You Can’t Eat the Roads: Chinese Leverage and Democratic Resilience in Zambia

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Heading into Zambia’s August 2021 elections, many international observers warned that the country, often held up as an example of resilient multiparty democracy, was undergoing serious democratic backsliding and faced the serious prospect of flawed elections. According to Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, the incumbent president, Edgar Lungu, and the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), had overseen an expansive crackdown on basic political and civil rights over the last five years:

“Opposition leaders, journalists, media houses and activists have all been targeted, and speaking out against allegations of government corruption or abuse has become more dangerous.”

Protests have been stopped or dispersed with unlawful and sometimes lethal force, and people who speak up against allegations of corruption have been intimidated and harassed.” The Economist raised similar concerns. Noting that even though Zambia had seen a spike in corruption, poverty, inflation, unemployment, hunger, and out-migration to neighboring countries over the last several years and had the distinction of being the first African country to default on its sovereign debt during the coronavirus pandemic, fears mounted that the election would be stolen. The publication warned, “Zambia’s election is crucial, but it’s not a fair fight,” and “the world should prepare for a rigged vote.”

Defying such predictions, Hakainde Hichilema, a candidate for the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) won in a shocking landslide, securing nearly 60% of the vote. Soon after the election, after briefly challenging the election results, Edgar Lungu conceded defeat, allowing for a peaceful transition to a new UPND government. The landslide victory by the opposition and subsequent peaceful transfer of power in Zambia were remarkable in several respects. Many reports had indicated Zambia had experienced a serious erosion of democracy over the last five years and that it seemed likely that Lungu and the ruling PF would manipulate the election to secure reelection.

Additionally, Zambia has had a very high-profile relationship with China over the last two decades, borrowing extensively from Beijing or Chinese entities to finance major infrastructure projects. Of its US $12 billion USD in external debt in 2021, an estimated one quarter (US $3 billion) was owed to Chinese lenders. Lungu staked many of his reelection hopes on promoting economic growth and development through major Chinese-financed infrastructure projects, using the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies of these projects to promote his presidency and make the case for his reelection. Conversely, opposition figures accused Lungu of corruption and collusion with nefarious Chinese actors, alleging he was planning to sell the Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation (ZAFFICO) to Chinese investors and was personally profiting from the sale of the rare mukula rosewood trees to Chinese buyers.

Such claims prompted violent protests and the looting of Chinese businesses in 2018. The extensive role of China in Zambia’s economy, the ruling PF’s close association with Chinese financed development projects, and the apparent erosion of democratic governance in the country since 2015 seemed to indicate that Zambian democracy was heavily under threat heading into the 2021 election – potentially confirming China’s “black knight” role in contributing to authoritarian hardening and democratic decline. The surprising victory of the opposition UPND, however, has illustrated the need to reevaluate previous assessments of China’s destructive impact on democracy in Africa.

China and Democratic Backsliding in Sub-Saharan Africa

Since the year 2006, the world has experienced a “democratic recession” in which the number of democracies in the world has declined, reversing a trend of democratic expansion from 1975 to 2006 – a period in which each year, the total number of observed democracies had either expanded or held constant. According to Freedom House, 2020 represented a particularly difficult year for global democracy: “The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.”

Nowhere have potential drivers of the global democratic recession been on greater display than sub-Saharan Africa over the last two decades. First, the region has experienced dramatic political volatility, marked by both major improvements and major declines in democracy and human rights in many African regimes. Freedom House data noted that in 2019 alone, 22 African countries experienced democratic backsliding whereas another 15 made gains.

Secondly, the region has experienced an overall decline in democracy. During a 15 year span from 2006 to 2019, there were more democratic declines witnessed than improvements in 14 of those years. Finally, the level of democracy and human rights has clustered geographically. Western and eastern Africa are populated mostly by partly free countries, central Africa overwhelmingly contains not free countries, and most countries in southern Africa are rated as free by Freedom House.  

Scholars have identified a number of factors that may have contributed to a democratic recession. These have included underlying structural weaknesses within “gray zone” regimes that were incorrectly or prematurely categorized as democracies in the 1990s and increased “authoritarian learning” that occurred as incumbents in autocratic and transitional regimes adopted best practices from earlier cases on how to better defend against popular challenges. Additionally, the recent rise of powerful authoritarian states such as China, which can serve as alternative sources of trade, investment and development assistance, has provided incumbent executives with a useful counterbalance to deflect or ignore international pressure to implement democratic reforms, observe international humans rights norms, and allow opposition parties to compete on a level playing field.

Recent research has found that during the period 2005-2014, African hybrid regimes that were highly dependent on Chinese finance relative to finance provided by Western/Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donors were much more likely to experience democratic backsliding. These findings suggested that China, which does not make development finance and assistance conditional upon political or economic reforms, appears to play a black knight role, enabling incumbent leaders in transitional states to withstand democratizing pressure from Western donors. Since the late 1990s, Zambia has developed particularly close ties to Beijing, beginning with substantial Chinese investments in the national copper industry and extending throughout much of the economy.

This has contributed greatly to the politicization of Chinese involvement in Zambia. Successive ruling parties, such as the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and later the ruling PF, have utilized Chinese financed development projects to both stimulate national development and bolster their political fortunes. Opposition parties, including the PF until its victory in 2011 and more recently the UPND, have to varying degrees attempted to tap into anti-Chinese populism to mobilize supporters against “pro-China” incumbent parties. In other words, Beijing’s heavy involvement in Zambia and close association with ruling parties, has emerged as both a bolster for ruling regimes seeking to retain power and a useful mobilization strategy for opposition parties seeking dislodge incumbents.

Michael Sata and the Rise of Anti-Chinese Populism

Over the last three decades, Zambia has been defined by fluid and highly competitive multiparty politics. Meanwhile, Zambian democracy has been challenged continual efforts by ruling parties to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor once in power. These efforts have never been entirely successful, leaving Zambia in a hybrid position – having highly competitive politics that are also often under the strain of potential democratic erosion and backsliding. According to Freedom House, the country has remained “partly free” in every year since 1993. This process began in 1991, when facing strong pressure from the international community and domestic civil society actors, Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s long-ruling leader agreed to allow free elections to take place.

These elections resulted in a sweeping victory for opposition leader Frederick Chiluba and the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). At the time, Zambia’s election sent shockwaves through Africa, and suggested to observers that growing domestic and international pressure might drive many ageing, long-ruling strongmen, such as Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, from power in democratic elections. This optimism for democratic change across the continent did not play out as initially hoped.

Many strongmen continued to hold onto power and Zambia’s own apparent democratic breakthrough was undermined by heavily boycotted, fraudulent elections in 1996, in which Chiluba and the MMD made extensive use of government resources and state media to benefit the ruling party, used dubious voter lists that disenfranchised as many as 2 million eligible voters, and altered eligibility rules for the presidency to disqualify the most credible challenger, Kenneth Kaunda, from the contest.

During his second term, Chiluba worked to tighten the MMD’s control over Zambian civil society, expanding party control over the media and using legal charges to harass and intimidate journalists. Additionally, as the 2001 election approached, Chiluba attempted to advance a constitutional reform that would allow him to remain in office for a third term. Notably, this attempt failed when Chiluba faced strong resistance from popular protests, opposition parties and from within the MMD, forcing him to throw his support behind his chosen successor, Levy Mwanawasa.    

In the 2001 election, Mwanawasa saw the MMD’s vote share declined sharply to 29% but managed to secure a narrow 30,000 vote victory over a heavily divided opposition that fielded ten different candidates. International election monitors observed serious irregularities in the election, leading many observers to conclude that the election had been rigged. As noted by Hess and Aidoo (2013), in addition to electoral manipulation, the MMD also benefited from opposition parties’ inability to bridge regional ethnic and linguistic divisions within the country and secure voters outside of ethnic strongholds.

Seeking to overcome these challenges in the 2006 election, three leading opposition parties, the UPND, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) and the Forum for Democratic Development (FDD) joined forces to form the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). However, to the surprise of many observers, another opposition candidate, Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front, emerged as the leading challenger in 2006 after coming in seventh place with only 3.4% of the vote in the 2001 presidential election.

In 2006, the UDA candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, mustered only 25.3% of the vote, whereas Sata surged into second place with 29.3% of the vote. Securing 43% of the vote and expanding on his 2001 vote share, the MMD’s Mwanawasa won reelection. After the sudden death of Mwanawasa in August 2008, a special election was organized for October. In that contest, Sata again emerged as the leading challenger to the MMD, securing 38.6% of the vote compared to 20% for Hichilema, running for the UPND. Once again, an MMD candidate, Rupiah Banda, was able to maintain control of the presidency with only a narrow plurality, 40.6% of the vote.  In 2011, Sata finally broke through, winning 42.85% of the vote to defeat Rupiah Banda and the MMD (36.2% of the vote).

As noted by Hess and Aidoo (2013), Sata’s increasingly popular support during the 2000s and his ultimate victory in 2011 was closely connected to ability to “adopt…the unifying target of ‘China’ (broadly defined) and the MMD, which he alleged ha[d] colluded with Chinese influences in undermining the interests and wellbeing of everyday Zambians.” As early as 1998, China had emerged as an important investor in Zambia with the purchase of the then-dormant Chambishi copper mine by China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining (Group). The purchase of the mine and a subsequent investment of US $130 million in repairs, renovations and new equipment restored the mine to full production. Subsequent investments in nickel, coal and manganese by Chinese entities as well as increasing demand for these goods in China’s rapidly expanding economy helped stimulate a recovery across the Zambian mining sector.

However, the sudden appearance of Chinese nationals on construction sites, in the mining sector, and as shopkeepers created tensions with Zambians concerned about job competition. Additionally, many Zambian workers at Chinese owned mines and businesses complained of low wages, harsh working conditions, and abusive treatment from Chinese managers. Such tensions occasionally burst into conflict and violence, including high-profile confrontations in 2006 and 2010, in which frightened Chinese managers fired shots into crowds of protesting Zambian workers.

Heading into the 2011 election, Michael Sata effectively tapped into rising “anti-China” resentments, accusing the ruling MMD of selling out Zambia’s resources to China. In a famously inflammatory statement, Sata declared: “Zambia has become a province of China, and the Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa.” By “playing the China card,” Sata was able to successfully mobilize a multiethnic, urban-rural coalition against the MMD that attracted new voters in both Lusaka and the mining-rich Copperbelt, winning the presidency with 43% of the vote.

The 2021 Election

In spite of his notoriety as an anti-Chinese populist and the widespread assumption that his election represented a “setback for China,” once in power, Sata continued to court Beijing as a source of finance and assistance in developing Zambia’s infrastructure. His first official visitor after the 2011 election was China’s ambassador Zhou Yuxiao and Sata made a week-long official visit to China in 2013. During Sata’s term in office, Chinese investment in Zambia grew from US $332 million in 2011 to US $543 million in 2014. In 2014, Sata died in office after struggling with an undisclosed illness. A special elections were held in 2015 to select a presidential successor to complete Sata’s term.

The election was marred by political violence between PF and opposition supporters; the government used the colonial era Public Order Act to disrupt opposition gatherings and rallies; and there were allegations of irregularities in the voter registration process. The end result was a narrow victory by Edgar Lungu of the PF (48.8% of the vote) over the United Party for National Development’s (UPND) Hichilema (47.2%). Another election to begin the next scheduled presidential term took place a year later in 2016. It once again pitted Lungu against Hichilema and once again resulted in a narrow win for Lungu, this time by around 100,000 votes. In the following years, Lungu’s administration struggled to address a number of serious national problems and experienced a deteriorating political environment.

As the August 2021 elections approached, Hichilema and the UPND seemed poised to mount a serious challenge to Lungu and the PF. Amidst collapsing copper prices and the global COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s GDP contracting 3.5% during 2020 and according to IMF forecasts, was expected to grow at only 0.6%, one of Africa’s slowest growth rates. Unemployment had reached a ten-year high in 2020; the local currency, the kwacha, had depreciated 40% over the course of the year; and as the country’s debt to international lenders reached US $12 billion, Zambia became Africa’s first country to default on its sovereign debt in November 2020. However, concerns about election rigging mounted.

The most recent 2016 election had been marred by political violence, and the ruling PF had deployed government resources to advantage its campaign efforts, placed extensive restrictions on independent and opposition media. State security forces, again invoking the Public Order Act, repeatedly blocked or disrupted the political rallies and gatherings of UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema and other opposition figures. In April 2020, Zambia’s state broadcast regulator cancelled the broadcast license of Prime TV, a television network known for its critical coverage of the government. In late 2020, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) eliminated the existing voter registration rolls and replaced them during an abbreviated 38-day voter registration drive, producing an electoral roll that appeared to undercount voters in regional strongholds for opposition parties.

Amidst rising COVID-19 cases and several outbreaks of political violence, the ECZ banned political rallies and imposed heavy restrictions on canvassing. Both the PF and UPND circumvented some of the restrictions by organizing political rallies under the guise of mask distribution events. According to many observers, the campaign restrictions were designed to favor the incumbent PF. Opposition leaders accused the PF of continuing to organize large political rallies under the guise of “inspecting and commissioning development projects,” while international observers noted that COVID-19 related campaign restrictions were “applied selectively.”

Opposition rallies were banned, blocked or dispersed by the police, while allowing PF rallies to proceed. In the month prior to the election, the government deployed the military to Northwestern Province, an UPND stronghold, and two other provinces after two PF officials were killed in clashes of electoral violence, prompting accusations that the military deployment was intended to intimidate opposition forces and suppress voter turnout. At the start of the election on August 12, there was a massive surge in turnout, with long lines reported throughout much of the country.

As voting commenced, major social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and messaging apps Messenger and WhatsApp were restricted without an explanation from the government. The restriction was later lifted at the order of the High Court of Zambia after a complaint was filed by a local human rights organization. A European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) in the country described the election as “a technically well-managed electoral process marred by unequal campaign conditions, restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement, and abuse of incumbency.” As initial returns came in, both the PF and UPND claimed victory. However, Hichilema saw his lead expand, even as election returns came in from areas that had been strongholds for Lungu in 2016.

In response, Lungu issued a public statement alleging that the elections “were not free and fair;” violence in three provinces, Southern, Northwestern and Western Province, had prevented the PF from effectively campaigning, “rendering the whole exercise nullity.” However, as the final results were reported by the ECZ, it became clear that Hichilema had won in a landslide, securing 59.38% of the vote compared to Lungu’s 38.33%, and leading by a margin of over 1 million votes. Despite earlier indications that he might contest the results, Lungu conceded the race on 16 August, and Hichilema was sworn in a week later.

Lessons Learned

Over the last two decades, China’s role in Zambia has taken an outsized position in the country’s politics. Successive governments, led first by the MMD and then the PF, have made courting Beijing and attracting growing volumes of Chinese investment a central plank of their national development strategies as well as their political strategies for winning public support and maintaining their grip on national office. However, as first demonstrated the PF’s Michael Sata, China’s presence also offered an effective political target. The wide-ranging presence of China in Zambia allowed opposition parties to tap into resentments against unwanted economic competition from Chinese businesses and workers, poor working conditions at the job sites of Chinese companies, and corrupt deals between the incumbent party and various Chinese actors to mobilize supporters through nationalistic and occasionally xenophobic calls to action.

Over successive administrations, Zambia has tapped into Chinese entities as lending sources and accumulated over US $3 billion in debt by 2021 (one quarter of its total US $12 billion in external debt) owed to Chinese actors. Research has suggested that China’s presence as an alternative source of financing to international lenders, such as the IMF and Western lenders, allows borrowers such as Zambia’s government to resist democratizing pressures from Western actors. Unshackled by such international pressure, incumbents such as Lungu are freer to engage in backsliding actions, using government powers to attack opposition challengers and create an uneven electoral playing field.

However, in 2021, Beijing’s willingness to bolster a heavily indebted partner appears to have hit its limits. The sheer level of debt accumulated by Lungu and the ruling PF loomed large heading into the 2021 elections, particularly after the country defaulted on an international debt payment in November 2020. In December 2020, the Zambian government formally requested talks with the IMF about a bailout loan. After the IMF initiated formal talks with Zambia in February, negotiations stretched out over the next year. The delay was reportedly linked to IMF concerns that Chinese entities had not publicized the extent of their substantial loan portfolio in Zambia. Moreover, some experts feared Lungu sought to engage in profligate spending prior the August elections that might boost his prospects for victory.

These worries were to some extent confirmed with the announcement in January 2021 that Zambia’s state mining investment arm, ZCCM-IH, was planning to borrow US $1.5 billion to buy Glencore’s (a multinational commodity company) share in Mopani Copper Mines, heading off potential job losses in the electorally critical Copperbelt. The IMF held off a decision on the bailout loan until after the election, limiting Lungu’s ability to use government spending engage in other more serious forms of electoral malfeasance heading into a serious electoral challenge. China, Lungu’s preferred lender during his presidency, was conspicuously absent as the cash-strapped president sought a bailout. In 2019, Chinese lending to Africa dropped 30%, from US $9.9 billion in 2018 to US $7 billion in 2019 and continued to drop into 2020, driven by the economic uncertainties associated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Within Zambia, Chinese entities were characterized by a kind of lender fatigue. China Exim Bank threatened to suspend construction on Zambian infrastructure projects in 2019 if its debts were not paid back.

Additionally, a number of Chinese firms refused to renegotiate Zambia’s debts unless it provided collateral for possible defaults, leading to concerns that Chinese entities might acquire further control over Zambian mineral rights and infrastructure projects. Because of this situation, Lungu was left in a place where he faced a serious election challenge but lacked any sort of counter-leverage in his negotiations with the IMF. No Chinese bailout was forthcoming and the IMF held all the cards in its hands. If Lungu engaged in massive pre-election spending to boost his reelection chances or if he produced a political crisis by seeking to manipulate an election, he could well face an economic or political collapse. As a consequence, the president of a nation saddled with Chinese (and other) debt, found that he had no “black knight” to turn to and had little choice but to accept the election results and stand aside.

Steve Hess is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, USA. He has researched Sino-African relations for over a decade and is the co-author, with Richard Aidoo, of the book, Charting the Roots of Anti-Chinese Populism in Africa (2015).

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