shut down the internet in four other African countries recently during unrests.

“In all cases, restricting access to the internet is the last resort,” an MTN spokesperson said.

This position did not sit well with the opposition UPND as expressed by the Secretary-General Batuke Imenda: “We are disappointed that MTN and Airtel, as Zambia’s two biggest telecommunications providers, will not guarantee to protect internet access ahead of the general election on 12 August and stand up against any attempts by the government to infringe [on] the digital rights of citizens.”

“Combined access to data and internet connectivity is an essential requirement for a free, fair and credible election. There is a distinct possibility that the government will instruct Zambia’s telecommunications companies to shut down the internet in an attempt to subvert the democratic will of the people. Any throttling of the internet, blocking of social media/instant messaging platforms and internet shutdowns will compromise the freedom and fairness of the election.”

“Further, shutting down the internet is a violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens being contrary to Article (20) of the Constitution of Zambia. The tactics to shut down the internet is dictatorial and a serious indictment on freedom of expression.

“These tactics deny voters access to information about the election, including where and how to vote. Importantly, the government of Zambia is also aimed at preventing election monitors [including observation missions] from communicating and carrying out independent monitoring of the voting and counting process.”

“We call upon both MTN and Airtel to take a clear stance in support of human rights and democracy by declaring their opposition to any instruction to throttle or shut down the internet and block access to social media and instant-messaging platforms. They should furthermore indicate publicly what steps they will be taking to engage with the government to pre-empt any unlawful instruction,” Mr Imenda said.

Vote protection mechanism

The UPND on 2nd August announced measures it has put in place to protect the vote and counter any potential acts of election rigs and result in manipulation in favour of the ruling party. Imenda announced in a statement that the UPND has a verifiable and authentic database of 4.7 million dedicated voters that will overwhelm their opponents and carry the party into victory to form the government.

“The UPND has a well-trained crop of committed and patriotic polling agents and election monitors that will cover all the 12,500 polling stations across the Republic. These dedicated men and women will be buoyed by other monitors from legitimate local and international organisations that will ensure that the election exercise will truly meet the aspirations of the voting public and all Zambians. Further to this, we have put in mechanisms that will ensure that the elections meet acceptable international standards. The UPND has invested in three very robust and resilient PVT systems that have the capability to transmit results in a harsh environment including an Internet shutdown. The results will be transmitted to five command centres spread across the country.” He said

But the ruling Patriotic Front said it was impossible for elections to be rigged in Zambia. The PF Media Director Antonio Mwanza wondered how the elections will be rigged when ballot papers were printed in Dubai with a delegation from all stakeholders including the UPND observing the printing process.

Mwanza explained that the same delegation from the UPND was at the airport to receive the ballot papers in Zambia up to the point of the storage facility and will further have their own agents in the polling stations on election day.

“And when we finish voting the counting of the votes are done in public view, with every polling agent, every electoral observer being in the polling station,” Mwanza explained.

The UPND has vowed to work with all Zambians to defend their vote to the fullest extent of the law and will ensure that the managers of the elections in this case the ECZ, deliver a correct reflection of the people’s will.

Hakainde Hichilema told African Arguments that In a free, fair and credible election, Edgar Lungu had no chance to beat him

The 2021 Zambian polls will probably be the most-watched and closely monitored election by the Zambian population and indeed the international community, since 1991 and perhaps even since independence.

Cover photo courtesy of the UPND Media team.