2014 Tutu Fellow Linda Kasonde, the Executive Director of Chapter One Foundation wrote this essay ahead of Zambia's upcoming 60th anniversary:

“Ubuntungwa” in the Bemba language means “freedom”. You may recall the famous Zambian song by Keith Mlevhu of the same name in which he calls on the youth of this country to be patriotic and to guard the freedom of our country. Mlevhu, who was born in 1950, witnessed Zambia become independent in 1964. One wonders why he saw the need to sing a song about freedom in 1978, some fourteen years later.

Zambia is now approaching sixty years of independence and yet we are still asking the question: are we truly independent?

Independence from our colonisers means that we now have the freedom to manage our own affairs. However, this has proved challenging in a global economy in which individual African states are bit players. Indeed, the political fortunes of all the Presidents this country have been closely tied to the success of the economic health of the country. Since our return to multi-party democracy in 1991, Zambians have enjoyed the right to hire and fire the government in office. It is a power that the people of our country take very seriously having previously endured twenty-seven years of rule by the independence ruling party UNIP, nineteen of which were under one-party authoritarian rule. It is also an ability that very few other countries on the Continent enjoy. In the sixty years of its existence, Zambia has had seven Republican Presidents from four different political parties. Some argue that having a party in office for a long time allows the government the latitude to plan long-term. What the Zambian experience has shown is that effecting change through the ballot box has been an important disruptor of impunity.

In a 2023 Afrobarometer report of survey findings in 36 African countries, a whopping 87% of the Zambians surveyed indicated that they prefer democracy to any other form of government. This is compared to the Continental average of 66% of Africans surveyed who endorse a democratic form of government. The majority of the Zambian respondents also indicated that democracy works in the country. This is as compared to average of 38% satisfaction with how democracy is working across Africa. Zambians equate democracy to freedom. It would be a mistake to assume that one “cannot eat democracy”.

Zambia has recently emerged from a period of democratic decline experienced between 2011 to 2021. During that time the civic space shrunk significantly. In a report released by Amnesty International in June 2021, they reported that – “People [had] increasingly been unable to freely assemble publicly, engage in public demonstrations or protest against government actions without being subjected to intimidation and harassment by the police. Fearful of reprisals, many people and the media have resorted to silence and self-censorship.”

In celebrating Africa Freedom day and Zambia’s upcoming 60th birthday, I would like to reflect on the state of freedom in the civic space in Zambia following the August 2021 general elections and to see how we can emerge as a stronger, more resilient democracy in the future.

Lessons learnt from the previous ten years

Civil society activists must always be observant and vigilant about the warning signs that our democracy is in decline. In the previous ten years, this was illustrated by the following events:

Abuse of the weaponization of the law against citizens

This was demonstrated by the apparent partisanship of the law enforcement agencies in securing peace and security and law and order in relation to public meetings of the various political parties. An increase in politically motivated violence by various political parties in the country. Law enforcement agencies must be seen to preserve and protect the safety and security of all involved without fear or favour.

We saw the abuse of the Public Order Act and Covid Regulations as well as the use of criminal defamations laws and the recent introduction of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act to police the digital space. Most worryingly, in 2019, the Patriotic Front government began to make moves to make substantial amendments to the Constitution in a bid to entrench their hold on power. The Constitutional Amendment Bill No. 10 of 2019 or Bill 10 as it became known, became the biggest threat to Zambian democracy since the creation of a one-party state in Zambia’s 1972 Constitution. It proposed amongst other things removing the limit of the number of members of Parliament, making it easier to dismiss judges and to remove the speaker of Parliament, an allowing the leading candidate in a presidential election to co-opt another political party to meet the 50+1 threshold to win an election. Through the advocacy of civil society actors and the opposition the government failed to meet the two-thirds majority required to pass Bill 10 – twice.

A blurring of the line between the Ruling Party and the Government with party officials making statements on issues of government policy

The rhetoric and statements of high-ranking government officials and senior officials with the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party have continued to pose a threat to civil society organisations, ordinary individuals, and human rights defenders who were labelled as “partisan” in order to marginalise and intimidate them. In the past, we saw the use of political party cadres employed to intimidate ordinary citizens, particularly those who expressed dissenting views from the government.

Public threats against members of the judiciary

Since the 2016 amendments to the Constitution, we have seen a rise in lawfare: the fighting of political battles through the courts. Such as the Constitutional Court’s decision over whether President Lungu is eligible to stand in the 2021 general elections and the 2016 presidential election petition, often resulting in judgements favourable to the ruling government.

In November 2017, President Lungu threatened judges not to follow the Kenyan court on the issue of whether or not he is eligible to stand in the 2021 presidential elections1. It is also worth noting that whilst the Courts have been under attack from the Executive, the Courts too have been heavy handed in laying charges of criminal contempt against those that criticize them in the media2. This is a worrying trend as courts should ordinarily only speak through their judgments and through their conduct of cases generally.

The harassment of journalists and closure of alternative voices perceived to be anti-establishment in an environment where there was a decreased tolerance for divergent views

In June 2016, the government shut down the largest independent newspaper in Zambia, The Post, ostensibly for tax related issues3. In August 2016, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), a public agency run by officials appointed by the President, suspended the licenses of three private media houses a few days after the country’s leading opposition party, the UPND, filed a petition in the Constitutional Court contesting the outcome of the presidential election in which President Edgar Lungu was announced as the official winner. We also saw the shutdown of Prime TV in 2020 and the harassment of several radio and TV stations that attempted to host opposition political party leaders.

Divide and Rule

This was played out in professional associations, the civil service, NGOs, and even the Church. Any critic of government on governance issues was labelled “anti-government” and subsequently was often abused through state-affiliated media or social media sites. This was one of the biggest threats to civil society and the media in Zambia. We also saw the use of tribal hate speech to demonise opposition political party leaders. Worst still, ruling party supporters were employed by political parties to intimidate ordinary citizens in marketplaces and bus stations.


According to 2023 Ministry of Finance figures, it is estimated that the total national debt currently stands at around US$32 billion. Between 2011 and 2021, the Zambian government spent and borrowed money excessively. Between 2016 and 2021, Parliament had no oversight over all debt contraction contrary to the provisions of the Constitution. Aside from the 42 fire engines that were bought for US$42 million, the Government also purchased several ambulances at an inflated cost. The cost of building roads in Zambia is reportedly much higher than the normal cost of building roads on the rest of the continent. In 2018, the IMF Country representative was recalled5. In June 2018 the Financial Intelligence Centre released a report indicating that K4.6 billion was lost due to tax evasion and corruption6. The Director-General of the Financial Intelligence Centre was harassed and intimidated as a result7. In September 2018 the British, Swedish, and Finnish governments had frozen aid to Zambia following the misappropriation of money intended for social cash transfer for vulnerable families across Zambia8. All these things negatively impacted the government’s ability to provide basic social and economic necessities like good healthcare, sanitation, and education for the Zambian people, the majority of whom became even more impoverished.

Where are we now?

The UPND government has now been in office for almost three years. Worryingly, some of the political trends that occurred during the Patriotic Front government have emerged in the present day. In fairness to the current government, their focus has been on reviving our ailing economy. Our economic woes have arisen from prior fiscal indiscipline and corruption. This has been exacerbated by shocks such as the COVID pandemic, the cholera outbreak, and the terrible 2023 crop season; some of which were caused by poor planning on the part of the current government. Indeed, it also appears that corruption is also still with us. As we are currently experiencing, things may only get worse before they get better. Zambians should not be fooled by politicians who promise quick fixes to very complex problems that they themselves created. However, our economic problems should not be an excuse for democratic regression. As we approach the 2026 general elections, those who aspire for public office should always remember that the Zambian voter is very sophisticated and can understand issues - if only they are communicated to them. Both political and economic freedom are important to the Zambian people. So, to all the politicians across the political spectrum in the words of Keith Mlevhu, Ubutungwa bwa Zambia, natusunge icalo cesu, which, loosely translated means: Freedom for Zambia, let's protect our country.

Heading image: Album cover Love and Freedom of Keith Mlevhu's song of the same name “Ubuntungwa”, which in the Bemba language means “freedom”.

About the author: Linda Kasonde is a lawyer, human rights activist, and Executive Director of Chapter One Foundation. Chapter One Foundation is a civil society organisation that promotes and protects human rights, the rule of law, and social justice in Zambia.


  1. https://diggers.news/local/2017/11/02/lungu-says-there-will-be-chaos-if-judges-disqualify-him-for-2021/
  2. https://diggers.news/local/2018/07/11/supreme-court-slaps-chifire-mambo-with-contempt-charges-in-savenda-case/

  3. http://www.times.co.zm/?p=8636
  4. https://www.lusakatimes.com/2018/09/18/parliament-should-not-have-authority-to-approve-contraction-of-all-public-debt-dora-siliya/
  5. https://diggers.news/business/2018/08/27/govt-demanded-removal-of-imf-representative-sources-reveal/

  6. https://diggers.news/local/2018/06/01/zambia-lost-k4-5bn-to-financial-crimes-in-2017-fic/
  7. https://www.lusakatimes.com/2018/06/10/pf-calls-for-disbandment-fic-board-and-dismissal-of-its-director-general-mary-tshuma/

  8. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-45560404
Sam Chikashi
You are a gem of a lawyer and in this article you've written the whole truth of our democracy, how it was almost lost during PF days in power. Furthermore, it's true the ugly face of corruption has emerged in UPND and the power of Ichipani is being used to preside over the affairs of institutions like Chambers of Commerce and industries.
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