Zambia held presidential elections this week, a contest that’s had interesting implications beyond the borders of that southern African nation. When I speak about international news, I’m often asked about stories I think people should be following – this election is a great example of an important and underreported story. A quick update on what happened, and then three reasons why it’s important to watch.
The Zambian contest pitted incumbent Rupiah Banda against long-time opposition leader Michael Sata. Banda represented the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, the party that ruled in Zambia since Kenneth Kaunda, an autocrat whose one party “African Socialist” state ended in 1991. Banda was vice president under Levy Mwanawasa, who suffered a stroke in office, and narrowly won election in 2008. His rule was characterized by outreach to nations around the world to seek investment in Zambia, especially in the country’s lucrative mines… and by dismantling much of the anti-corruption mechanisms installed by his predecesor.
On the other side, Michael Sata is a firebrand who’s been nicknamed “King Cobra” for the ferocity of his attacks on political rivals and other targets. One of the targets of his ire have been Chinese mining companies, which Sata has argued aren’t protecting worker rights or sharing the wealth with Zambians. In 2006, he made statements so provocative that China threatened to stop investing in Zambia if Sata were elected to office. He’s softened many of those stances, but should be viewed as a populist who’s promising more equitable distribution of wealth within Zambia.
Sata believes he won the 2008 election, and there were worries about whether this year’s election would be free and fair… and whether a disputed election could end in violence. The just-concluded election didn’t start well. It took three days for votes to be tallied, and riots broke out in some southern cities, reflecting fear that the election might be stolen. But early this morning, the electoral commission gave Sata the win. Fingers are now crossed that a) the violence will cease and b) that Chinese investors won’t pull out of the country abruptly out of fear or dissatisfaction with the election.
So why pay attention to the story?
China in Africa. One of the major trends of this decade is China’s emergence as a major power on a world stage. We are entering a multipolar world, where American and European influence are complemented and counterbalanced by Chinese, Indian and other influences. This multipolar future has been unfolding more quickly in Africa than in other parts of the world, because so many weak economies are dependent on international aid and investment.
Global Voices held a meeting between African and Chinese bloggers in 2007, talking about China in Africa, and the perceptions each group had of the other. Chinese bloggers pointed out that state media was urging Chinese people to relocate to Africa, both in the hopes of growing rich and out of a sense of duty to “improve” lives on the continent. African bloggers saw the Chinese as a source of investment, but weren’t naïve about the idea that strings were attached (a promise not to recognize an independent Taiwan, for instance.) Some argued that smart African nations could play China off against the US and other powers and gain investment; others worried that Chinese investors would outcompete local business.
In Zambia, attitudes towards the Chinese have soured, both because of failed infrastructure projects and safety issues in the mines. Some have argued that the “fast and loose” culture of Chinese business can only succeed in more closed African societies, where protection of an autocratic ruler (like Mugabe) can shield investors and entrepreneurs from public pressure. Zambia suggests that this may be the case – a comparatively free African country appears to be voting, in part, against Chinese investment with the election of Sata.
Inequality Africa is growing, and fast. The World Bank forecasts 5.3% growth this year, a much faster rate than in most of the developed world. That growth is from a low base – many Africans are extremely poor. But there’s an emerging middle class, complementing a small and very wealthy upper class.
This growth hasn’t been evenly distributed, and in more democratic African countries, this rising inequality is manifesting as political dissatisfaction. Ghana’s 2008 election saw the ouster of the New Patriotic Party, associated with economic growth and the expansion of the middle class, at the expense of the NDC, seen as more likely to aid the poor and redistribute income. There’s a long history of socialist politics in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of that history is simply about Cold War geopolitics, but some reflects local attitudes that economic success needs to benefit society as a whole, not just those lucky enough to have good-paying jobs. As African nations get wealthier, expect to see more tensions over inequality and efforts to ensure redistribution of income. (God only knows when we might see such trends in the US.)
Democracy in Africa Do a quick Google search for “democracy in Africa”. You’ll find a number of stories bemoaning the failures of democracy on the continent, worrying about failed elections in Kenya and Nigeria. Don’t take these articles too seriously. They talk about important political situations, but they may be failing to see the forest for the trees.
Africa is becoming a hotbed for democracy. Freedom House (whose methods I sometimes disagree with, but who offer a global view of political freedoms over a long period of time) identifies three “free” states in West Africa (Ghana, Benin and Mali), and three in southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana and Namibia) as well as three of the small island states. And more than twenty states meet Freedom House’s “partly free” criteria, including powerhouses like Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. Zambia is listed as partly free, but this year’s successful election might lead to an upgrade. Nigeria, often dismissed as a basket case, had a pretty good election this year as well.
Contrast this to Freedom House’s map of the Middle East and North Africa, issued before the Arab Spring unfolded. It’s a sea of purple, the color of “not free”. From Algeria to Iran, nations are not free, with the sole exceptions of Israel, Morocco, Lebanon and Kuwait. Compared to its neighbors to the north, Africa looks like it is getting its act together.
We don’t hear much about the spread of democracy in Africa. Mugabe’s absurdities get a lot of ink, as do Bashir’s. And the current refugee crisis is affecting Somalia (not free) and Kenya (partly free). Rwanda, an increasingly popular spot for American investment and aid, and Ethiopia, home of the AU, aren’t free, but gain their share of ink, while stable democracies like Botswana and Mali are often too boring to report on.
There’s a danger that we miss a major story here: democracy is taking root in Africa and spreading rapidly. Nations like Zambia, which survived autocratic rule and then dominance by one party are now seeing democratic change. It’s important to cover African crises and tragedies, but not at the expense of the hopeful news of democratic success and change.