An ideal city to discuss electoral democracy

by Nick Kotch
Monday, 27 June 2016 09:55 GMT

By any yardstick, Lusaka is an ideal African city to discuss the state of electoral democracy.

Leaving aside its friendliness, security and temperate climate, the Zambian capital was a natural choice to host a Thomson Reuters Foundation course on “Reporting Elections”.

Zambia was in the vanguard of African countries to move with changing international times in the early 1990s when the abrupt end of the Cold War changed the political equation across most of the world and particularly in Africa.  Suddenly, multi-party elections, genuine parliaments and independent media were must-haves for all but a handful of governments.  Western donors and U.N. agencies pretty much insisted on the transformation even when it was only a skin-deep one.  Leaders who had grown used to being rubber-stamped back into office for decades were chased out of their palaces without ceremony. Even benign fathers of the nation like Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda were shown the door, as “KK” was in 1991, waving his trademark white handkerchief. (For the record, time has been kind to Mr Kaunda, a nonagenarian in remarkably good health who is respected at home and whose advice on governance remains in considerable demand abroad).

Looking back at the 25 years since Kaunda’s exit, there have been economic and political upheavals aplenty in copper-rich Zambia. But it seems to be coping with the stress of change better than most countries and an arresting feature is how regularly Zambians have gone to the polls and accepted the outcomes, however questionable they believed them to be.

Zambia is already on its fifth president since KK, not counting the brief and interim stewardship of Guy Scott, a super-rare phenomenon in Africa – a white politician. The incumbent, Edgar Lungu, will try to extend his mandate later this year after his 2015 victory with the lowest turn-out in the democratic era and with the kind of wafer-thin margin that might have provoked mayhem in many other countries, in or out of Africa.

In Zambia, life just goes on. In our workshop, led by Reuters correspondent Matt Bigg with me, a former colleague, there was little talk of the past. It was more about political funding, planning coverage, social media, spin doctors and apps to calculate percentages (like turnouts and shares of the vote) at the speed of sound. The lack of a clear debate about issues and policies – what do the parties actually believe in? – was depressingly familiar but the 12 participants, from state media or private, said they were committed to the search for real stories despite the weak finances in all their newsrooms.

“My one wish for Zambian media would be that we specialise more – we all have to do everything that comes up, from politics to sport,” said Paul Shalala, a reporter with the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation based in Kitwe in the heart of the copperbelt region.

Freelancer Reginald Ntomba criticised the passivity of too many Zambian journalists, saying they should dig deeper and cultivate expert sources.

“There’s still too much focus on the minister who opens a workshop or the president who cuts a ribbon. Yet there are real stories everywhere, about the beautiful new hospitals that have no staff or the brand-new police station whose doors are yet to open,” he said.

A special thanks to Geoffrey Phiri of Zanis (Zambia news and information services), the furthest-flung participant who valiantly signed up for two marathon bus journeys and an overnight stop en-route to Lusaka from his base in Kaputa district, 1,200 kilometres to the north. He was philosophical when he prepared for the return journey.

That’s what I call commitment to the journalistic cause.