Vanity and Volatility


Shadows of the controversial 2016 Presidential election paint everyday life in Zambia. President Edgar Lungu's gap-toothed grin still beams out from t-shirts, skirts and posters across the country. The ubiquity of two year-old election material is somewhat startling, a indication of the aggressive nature of political campaigning here. Even in the remotest communities, several miles from the nearest paved roads, electricity and running water, Lungu's Patriotic Front (PF) has a visible presence. In shops, public buildings and even fast food joints, His Excellency's wonky smile hangs on the wall. To a European, it all feels somewhat dystopian. To the locals, this is their normal; the President celebrated this year's Valentine's Day by distributing exercise books decorated with his portrait to Zambian schools. Indeed, many of Lungu's political moves seem to be inspired by his own vanity. Last year, Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), the main opposition party, was arrested (and detained for 100 days) after his motorcade didn't pull in to let the President's pass. And last month, the PF Deputy General Secretary was handed down a 30-day suspension from the party for causing "embarrassment" to the President. After Lungu was declared the victor of the 2016 election by only the narrowest of margins, the opposition unsuccessfully challenged the results in the courts. They claimed that untoward delays in the counting process and government influence over the Electoral Commission invalidated the result. During the campaign itself, the opposition paper 'The Post', at the time the most widely-read newspaper in the country, was been shut down by the government, and several UPND members were arrested. Despite their lack of success at the courts, the UPND hasn't given up, recently tabling a motion of impeachment against the President, not only relating to the election controversy, but for alleged corruption and judicial interference. The latter allegation relates to ongoing court proceedings which Lungu is hoping will allow him to stand for a third term in 2021 (the constitution is unclear on this because whilst the usual term limit is set at two, Lungu first assumed the presidency in 2015 upon his predecessor's death, and thus didn't serve a full first term before the 2016 election). Significantly, this impeachment motion appears to be attracting support from some PF MPs. Perhaps not enough to garner the two-thirds supermajority needed for it to pass in the National Assembly, but enough to destabilise the President's position. The motion was actually seconded by a PF MP, Chishimba Kambwili, one of Lungu's cabinet ministers until six months ago. However, within a day of seconding the motion, Kambwili was arrested over corruption charges, denied bail, and after only a few hours in police custody had to be rushed to hospital. He has since been released, with a court date set for later in the year. The opposition describes the charges as wholly "trumped-up" . The motion, due to be debated and voted on last week, won't make it to the floor of the Assembly until June, after the government secured a last-minute postponement. They will no doubt use this extra time to challenge the legitimacy of the motion. But from the UPND's perspective, keeping the election controversy alive, and the President's position uncertain, was their primary objective. In the meantime, however, Edgar Lungu shall continue to beam out across the country. And anyway, even if a new face were to soon ascend to the Presidency, perhaps the change in portrait would be the most significant difference.

Jack O'Dwyer-Henry is a co-founder of Challenges NI. You can follow him on Twitter @JackODwyerHenry.

N.B. Any opinions expressed here are not endorsed by Challenges NI.


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2020