Zambia wades into succession morass

2014-11-14

On Thursday 13 November, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) convened a landmark Central Committee meeting to elect a new candidate in preparation for the country’s presidential elections.

This follows the passing of Zambian President Michael Sata on 28 October 2014, a development that temporarily thrust the country into political uncertainty. As per its constitution, Zambia is to hold a presidential by-election on or before 28 January 2015 following the death of the president.

Vice-President Guy Scott was appointed as acting president by the cabinet under the advice of Attorney-General Musa Mwenye. According to Mwenye, the previous acting president, Edgar Lungu, was no longer qualified to act in that capacity.

Lungu had been appointed by Sata and is the country’s minister of justice and defence, as well as the PF secretary general. What followed was widespread rebuff against Scott’s appointment. It was argued that, at the time of Sata’s demise, Lungu had already been appointed as the interim president and that, as per the Constitution, Lungu’s powers could only be revoked by the president who had appointed him, or by a newly elected head of state.

The late president had effectively banned open discussion around his succession

It seemed that Scott’s appointment was based on an exclusive interpretation of a constitutional provision, namely Article 38. This provides for the vice-president to perform the functions of the president in his absence, without considering the powers of an appointed acting president as per Article 39. This article states that an elected substantive president – and not the vice-president – is the only person who can remove the authority of the person left to discharge the functions of the office of the presidency. The transfer of power to Scott has now been legally challenged, and is before the High Court.

Notably, Scott was never allowed to act as president under Sata due to a parentage clause under Article 34 of the Constitution – as Scott’s parents were not born in Zambia. Nonetheless, Scott had been made interim president of the PF, upon which he immediately dismissed Edgar Lungu as party secretary general. Scott later reinstated Lungu after the dismissal triggered riots in the capital, Lusaka.

Lungu, who declared his sacking illegal, is now at the centre of a succession battle along with other aspirants such as Mulenga Sata, son to the late president; his nephew, Miles Sampa; Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba – who resigned as defence minister in 2013; and Youth and Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili, who claims he started the PF with Sata.

Succession dynamics of this nature are not new in Zambian politics, as this would be the second time in six years that Zambia holds a presidential by-election following the death of an incumbent. The circumstances surrounding the current succession are somewhat similar to those that unfolded after the country’s third president, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, died in 2008.

When Mwanawasa left for Egypt for an African Union (AU) meeting in 2008, where he finally met his fate, then defence minister George Mpombo is said to have been the last senior cabinet minister to have seen the president off at the airport. Mpombo claimed that he was instructed to act as president, by implication also for the required 90-day period within which a presidential by-election would be held. The vice-president at the time, Rupiah Bwezani Banda, was out of town. This created confusion in and outside the then ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) as to who was left with the instrument of power.

There is also the possibility of a PF implosion after the Central Committee nominations

Mpombo’s claims were dispelled by a Government Gazette notice, which clearly stated that vice-president Banda was to act as interim president. At the time, then finance minister Ng’andu Magande also alleged that he was the late president’s anointed and preferred candidate.

But Banda’s team prevailed and made him acting president until a by-election was held in October 2008 after intense jostling for power within the MMD.

The current succession dynamics within the PF are similar, although the PF party was largely personality based and centered on the leadership of the late president, who had effectively banned open discussion around his succession. This is important in the context of the ensuing presidential by-election, since the Zambian Constitution does not allow independent candidates to run, but only those sponsored by a political party.

While the dust is yet to settle over the acting president conundrum, the succession debate within the PF has also escalated, arguably threatening unity within the party. Distinct camps are now visible within the PF. Ostensibly leading the camps are Lungu, Sampa (the late Sata’s nephew), Kambwili (the youth and sports minister), Mulenga Sata (the late president’s son) and the mayor of Lusaka, Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba. Mwamba is popularly known as GBM and he is from the so-called ‘cartel,’ under the tutelage of former PF secretary general, Wynter Kabimba, who was fired by the late president in September this year. The cartel is a PF faction believed to be non-Bemba dominated, with an interest to have a non-Bemba president.

There is also the possibility of a PF implosion after the Central Committee nominations. Scott has already issued a condition to aspiring candidates that they first relinquish their party positions to be eligible for the presidential contest: a move seen as a snare for Lungu and also meant to help build a majority for the ‘cartel,’ which Scott supports in the Central Committee. Scott will have leverage to appoint people in the ensuing vacancies within the party. However, the possibility of Scott also contesting the election cannot be ruled out, especially since legal voices (for instance from the Law Association of Zambia) are suggesting that he is eligible to contest.

Historically, voting patterns have been determined by regional, ethnic and tribal loyalties

The other factor will be a tribal and regional one. Historically, voting patterns have been determined by regional, ethnic and tribal loyalties. As such, political party strength also depends on the regional, ethnic and tribal loyalties they command. The PF succession and the presidential race itself revive the political contest between the Bemba – historically perceived as the most culturally and politically assertive group in Zambia – against the Tonga, Ngonis and Lozis.

There are debates that a Bemba should not succeed Sata, who was Bisa – one of the ethnic groups under the Bemba-speaking people – as the party will increasingly be seen as a Bemba party, a label it wants to shake off for broader appeal. Sampa, Kambwili, and Mwamba are all Bemba.

Conversely, those who support Lungu, who is from the Eastern Province and a tribal cousin to Sata, argue that he would create a national character for the party, as he would unite the Bemba and Ngoni-Chewa groups. However, people from other regions in Zambia feel it will be an ill representation for an ‘eastern’ or a ‘northern’ candidate to succeed Sata, since it implies that there are no suitable and capable candidates in the party from other regions.

This is especially because the northern and eastern regions have produced presidents before such as Kaunda, Chiluba and Banda. Tribal and regional politics will therefore resurface strongly during and after the PF nomination process, and in the build-up to the elections.

Other questions worth considering in the aftermath of the nominations are how party members will relate to each other based on who wins. How would Lungu, for example, if he wins the presidential nomination, relate to Scott and so-called cartel members – and vice versa?

Whether the PF will go into the presidential race united or divided – and how this will affect the chances of presidential aspirants from the opposition, including the MMD and the United Party for National Development (UPND) amongst others – remains to be seen.

Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria and McDonald Chipenzi, Executive Director Foundation for Democratic Process, Zambia

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