While desperate refugees flee eastern Congo in droves, and Zimbabwe buckles further under collapse, little attention has been paid to a crucial presidential election in the land in between, Zambia.
Following the August death of beloved President Levy Mwanawasa, considered by many observers as a rare good steward in Africa, the country had to hold a quick election to select a new leader.
On Oct. 30, Zambians elected to continue the late president's sound policies by voting in his deputy, Rupiah Banda, who will now serve out the rest of Mwanawasa's term which expires in 2011. The relatively smooth transition of October's election, branded free and fair by independent election monitors, has helped to prove Zambia's young democracy. After all, Africa's largest copper producer has seen only three presidents since independence and has never lost one in office. With a wispy 2 percent margin of victory, Banda was sworn in November 2, only two hours after election officials announced the final results.
That ought to be the end of the story, but Zambians may face an even greater test of their political maturity in the days ahead. Banda's opponent, the fiery populist Michal Sata, has announced his Patriotic Front party will challenge the results in court. His supporters had their own say, setting fire to stalls and throwing stones in a late-night slum riot Saturday.
By his party's own words, Sata is known by "every man, woman and child" in Zambia as "King Cobra," a moniker he picked up for his crude, no-nonsense and often retributive style. Vote counting had barely begun last week when the former cabinet minister stormed into a conference center announcing results and declared the election had been rigged. In 2006, when he ran and lost against Mwanawasa in another close but fair election, he made similar allegations. And similarly, his supporters briefly rioted in the capital of Lusaka. The cobra seems prepared to strike again.
Sata's campaign this year drew thousands of Patriotic Front supporters to his rallies in Zambia's poorest urban shanty compounds and neighborhoods. Sounding like a Latin American populist, he promised a sky-high minimum wage, more housing and more jobs—all within 90 days of taking office. In short order, he spooked large foreign businesses by declaring they would be required to hand over 25 percent of their stakes to local Zambians. With such rhetoric, it's no surprise that Zambians languishing in filthy, crime-ridden slums follow Sata, and often look grudgingly at the prosperity of non-white Zambians and foreigners.
In contrast to Sata's outlandish politicking, new president Rupiah Banda has promised to continue the quiet, free-market policies that have brought Zambia an average 5 percent growth over the last few years. Inflation, once around 200 percent in 1991, has fallen to 14 percent today. The 71-year-old Banda was a former diplomat under the first president and national founder, and had virtually retired to his farm when Mwanawasa appointed him vice-president.
As the world financial crisis causes copper prices drop, however, Banda's commitment to other parts of Mwanawasa's recent legacy will grow more important. They include a commitment to rule of law and a strong campaign against government corruption. With each succeeding peaceful election, from the move to multi-party politics in 1990 onwards, Zambia's institutions and civil society have gained staying power.
With Sata's demand for a recount, Zambia now faces the challenge of relying more closely on due process, even as the nation—much like the United States in 2004 and today—seems evenly divided. The country is already known as one of the few success stories in Africa.
But Zambia's story is not simply one of moving from one leader to another; it is the story of a continent on the move, with many nations bumping against great odds toward stability and prosperity. For those watching trends in Africa, countries like Zambia—or Senegal, or Mozambique—are an important bellwether of the future. It remains to be see if Sata's movement will permit Zambia to continue in that mode.
Priya Abraham writes for The Cutting Edge News and is Director of Communications at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.