A Watershed Moment for Democracy in Africa | Opinion

On Thursday, Zambia will go to the polls in the most significant moment the country has faced since the advent of a multi-party democracy three decades ago.

Zambia was once held up as an example for other African nations to follow. A nation that freed itself from colonialism without bloodshed. The only country in the region to have experienced two peaceful, democratic transfers of power. Zambia has generally been seen as a regional force for stability and progress.

Yet over the past decade, under the current government, Zambia has gone back on this democratic and economic progress. Instead, it is on the path to economic ruin and authoritarianism, with unsustainable debt, rampant and unchecked corruption and rapidly deteriorating living standards.

The stakes for this election therefore could not be higher.

Unsurprisingly, the mood in the country is one of change. The polling we have conducted—in conjunction with well respected, international organizations—shows that we are significantly ahead. This is backed up by what we are seeing on the ground. In all our time in politics, we have never seen such an overwhelming thirst—and even desperation—for change and a new start.

The ruling party, the Patriotic Front, is well aware of this. They are doing all they can to make sure the next election is not free and fair, and to tilt the playing field in its favor. This has created a campaign environment that is significantly less democratic, and less free, than anything we have seen before.

The government has imposed severe COVID-related restrictions, meaning all forms of campaigning are banned. Yet in reality, the ruling party holds mass campaign events with impunity, while the opposition are met with armed police—even when we just go out to distribute face masks.

Over the past few months, we have been physically attacked on the campaign trail, including having live bullets fired directly at our convoy. Ruling party sponsored mobs use violence and harassment to disrupt our campaigns and media appearances. Radio stations broadcasting our messages are attacked, campaign materials are burnt and our billboards illegally defaced. We are now even seeing full military units, tanks and modern weaponry deployed against civilians on the streets of our country.

These are not the actions of a democratic government, confident of their re-election.

A man closes a door
A man closes a door at the Matero district party headquarter of the Zambian opposition party United Party for National Development of the presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema, on Aug. 10, 2021. PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images)

What is emboldening these actions is the sense that the world is not watching. With the international focus concentrated on the new Delta strain of the coronavirus and its economic implications, there is a sense of impunity and invulnerability among the leaders of this country.

Zambia's ruling party is prepared to take actions that they would have never dreamed of in the past, confident that the international community either will not notice, or not care. This we fear is only a precursor for what is to come on Election Day and immediately after, if the Zambian people vote as the polling indicates they will.

But if governments around the world are not watching, those across the region are. Leaders are keen to see exactly how much attention the world will pay to what is going on in Zambia, and what actions it will take when basic democratic norms are trampled upon.

This is not just a pivotal moment for Zambia. It is a watershed moment for African democracy.

If the world's leading countries take a decisive stand against this march toward authoritarianism in Zambia, it will send a strong message to governments across Africa that there are certain red lines they cannot cross. But if the international community turns a blind eye to what is going on, anti-democratic leaders across the continent will be emboldened, setting the cause of democracy in Africa back a generation or more.

At their heart, elections are about choices. As is their democratic right, it is up to the Zambian people to choose whether our country keeps going on its current path, or if we embrace a new path of change and opportunity.

The choice faced by the international community is every bit as stark and important. The democracies of the world will have to choose whether they tacitly accept these flagrant and unashamed breaches of basic democratic norms, or if they absolutely insist that this election is free and fair.

Which path they choose could well be the difference between Zambia deteriorating into a broken economy and failed state, or Zambia transforming into a thriving economy and responsible regional player.

We call on our friends in the international community to help us ensure the upcoming elections are free and fair and that no election theft takes place. The brave and long-suffering people of Zambia deserve to have their voices heard.

Hakainde Hichilema is the main opposition candidate for the presidency of Zambia.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.