Zambia’s leaders, who have been laser-focused on addressing the country’s crippling economic crisis, closed out 2022 by pivoting to legal reform to strengthen democracy. The Zambian government repealed a notorious law criminalizing defamation of the president, which had been used to punish government critics. There are other reforms that pro-democracy advocates hope to see, including changes to the Public Order and Access to Information Acts. But December’s action should help to create positive momentum toward protecting the civil and political rights of all Zambians, regardless of their political affiliations. It signals to youthful supporters of President Hichilema, some of whom endured real persecution at the hands of the president’s predecessor, that their trust was not misplaced, and that they had not unwittingly replaced one would-be strongman with another. It also removes a potential point of contention before Zambia takes up its role as the African co-host of the Biden administration’s second Summit for Democracy, to be held in late March 2023.
All of this matters, because Zambia is one of the world’s most important test-cases for the notion that democratic governance can deliver better security, services, and opportunities than authoritarianism. In 2021, Zambian voters rejected outright intimidation and overcame efforts to narrow political space by turning out in impressive numbers to demand a change in leadership. They sent an unmistakable message in favor of more accountable government focused on public needs. The question before the country now is whether or not their democratically-elected government can meet that demand.
Of course, Zambians can’t subsist on freedom of expression. They need jobs and economic opportunity as well, which explains why economic stabilization has been at the top of the agenda in Lusaka over the past sixteen months. The country’s staggering debt burden–roughly $15 billion–prompted a default in 2020. Restoring confidence in the Zambian economy, and finding a way to meet popular demands while taming the fiscal crisis, is no small task. The government struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last summer for $1.3 billion in relief, but the G20 Common Framework for Debt Treatments is where real solutions should be found. That process, however, has been worryingly slow.
The Biden administration deserves credit for recognizing the stakes and looking for ways to help Zambia succeed. During last month’s African Leaders Summit, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema was a ubiquitous and prominent presence. He signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo committing the three countries to cooperation on developing an electric vehicle value chain. He announced a $150 million copper mining deal with U.S.-based KoBold Minerals. He met with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who used the opportunity to urge Zambia’s creditors to move quickly on debt restructuring and committed to visiting Zambia in 2023. Vice President Kamala Harris hosted him for a bilateral meeting. Few, if any, African heads of state had such full dance cards in Washington.
Unquestionably, consistent and committed Zambian leadership will be required if the 2021 election is to deliver real results for the Zambian people. There is still a great deal that can be done to attract job-creating investments and opportunities, including tackling corruption, improving the performance of the civil service, and rationalizing the regulatory climate. But friends of democracy must do their part as well, and keep U.S.-Zambian engagement sustained and energized.