Last Tuesday, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) scooped the Sesheke parliamentary by-election after defeating the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and two other opposition parties, namely, the United Prosperous and Peaceful Zambia (UPPZ) and People’ Alliance for Change (PAC). Previously held by the UPND’s Frank Kufakwandi, the Sesheke seat fell vacant after his death in November 2018. UPND candidate Romeo Kangombe polled 8,496 votes, followed by the PF’s Dean Masule who obtained 3,640 ballots. UPPZ’s Victor Kayukwa was third with 160 votes while PAC’s Charity Muhau earned her position at the bottom with 139 votes. Ahead of the 2016 general election, the constituency had 27,872 registered voters, out of whom 12,516 turned out to cast their vote in last week’s election. The result of the Sesheke by-election presents three important lessons.

First, the outcome of the poll demonstrates the enduring appeal of the UPND in the area and the need for political parties to pay significant attention to the candidates whom they adopt for parliamentary by-elections. Despite the PF’s pre-election claims of commanding some semblance of popularity in Sesheke, the truth is that the constituency has been a traditional power base for the UPND, which has held the seat since 2001 – except for the 2006-2011 period when it was won by the then ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), thanks largely to the Levy Mwanawasa factor. Such is the appeal of the UPND in Sesheke that in the 2016 election, Kufakwandi obtained 13,069 votes of the 16,009 total valid votes cast. His only rival, the PF candidate Sililo Namawa, received a paltry 2,940 votes. Earlier in 2011, Kufakwandi stood on the MMD ticket and lost to a UPND candidate. What this context shows is that anything other than a UPND victory in Sesheke would have been surprising. What also helped the main opposition party was the choice of their candidate for the by-election. Kangombe is a well-known community leader and an effective mobiliser who has lived in Sesheke throughout his life. Despite his youthful age, the 31-year-old (born on 27 December 1987) is already a household name and has initiated a number of community projects in the area that appear to have endeared him to the local population.

Long before the by-election, he used his personal resources to construct two community schools (which have since been handed over to the government and are now operational), bought a diesel-powered genset that services the local Yeta hospital, procured boats that locals use for river transportation, built toilets for use by pupils at Katima Mulilo school (where President Edgar Lungu held one of the PF’s main rallies during the campaigns), dug several boleholes to address the acute shortage of communal safe drinking water in Sesheke, and bought paint to refurbish Sesheke Secondary School and sections of the local police station. In addition, he is not entirely new in the UPND. In 2016, Kangombe finished a close second in the party’s primaries to Kufakwandi, demonstrating that he is a popular figure with the grassroots. The PF’s reported attempts to lure him into joining them represents an acknowledgement that their own candidate was weak and that they saw Kangombe as a formidable contender who would strengthen their chances of winning the seat.

In contrast, the PF candidate, Masule, is a little-known political nonentity who does not command much public support in Sesheke. A number of PF members I spoke to before the election expressed outrage that the central authorities in Lusaka had overlooked their desired candidate, Namawa, in preference to Masule, who only moved to the area recently. Had the ruling party settled on Namawa, and without the imported violence that infuriated many locals, the result might have been different. The result of the Sesheke poll suggests that voters are increasingly ‘local’ in their choices: settling for those who have lived and worked amongst them, whom they have a sense of connection with, whom they view as an embodiment of their daily struggles, can relate to and hold accountable, and a person they feel will most effectively represent their grievances and immediate concerns.

In other words, voters are increasingly looking for candidates who enjoy a genuine affinity with the area, an affinity that is supported by material and affective engagement with the place. Unlike urban constituencies, whose needs mainly revolve around middle-class concerns such as wages, taxation, jobs, housing and the constitution-making process, the needs of rural constituencies are simpler to meet but not as easy to identify and express in a campaign promise. It takes more than a campaign trip or speech to effectively articulate them. One has to live amongst such communities to understand their core concerns, tap into the less visible but important social ties or networks that are central in their communal realm, and to secure their trust. The Sesheke results reveal a politics that is locally contested in terms of its candidates and the key concerns of the electorate.

Second, the result of the Sesheke by-election demonstrates the limits and vulnerability of the PF campaign strategy. In rural constituencies where the government’s policy failures are more pronounced, the ruling party’s campaign strategy appears to rest on three central elements: extensive vote-buying or bribing the electorate with cash and other luxurious goods in exchange for support – a strategy that has previously proved effective in securing the backing of impoverished electors, especially those deprived of the knowledge of ‘Don’t Kubeba’; threatening voters that they will not receive development or tangible benefits from the state if they voted for the opposition (President Lungu made similar remarks in Sesheke, which in a country with an effective judiciary would have been sufficient basis for invalidating the results of the poll if petitioned); and employing the use of political violence to persuade the electorate to stay away, a development that mainly affects opposition supporters and makes it easier to manipulate the results due to the resultant low turnout. In Sesheke, this campaign strategy failed. Voters refused to be patronised, defied presidential threats that encourage a partisanship approach to development, and braved the coordinated violence to choose their preferred candidate. The PF’s poor reaction to the loss of Sesheke should be understood in this context: as a consequence of the realisation of the limitation and vulnerability of their previously reliable campaign strategy. The ruling party may be concerned that if other rural areas respond in a similar manner, then their days in power are numbered.

A possible reason why Sesheke voters may have been unimpressed by the PF’s campaign strategy (in addition to a weak candidate and the needless police brutality against the locals) is the noticeable evidence of the government’s policy failures, exemplified by the impoverishment of the district, especially when compared to neighbouring Katima Mulilo town in Namibia. The Sesheke-Livingstone road, for instance, which connects the constituency to the line of rail and is so central to the economy of the district, is littered with potholes, with wide sections missing and no prospects of an upgrade seemingly imminent. Motorists are often obliged to go off the road and into the bush. Another factor that might have undermined the PF’s campaign in Sesheke is the choice of their campaign team. The campaign leader, Kebby Mbewe, and his deputy, David Silolezya, are both based in Lusaka and have no established connections with the constituency or Western Province. Mbewe derives much of his prominence from membership to the PF Central committee, while Silolezya spent much time in the United States and only returned to Zambia recently when opportunities for accumulation became favourable under Lungu’s presidency. Their selection was ill-advised and reflects the party’s poor understanding of the demographics and local dynamics that are particular to the constituency.

The PF’s campaign strategy also failed to pay attention to the nuanced needs of Sesheke voters. A number of Sesheke residents I spoke to in the aftermath of the poll, some of whom disclosed that they voted for the UPND candidate in protest, repeatedly made reference to the same point: that they felt alienated by the PF campaign: “The PF came with hundreds of cars from Lusaka for the campaigns here. That is fine. What we did not appreciate was that they even imported drivers all the way from Lusaka when we have so many qualified and unemployed drivers here who could have been easily assigned those jobs for the duration of the campaign”. It is easy to downplay the significance of this point, but when one takes into account the fact that the unemployed local driver has an army of extended relatives behind them, over which they retain a considerable degree of influence, it is possible to understand how the importation of drivers into Sesheke may have alienated the PF from some voters.

The final lesson from Sesheke, one that is to be found in the events that followed the declaration of the result, is that the PF are bad losers. The reported dismissal in ‘national interest’ (edit to read ‘in the interest of PF and Edgar Lungu’, which is the opposite of national interest) of several police officers who beat up panga-wielding PF cadres, transported to Sesheke to cause mayhem, demonstrates the extent to which the ruling party had really wanted to secure victory in Sesheke. Before analysing the government’s response to the actions of the erring police officers and explaining why the PF appears to be so aggrieved with the loss of Sesheke, I must pause to condemn the police for beating PF supporters much in the same way that I have previously condemned their beating of supporters of the opposition. In fact, Inspector General of Police Kakoma Kanganja should take responsibility for his officers’ actions in Sesheke because he openly encouraged them on 9 February 2019 when responding to reports of heightened violence in the area: “As Zambia Police we have since reinforced our officers on the ground to deal with any further disturbances in [Sesheke]. I therefore call upon all police officers to ensure that they use proportionate force in ensuring that violence is brought to a stop”. The officers who battered unruly PF cadres may have been responding to this directive from their ultimate leader, though it appears that Kanganja forgot to clarify that the use of force was not to be extended to supporters of the ruling party. I consider it a form of betrayal for the Inspector General of Police to dismiss officers who, in an attempt to quell the violence in Sesheke, obeyed and gave expression to his orders.

The police’s brutalisation of PF supporters in Sesheke was unnecessary. Instead of beating cadres, the police are supposed to arrest perpetrators of violence (regardless of their political affiliation), put them in police cells and have them charged. If the police occupy themselves with beating cadres, be they PF or UPND supporters, then they have forgotten about the rule of law, joined the thuggish behaviour and established themselves as an independent gang of thugs. The problem of interparty violence then becomes a three-way war between the PF and the UPND and the police. Since the PF, in effect, control the police, the likely result of such a contest would be further erosion of public confidence in the police service. I do not however think that Lungu, Minister of Home Affairs Stephen Kampyongo and Kanganja care much about what the public thinks of the police as long as the latter are seen as doing the bidding of the executive arm of government and the ruling party. A fundamental part of corruption is corrupting the system, including the police, the judiciary, and other supposedly independent state institutions in order to legitimise wrong and even illegal actions.

By dismissing the erring police officers for the crime of beating PF cadres (when the previous brutality of opposition supporters has not attracted a similar response), the police command and the government have in effect warned that any police officer who does not support the interests of the ruling party will be dismissed. This attitude is likely to embolden the thuggish behaviour of PF cadres who now know that they can get way with any transgression committed in the name of the party. Here, we see that the whole system of following the law itself and observing the rule of law and the Constitution is a punishable offence. In other words, if the PF’s project is to destroy the instruments of governance, then anybody who stands in the way of that project is going to be penalised or disciplined. In this regard, the PF may have interpreted the actions of the police officers as partly responsible for their loss of Sesheke. By beating the rowdy PF cadres transported from Lusaka to wreak violence in the constituency, the police may have inadvertently foiled ruling party’s campaign strategy. What this preceding analysis does not provide is the response to one central question: why was the PF so desperate to win Sesheke? In my view, there are two reasons for this.

First, a victory in Sesheke, following the recent one in Mangango constituency (also in Western Province), would have given PF leaders a platform for inflating the party’s appeal in the region. Had they won the latest by-election, Lungu and the PF would have claimed national status and ascendant popularity. The defeat shredded that script. Second, establishing a reliable foothold in Western Province would allow Lungu and the PF to compensate for the possible loss of political support that they are likely to suffer in 2021 in some of their strongholds, especially the key Bemba-speaking constituencies in Luapula and Northern provinces. For instance, since the party’s founding in 2001, no province has given the PF more support at the ballot than Luapula. 2021 is likely to be different. Two former leading PF ministers with traces from the region have formed their own parties. Harry Kalaba, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs who hails from Luapula and now leads the opposition Democratic Party, and Chishimba Kambwili, the former Minister of Information who now leads the National Democratic Congress (NDC), will likely contest the presidential election and take away significant support from the PF in its traditional bases of the Copperbelt, Luapula and Northern provinces. Lungu and the PF may still win these constituencies overall, but with reduced margins, a development that is likely to benefit the UPND if the opposition party wins its traditional constituencies with huge margins.

Zambia’s political geography is such that to win a general election, a party normally needs to retain high level of support in its strongholds and avoid losing by large margins in areas that are traditionally loyal to their opponents. To ward off the threat posed by Kalaba and Kambwili ahead of 2021, Lungu and the PF are desperate to shore up their support in UPND strongholds. A victory in Sesheke would have represented a significant step in that direction and helped the party establish a respectable presence in the area ahead of the divisions that are likely to follow Lungu’s selection of his running mate in 2021(possibly the MMD’s Felix Mutati who is presently mobilising his party without any police interference that typically accompanies such efforts), since the Lozi-speaking Vice-President Inonge Wina, who hails from Western Province, has indicated that she might step down. It is also worth noting that it is much easier to manipulate the results of an election if a ruling party has clear appeal in the targeted area or constituency. It also of course helps if the police, and the Electoral Commission, are on the side of those trying to manipulate the outcome. The politicisation of the police, a crucial player in the conduct and credibility of any election, should be understood in this context: as part of a wider campaign by Lungu and the PF to turn supposedly independent state institutions into partisan arms of the ruling coalition. Zambia is entering a very dangerous phase of officially sanctioned intolerance, division and impunity. The violent circus currently coinciding with a partisan national leadership, the politicisation of the security forces and an economic slump shows no sign of abating. It will end in grief, great grief, for the country if WE do NOTHING!

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