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Is 2015 the year of change in Zambia? With the 20 January presidential by-election fast approaching will there be a shift from a growing democracy to a mature democracy? Can the nationa finally shed the coat of corruption and become a truly democratic society that can trust and rely on its elected officials?

‘And pity, like a naked newborn babe, striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed upon the sightless couriers of the air, shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, that tears shall drown the wind,’ Shakespeare’s Macbeth depicting a seemly innocent deed with horrible connotations. That has been the story of Zambia for the past fifty years – the start has always been promising; the end horrible, especially for the majority poor. The same has been true in the choice of leadership. Whenever a Bemba or Nyanja was pitted against any other tribe, it was expected that a non-Bemba or non-Nyanja would not win the day.

If tribe is similar to race, the USA and President Obama provides a compelling illustration of how merit transcends all the subjective categories of human characteristics. For years, the US went by the conception that Blacks were only good at being slaves, house servants and for low-paying jobs. Leadership was never a defining mark of a Black person. This all changed in 2008. And after six, silently but efficacious, years, the US and the world now accept the unpalatable hypothesis that colour and race do not define leadership acumen.

In Zambia, the stage is set for the 2015 presidential by-elections in January. The candidates are: Hakainde Hichilema – United Party for National Development (UPND); Edgar Lungu – Patriotic Front (PF), and Nevers Mumba – Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). The rest of the political parties, without sacrificing democratic surprises, do not have a chance in the 2015 elections. They may, however, fare better in subsequent elections.

As Zambians are aware, every presidential candidate knows that to become president three factors have to be overcome: party in power, election rigging and corruption, tribe, and merit and issues. The first two factors ultimately favour the incumbency. That is why it has been very difficult, though not impossible, to unseat a reigning president. For Zambia, fortunately, events such as extreme impoverishment and corruption have enabled Zambians to choose two non-office-holders in both the 1991 and 2011 elections. Is there an earth-shaking event about to take place in 2015 that can upset this unwritten rule?

First, every time a regime in power retained its power, it was relatively healthy and thriving. Kenneth Kaunda (KK) had glued UNIP together under a lurid One-Party system and went on to rule for more than 27 years. Chiluba was thriving under the mantra of the re-introduction of multiparty in Zambia flanked by a magnanimous home-empowerment scheme. Mwanawasa rallied under a prosecution of his own mentor, Frederick Chiluba.

Second, the tribal card influenced the majority of outcomes. KK and Chiluba and Michael Sata had a huge Bemba tribal advantage. Mwanawasa was close to the Bemba, and he was tolerated. Sata was Bemba, and had filled key government positions with his Bemba stalwarts. Although Rupiah Banda was an incumbent, he was up against a staunch Bemba in Michael Sata as we all as a strong corrupt MMD label, and he lost the election.

Third, it is no longer a secret that parties in power rig elections, almost at will. They also use government resources to their advantage. The point in mind is when the Post reported in December 2014 that the Lungu-tilted PF ministers (14 out of 19), threatened acting president Guy Scot with dismissal from the party should he refuse to allow Lungu access to the national coffers to fuel his campaign Scott succumbed, and it is a no brainer – government resources will be used in the 2015 elections.

Fourth, meritorious elections are rare in Zambia. The majority of the people in Zambia (about 60%) are poor. A candidate with access to resources and who promises material things and ministerial and government appointments is ignorantly followed. He or she need not be brilliant or credible. The reason is simple – the public sector is the largest employer in Zambia. The private sector is weak and does not create ascending jobs for it to be relied upon. People know, explicitly, that a president does not need to be smart or educated or economically savvy; all they need is government resources (because hitherto, no Zambian president has shown alacrity in growing the economy beyond what was inherited from the colonial masters). All that Zambian governments are expert at is redistribution through budgeting (which is confused for a national vision). They forget that even riffraff can set a budget.

In 2015, Zambia has a rare opportunity to attempt what has been elusive in years past – choose a president on meritorious grounds. This will mean digging deeper and looking at candidates from issue-based politics, not because of their tribe or party-affiliation. It might mean, for example, looking at Hakainde Hichilema and asking: What does he have that can benefit the nation? And not simply underrating him because he is not Bemba or Nyanja. It might also mean looking at Lungu and Mumba and asking: What do these two people have for Zambia other than incumbency and being a Bemba?

Meaningful change for Zambia may lie in how intelligent the Zambian electorate answers these illustrious questions. Otherwise, in 2015, Zambia will have new faces in power but not a new economy or new and productive policies.

The moment the ruling party ceases rigging elections through corruption. The moment people choose their president based on merit and not tribe. The moment issues such as how to grow the economy, end poverty and create new and thriving jobs for the masses are prioritised and not whims and empty promises. The moment people demand a cogent, clearly-defined and computable vision from their presidential candidates. The moment Zambia votes for a deserved leader – at that moment, Zambian democracy will have graduated from being a growing democracy to a mature democracy. Could 2015 be that moment?

* Charles Mwewa a prolific young Zambian legal lecturer based in Toronto. See his blog at



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