Reimagining democracy in Zambia

Open submission by Alex Mutale

My definition of democracy: government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

Perspectives on democratic practices in Zambia

Zambia has had a record of democratic and free elections and peaceful transitions of power, but there remains a need to promote better governance and reinforce democratic practices. Reforms are required to ensure an independent judiciary and an effective legislature, creating checks and balances that can counter corruption and the lack of transparency.

The separation of powers entails the separation of the three arms of government - legislature, judiciary and executive - as institutions as well as in their functions. The value of this doctrine does not however lie in its strict application but in checks and balances that enable the organs to share in each other’s powers in order to ensure that no one organ becomes too powerful and dominates the others. The doctrine is aimed at preventing arbitrary power and ensuring political liberty. It is therefore important that these organs, in carrying out their functions, keep each other within the confines of their authority. In doing so, however, the members of these institutions should not aim at furthering their personal interests, as the purpose of the doctrine of separation of powers is defeated when this occurs. This is because people then begin to abuse their authority, using the power to check as a pretext. This results in the principles of constitutionalism and rule of law being violated, which in effect violates the separation of powers.

Zambia has not fully implemented this doctrine, with the executive being the dominant authority and playing an influential role in the functioning of the legislature and judiciary.

Civil society action

Zambia is facing a growing economic and governance crisis. The economy is suffering from a rising trade deficit coupled with increased debt and a lack of transparency in the management of debt. Current ongoing power shortages and potentially looming fuel shortages will only serve to deepen the problem. In political governance, the constitutional reform process continues to be marred with difficulties, and although progress has been made in decentralisation, it is still a far cry from devolution.

Civil society organisations (CSOs), in response to concerns raised by citizens, have been able to call dialogue meetings to flag these issues with government and to impress the need for urgent action to address the concerns and ensure that the government upholds its mandate of being accountable to its citizens and ensuring it addresses the needs of the most vulnerable in society.

CSOs have called on the Zambian government to address urgently the issues described below.

Economic management:

Whilst we appreciate the commitment and work of members of parliament (MPs), the recent increase in their salaries in the current social and economic context is ill timed, ill-advised and inappropriate, as the money allocated to this appears unbudgeted and thus comes at the expense of investing in improving the living conditions of Zambians living in poverty. We thus call upon MPs to live within their current emoluments and to consider investment in the legislative body, including the setting up of a Parliamentary Budget Office.

Auditor General reports have continued to flag cases of wasteful expenditure. Recently this has again been brought to public attention through the allegations of government wasting resources of ZMW 10 million (approx. US$990,000) through the incorrect procurement of services and goods. CSOs have called for the government urgently to put in place mechanisms in its supply chains to eliminate wasteful expenditure, particularly by ensuring accountability, transparency and effective oversight.

There is a continued trade deficit that is indicative of failing economic policies. Yet in the face of this, the Minister of Commerce Trade and Industry (MCTI) has indicated through media reports that the trade deficit issue is not an issue for her Ministry but for the Ministry of Finance as well as the Bank of Zambia. However, this is within the mandate of her Ministry and it is vital that it takes ownership of leading the response to this problem. CSOs have thus called on the MCTI to take a lead in coordinating trade issues and providing a coordinated government response to the current challenge of Zambia’s trade deficit.

Zambia’s debt has increased tremendously following Zambia’s participation in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. Yet there is a lack of transparency, accountability and participation in the management of debt which needs to be addressed alongside a review of Zambia’s Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA) and a prioritisation given to increasing domestic resource mobilisation, particularly from large corporations.


To manage high levels of inequality and ensure service delivery and participation in governance, the government has started to implement decentralisation. Although progress has been made, particularly through the revised National Decentralization Policy of 2013, there are still a number of areas that need urgent redress to ensure that devolution occurs. These include delays in implementation of the Decentralization Implementation Plan (DIP), confusion about roles and a narrow revenue base for local authorities. CSOs have thus called on the government to make public all information related to decentralisation, including the DIP and the new district organisational structures.

What civil society can do to respond to democratic challenges in Zambia

We are CSOs who are engaged in this effort in various ways, so I am very pleased to be able to share these ideas as to what CSOs can do to respond to democratic challenges in Zambia.

By civil society I mean the entire range of organised groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This of course includes non-governmental organisations, but also independent mass media, think tanks, universities and social and religious groups.

The first and most basic role of civil society is to limit and control the power of the state. Of course, any democracy needs a well-functioning and authoritative state. But when a country is emerging from decades of dictatorship, it also needs to find ways to check, monitor and restrain the power of political leaders and state officials. Civil society actors should watch how state officials use their powers. They should raise public concern about any abuse of power. They should lobby for access to information, including freedom of information laws, and rules and institutions to control corruption.

The second important function of civil society should be to expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobby for good governance reforms. Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society.

A third function of civil society should be to promote political participation. CSOs can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens and encouraging them to listen to election campaigns and vote in elections.

The fourth function of CSOs should be to help to develop the values of democratic life: tolerance, moderation, compromise and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable. These values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice. The fifth role for CSOs should be to lobby for the needs and concerns of their members, as women, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors and so on. CSOs and interest groups can present their views to parliament and provincial councils, by contacting individual members and testifying before parliamentary committees. They can also establish a dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for their interests and concerns.

A sixth way civil society can strengthen democracy is to provide new forms of interest and solidarity that cut across old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious and other identity ties. Democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity. When people of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists, environmentalists and so on, civic life becomes richer, more complex and more tolerant.

My aspirations about how to reinvent and rebuild democracy in Zambia

As earlier stated, democracy stands for pluralism, participation and equity in society. Democracy entails the complex of values that ought to guide the evolution of life. It is the animating philosophy behind community development.

For a nation like Zambia, experiencing dictatorial tenancies from political leaders, the task is not merely to restore the damaged democratic history the country has had, but to change the nature of society. There is need to address the untold human right abuse, corruption, the restricted freedom of expression and freedom of association, and the lack of transparency and accountability the nation has experienced.

Therefore, my aspiration is to see a Zambia with a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.