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Zambia: Eye of the Political Storm

In God's Providence, Zambia has thus far avoided the violence and war that is ravaging its neighbors on several fronts.

  • Wayne C. Johnson,
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In God's Providence, Zambia has thus far avoided the violence and war that is ravaging its neighbors on several fronts. This hiatus has been crucial for the survival of Zambia's fledgling democratic government and the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the umbrella party which led the democratic resistance to victory five and one-half years ago.

At that time, Kenneth Kaunda ruled Zambia as a one-party state, losing Zambia's first free election in a stunning upset. The winner, Frederick Chiluba, was a former labor leader who had united the opposition forces under the banner of MMD. From its inception, MMD was heavily influenced by the growing evangelical church in Zambia, a fact evidenced by its proclamation of Zambia as a "Christian nation" in its Constitution.

The Chiluba presidency faced its most difficult challenge in a constitutional crisis, of sorts, in which the Parliament passed several amendments which, in effect, banned former dictator Kaunda from running for President in 1996. Kaunda then called for a boycott of the elections, which were nevertheless held last November, resulting in a second sweeping landslide for MMD.

UNIP (the socialist party) and Kaunda have been waging what has, thus far, been a nonviolent campaign in the international press and in the nation's courts to invalidate the elections. Meanwhile, rumors persist that he is also thought to be considering a military effort to topple Chiluba. Within the country, civil war would be exceedingly unpopular among a population which clearly cherishes civil peace and the beginnings of their free-market economy.

A more serious threat is posed by the economic war being waged by South Africa against its neighbors, consisting of a 30% government subsidy for exports. The flood of subsidized imports has decimated the textile industries of countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia, costing many jobs. The Zambian government seems nonetheless determined to forge ahead with their free-market policy and hopes to weather the storm in the long run. Currency controls are among the loosest anywhere, land is free, and investors are treated to a "one-stop shopping" permit approval system that fast-tracks investment.

Politically, Zambia is quite stable. MMD's chief worry at this point is actually the lack of a credible opposition. Opposition parties are weak and serious candidates inevitably gravitate to MMD. This has resulted in some of the usual maladies of de facto one-party government, including a certain degree of corruption, presumption and bureaucratic malaise, although certainly mild by regional standards.

President Chiluba appears to have a genuine following in the country, as does his vice-president Godfrey Miyanda, a former general who often can be found preaching in local churches on Sunday mornings. His stock among Christians in Zambia is particularly high. It is, of course, much to early too speculate about Chiluba's successor, since Chiluba is less than a year into his second and final five-year term of office.

There is quite a "women's movement" in Zambia, although it is heavily influenced by Christian thought. The devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic also has left Zambia with a huge population of widows and orphans, overwhelming relief efforts. In the hardest hit areas, some churches are overwhelmingly female. In all honesty, it is difficult to get too upset when a woman candidate tells me she's running because "we need more women in office." When I ask why, she tells me that women are more committed to helping the afflicted, stopping abortion and promoting fidelity in marriage and public life.

Gloria Steinem she wasn't.

As in most foreign countries, understanding politics in Zambia requires a deliberate suspension of many preconceived notions, particularly as they relate to activism in the churches. MMD suffers acutely from a lack of genuine grassroots political structure, made more precarious by their reelection. For most of MMD, politics is now governance, and there exists precious little party structure to nourish and develop the candidate and volunteer base which will be necessary to perpetuate their legacy.

Herein, of course, lies the opportunity for opposition parties, unencumbered as they are with the daily duties of governing. One can expect, sooner rather than later, for one of two eventualities: a genuine opposition party develops along the lines of center or center-left models, or the MMD divides into two wings as regional and parliamentary issues create divisions within the main body. In many respects, the development of a credible opposition is crucial for the health and survival of MMD.

Our fervent hope would be that MMD would recognize its strategic position and location and seek to extend its agenda across its borders, linking with and assisting other center-right Christian parties to develop in neighboring nations. This would go a long way toward the promotion of stability, liberty and prosperity in the region, as well as forcing MMD to be faithful to its mission. For MMD and for Zambia, the pressing need of the hour is accountability.

  • Wayne C. Johnson

Wayne C. Johnson is a veteran political campaign consultant and Trustee of the Chalcedon Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected].

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