Image Source: Salim Dawood/AFP/ via Getty Images, on PBS. US Vice President Kamala Harris and Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema.
President Joe Biden convened the second Summit for Democracy last month. This time, the U.S. government co-hosted the virtual event with regional partners, including the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia. The other three regional cohosts except Zambia are well-known liberal democracies. All of them are recognized as “free” countries by Freedom House and “full democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index—the United States is considered a “flawed democracy” by the same index. Such indices are only snapshots of their democratic governance, but offer valuable information for comparing different regimes. Costa Rica, for example, is one of the longstanding and most stable democracies in the Western Hemisphere. Zambia, on the other hand, is labeled as “partly free” by Freedom House and “hybrid regime” by the Economist.
The landlocked and resource-rich country in southern Africa gained independence from the British in 1964 and has functioned as nominal democracy since then. Zambia transitioned from a one-party state to a multi-party state in 1991, following several years under single-party rule. It was a landmark change for the country taking a step in the right direction. Still, the government is rife with corruption and the citizens do not enjoy a full range of civil liberties. As an example, there is a law in the country known as “the Defamation of the President Law” that imposes a sentence of up to three years in jail for any offensive remarks directed toward the president.
So, what makes Zambia worthy of not only being invited to the Summit for Democracy but also being selected as a model democracy that can represent the African region? Zambia was chosen as a co-host in part because it has made genuine strides towards improving its civil liberties, but also because it’s becoming an important strategic ally in the region for the United States.
In 2021—the same year Joe Biden was inaugurated and promised to restore democracy in America—in Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) won the presidential election, defeating the incumbent President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) party. That was the third peaceful transition of power in the history of Zambia. Zambian President Hichilema vowed to reverse his country’s erosion of democracy and good governance. He wrote an article entitled “In a Tough Time for Democracy, Zambia Stands Out” for the Wall Street Journal in 2022 in which he would commit to “freeing the media, empowering the opposition to campaign freely, respecting and entrenching the rights of Zambian citizens, and fighting corruption.” Among other things, he repealed the infamous defamation law discussed above. He is taking initiatives such as increasing accountability and transparency of the electoral process and expanding the Zambians’ right to the freedom of expression.
Washington also has a strategic motive for seeking to enhance its relations with Zambia. A New York Times article suggests that Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent visit to Zambia is to build a supply chain for raw materials essential for making electric vehicle batteries. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also visited the country in January this year. It also seems to be a part of the administration’s broader Sub-Saharan African strategy to counter the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. President Hichilema’s foreign policy also closely aligns with America’s strategic vision and Western values. Zambia voted for a UN resolution that condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while many of its neighbors including South Africa and Zimbabwe voted to abstain. Zambia under President Hichilema also sought to improve relations with the West while taking a more balanced approach toward Beijing, Zambia’s largest creditor. As civil wars and democratic decline continue to plague the region, Zambia appears to be a favorite contender for Washington to work with in advancing democratic values.
It’s not only Africa that suffers from the decline in democratic governance. The future of democracy worldwide is grim. Zambia offers a glimpse of hope. And the United States should help the Southern African country’s restored democracy to flourish. As President Hichilema repeatedly argued in his recent speeches and the recent op-ed article, “you cannot eat democracy.” Zambia was the first country to default during the pandemic in 2020 and seeks to reconstruct its debts with the help of both Chinese and Western creditors. His government needs to deliver tangible benefits of democracy to its people. In this regard, the U.S. government’s new initiative to help Zambia’s economy and social development is encouraging and it should continue to seek ways to strengthen the country’s democratic path.