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Zambia’s State of Democracy Assessment – lessons for others

Posted: 2011-08-30

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In the early 1990s Zambia successfully transitioned from being a one-party state to multi-party democracy. Since then, Zambia remains one of the very few Southern African countries to experience peaceful alternation of power between opposing parties. Zambia’s commitment to democracy can be seen by its willingness to subject itself to an African Peer Review Mechanism; and the engagement of citizens in the political process which, to give one example, prevented the then President Chiluba from amending the constitution in 2001 so he could seek a third term in office.

A State of Democracy Assessment using the methodology developed by International IDEA is another step to consolidate democracy. Conducted by the Department of Political and Administrative Studies of the University of Zambia and the Foundation for Democratic Process, the Zambia State of Democracy (SoD) Assessment is nearing completion and its draft conclusions and findings are being shared with key stakeholders at national and district levels.

A workshop arranged in Lusaka on 10 August 2011 looked at the major issues revealed during the assessment process. These include concerns about economic and social rights – which were considered by some to exist more in theory than in practice – and the lack of citizen access to justice, especially by the poor. Other issues discussed were the influence of donors on Zambia’s democracy and how this has trespassed on local ownership of the democratization processes. As for the participation of women in democratic processes, it was concluded that there is still significant room for improvement.

One of the participants at the Lusaka workshop commented that “The issues of democracy are delicate and that is why we need processes like this to keep us in check”. Hence, the assessment findings could contribute to defining pathways to improve the quality of Zambian democracy, including the inevitable process of building a new constitution.

Twenty years into the experience of multi-party democracy, the Zambian experience reminds us that democratic consolidation is an ongoing process that cannot happen in the absence of vigilance from the citizens. Citizen-led and owned democracy assessments, such as the ongoing Zambia SoD assessment process, are one way for citizens to periodically monitor the health of their democracy with a view to celebrating successes, while contributing to reform and strengthening weak areas.

Other countries could well learn from the Zambian experience. In North Africa, as the “Arab Spring” continues, citizen-led SoD assessments could provide a productive means of identifying reforms that enjoy broad support from the people. This is essential to entrench a democratic culture at all levels of society. Although media spotlight and donor initiatives are often short lived, democratization requires a long-term commitment from citizens in order to ensure political participation and popular control over decision-making.

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