July 19, 2019
The Republic of Zambia, a landlocked southern African
country, has historically been politically stable and has held
regular elections since a return to multiparty politics in
1991, after nearly two decades of one-party rule. The
government reportedly uses the state legal apparatus to
restrict opposition political activity and muzzle critics,
however, curtailing the exercise of civic freedoms.
Corruption is also a governance challenge, and Zambia
faces economic headwinds. Since 2014, economic growth
has slowed, while public debt has risen. U.S.-Zambian
relations are cordial and center primarily on bilateral
development cooperation, notably in the health sector.
Politics: Background and Recent Developments
Zambia has a presidential system with a unicameral
parliament. The country has held multiple elections since
1991 and is rated “Partly Free” by the U.S. nonprofit
Freedom House. Surveys by Afrobarometer, a think tank,
suggest that the public supports free and fair elections, but a
number of elections since 1991 have featured alleged
irregularities and limited political violence. Fierce electoral
competition and frequently polarized politics may account
for an arguably antidemocratic current: Several recent
governments, and the current one, have used presidential
clout, state powers, and repressive laws to target political
opponents and favor allies.
Incumbent President Edward Lungu, of the Patriotic Front
(PF), came to power after the 2014 death in office of his
predecessor, Michael Sata (PF), whose term Lungu was
elected to complete. Lungu then won election for a full term
in 2016 by a slim margin, defeating his archrival, Hakainde
Hichilema of the United Party for National Development
(UPND), the main opposition party. The PF also holds a
narrow majority (80 of 156 seats) in the parliament. General
elections are next slated for 2021.
The 2016 elections featured pre-poll violence, partisan PF
use of state resources, state harassment of media that hosted
the opposition, and the arguably questionable use of the
Public Order Act—which governs public assembly—to
hinder opposition political rallies. A UPND court case
seeking to overturn the election was thrown out on a
technicality, drawing criticism from the U.S.-based Carter
Center. The UPND has since contended that the vote was
fraudulent and that Lungu’s tenure is illegitimate.
The ongoing politicized use of state authority has spurred
some observers to warn of creeping authoritarianism under
Lungu. Concerns over governance trends are reflected in
reports by such organizations as Freedom House and
Human Rights Watch, as well as the U.S. State
Department’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights
Practices report. The government also appears to use the
award of state positions to help secure its agenda in
parliament—nearly half of PF members in parliament hold
ministerial posts—and has dismissed numerous allegedly
pro-UPND public servants.
Figure 1. Zambia at a Glance
Source: CIA, World Bank, and IMF reference databases.
A range of opposition parties and individuals face state
harassment, particularly the UPND and its leader,
Hichilema. In 2017, Hichilema was charged with treason
and held in a maximum security prison for months. The
charges were suspended—just prior to a trial seen as having
the potential to spur instability, given heated tensions over
the case—but could be renewed. Hichilema has since faced
other constraints on his political activity, and in late 2018
was detained for questioning after allegedly inciting riots by
making remarks on the possible sale of a state-owned firm
to Chinese interests during a radio interview. Freedom
House reports that the latter incident could be used to
disqualify Hichilema as a 2021 presidential candidate.
Rule of Law and Press Freedom
The judiciary also has faced periodic political pressure,
notably in relation to election legal disputes and other
political cases. In late 2018, Lungu warned of chaos should
the Constitutional Court block his bid for a third term in
2021. Weeks later, the entirely Lungu-appointed court ruled
unanimously that a two-term presidential tenure limit did
not apply to Lungu with respect to the 2021 elections, as his
first term had been a partial one. His eligibility had been a
matter of heated contention since his 2016 election.
While the press is lively and some privately owned media
sources criticize the government, according to Freedom
House, the state pressures the media to minimize opposition
coverage. Many media outlets, notably government-aligned
ones, reportedly comply and also self-censor. In recent
years, authorities have routinely used tax, licensing, libel,
and sedition laws to harass selected media outlets and
curtail their activity, and PF supporters have periodically
disrupted broadcasts airing opposition views.
In April 2019, the PF-dominated parliament enacted a law
ostensibly aimed at fostering government-opposition
cooperation. The law contains a series of provisions for
changing the constitution, ensuring the independence of the
judiciary and other institutions, amending the Public Order
Act, and enacting electoral reforms. The law also
established a national dialogue on these and other issues.
The UPND opposed the law’s passage and, with some other
parties, has boycotted the dialogue, contending that these
efforts are PF-dominated and partisan.
Economy and Key Development Challenges
Zambia has large deposits of minerals, particularly copper.
Mining accounts for 70% of Zambia’s exports, making
Zambia vulnerable to market fluctuations. The country
enjoyed fast growth from 2005 to 2014, averaging 7.4% a
year, but in 2015 gross domestic product growth (GDP) fell
to 2.9%. GDP growth later recovered moderately; it stood
at 3.5% in 2018. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)
projects continued low growth over the next five years.
The local currency, the Kwacha, has depreciated
concurrently with the drop in GDP, while chronic deficit
spending has swelled Zambia’s external debt. This debt,
which has increased an average of 20.7% a year since 2010,
stood at $16.3 billion in 2017, according to the World
Bank. Recently, the government took measures to curtail
spending, but political pressure to maintain funding flows
ahead of the 2021 elections may undercut such efforts.
Despite years of growth, many Zambians have remained
poor. The World Bank estimates that 54% of citizens lived
in poverty in 2015 (latest data). Nominal per capita incomes
have decreased since peaking at $1,840 in 2013, and stood
at $1,417 in 2018. About 54% of Zambians work in
agriculture, mostly as smallholder farmers. Periodic
droughts have reduced food security and the rate of
agricultural productivity, which already was low due to
insufficient access to farming inputs and technology. An
ongoing drought has contributed to massive electricity
shortages. The tourism industry accounted for just over 4%
of imports in 2017. While the value of tourism receipts
comprises a small portion of overall economic activity, the
sector is a source of local jobs and non-mining sector hard
currency. Tourism in Zambia centers on game parks and
conservation areas, which cover about 8% of the country,
and include Victoria Falls, a world-famous waterfall.
Development challenges include high unemployment, lack
of roads and other infrastructure, a weak private sector, and
limited access to social services like education and health
care. In 2017, the Lungu administration launched a roughly
$27 billion 2017-2021 National Development Plan
centering on infrastructure projects, economic
diversification, and reductions in poverty and income
inequality. The plan also prioritizes public finance reforms,
private sector development, and communications reforms.
HIV/AIDS poses socioeconomic burdens, particularly as
HIV often affects those at the peak of their productive and
reproductive lives. The adult HIV prevalence rate, however,
has dropped gradually since peaking at 15.9% in 1998; it
stood at 11.5% in 2017 according to UNAIDS. Malaria is
another major public health challenge. The government has
made improved health care a core development goal, for
which it receives substantial U.S. assistance (see below).
Corruption, notably graft related to state expenditures and
contracts, is a major challenge; questionable spending has
reportedly contributed significantly to high debt levels. A
2019 Transparency International survey found that 66% of
Zambians view corruption as having risen over the prior
year and 70% view state anticorruption efforts as poor.
Chinese firms have invested heavily in mining in Zambia
and are involved in the construction and retail sectors,
among others. China’s government also provides
development aid and state-to-state loans. Some ChineseZambian credit and commercial transactions have
reportedly been opaque, and some loans have appeared to
exceed the nominal value of the goods or projects at issue.
Questions about these issues and other aspects of
commercial ties with China have spurred political
controversy and, in some cases, allegations that Chinese
loans have contributed to rising public debt and potentially
to corruption. Chinese firms’ labor practices have also
drawn fire, and pejorative views of China have featured in
political campaigns and discourse. In 2018, President
Lungu publicly referred to Chinese people as
“cockroaches”—but met with investors from China a day
later. As a candidate, the late President Sata harshly
criticized China, but after assuming power, his government
cooperated closely with that of China.
U.S.-Zambian center primarily on U.S. development aid
programs. In FY2018, $452 million in State Departmentand U.S. Agency for International Developmentadministered aid was appropriated for Zambia. Of this, 92%
supported health programs, primarily under the U.S.
President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the
President’s Malaria Initiative, as well as maternal and child
health, family planning, and reproductive health. Another
$36 million supported programs centering on good
governance, political competition, and civil society, water
and sanitation, basic education, agriculture, and
environmental sustainability. An International Military
Education and Training program received $0.4 million.
The State Department requested $440 million in FY2019
and $365 million for FY2020. (FY2019 country-level aid
allocations are not yet available.) Over 98% of such funding
would support health programs in both years. In FY2020,
$5 million would support wildlife anti-trafficking activity,
environmental conservation, small business growth, basic
education, and democratic governance—including
programs to aid the electoral process and reduce restrictions
on civil rights ahead of the 2021 elections. A longstanding
Peace Corps Program focuses on agriculture, education, the
environment, and health. Between 2012 and 2018, Zambia
also implemented a $354.8 million Millennium Challenge
Corporation compact. The compact supported water supply,
sanitation, and drainage projects.
Nicolas Cook, Specialist in African Affairs
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