What Nigeria, other African countries can learn from Zambian election – Musonda

Monica Musonda, a corporate lawyer-turned entrepreneur, is the founder of Java Foods, a Zambia-based food processing and consumer goods manufacturer. In this conversation with ZEBULON AGOMUO, she shares her views on the political situation in Zambia. Musonda also talks about the political developments, high expectation of the people, lessons other African countries could learn from the defeat of a sitting government; the youth factor in the election, among others. Excerpts:

Congratulations on the successful inauguration of a new government in Zambia. Could you please let us have a feel of what transpired in Lusaka that day?

First of all, it has been a long road but this is not the first transition Zambia has gone through. This is the third successful transition of government, but what was significant about this election was the huge voter turnout. The youth really exercised their right to vote and came out in numbers to vote. Most Zambian elections are characterised by huge voter apathy – this one was different. My 84-year-old father voted on that day and he remarked the last time he saw such huge crowds was in 1991, when Zambians voted Kaunda after 27 years. So, just being in the line waiting to vote everyone knew change was coming.

Actually, you mentioned the youth support; we read about the youth support that helped Hakainde Hichilema clinch victory; you were in Nigeria for a long time and you must have also witnessed a number of elections while here; how would you describe the part the youth played in the Zambian election, vis-a-vis what you may have witnessed here?

I think what we have to appreciate is that the majority of our population on the continent, Nigeria not exclusive, are youths below the age of 35. Many of them are out of school, cannot find jobs, access to opportunities and are now demanding for a better future. I think now the youth realised they have a voice, can influence change and if they do not get involved their situation will not change. We watched in amazement at the impact of #EndSARS protests in Nigeria and were encouraged how everyone stood with unity of purpose. Of course, we prayed for a better outcome but I think it was a significant time in Nigeria’s history. So, I think the question is whether the political system allows the voices of the people to be heard. I think in Zambia, we saw that the system did and this was how we were able to bring about change.

Read Also: Nigeria’s 2023 election and the challenge from Zambia

Actually, this was not the first time we have seen a sitting president lose an election; we saw that in Nigeria in 2015; we saw that in America last year, but what does this development mean for democracy not only in Zambia but in Africa as a whole?

I think the significance of this election is two-fold; firstly, that as an incumbent it doesn’t matter what you do and how you try to stifle dissenting voice – when it is time for change, change will happen. If I think of Zambia in particular, we saw that the former Government did everything in their power to create an unfair environment during the run-up to elections. This is not just my opinion, but also the opinion of several of the observer missions that were stationed in Zambia before, during and after the elections. For instance, the ruling Government banned political rallies (stating that they were super spreader events during these COVID times) but they continued visiting all areas of the country claiming they were inspecting project. They did not give opposition parties access to the media, prevented access to certain areas of the country (in particular their strongholds), held up opposition campaign materials at the borders and threatened them with arrest on many occasions. In fact, on the day of actual voting they shut down the internet. You can imagine the uproar from the people! But despite of one hand tied behind his back, President Hichilema still managed to win the election by a landslide.

Secondly, what is important is that Zambia has (somewhat) strong institutions which allowed for the change and I think for democracy to thrive, you need independent strong institutions which can function as per their mandate regardless of who is in power. Another thing I want to say, it’s not about how long you are in opposition. President Hichilema was in opposition for almost 14 years; he contested six elections and he won the sixth one; so, it was not about how long he stood and how many failures, but consistency of his message, understanding what the people need and want and the timing. Of course, he was helped by the fact that the economy was in tatters with Government defaulting on International debt, very high inflation, negative growth and corruption. People just had enough!

One would have thought that Edgar Lungu who had deprived opposition the right to campaign in certain places would have rolled out the tanks and refuse to accept defeat; but why was it that he accepted defeat and what do you think made him to just throw in the towel without a fight?

Well actually we did see some resistance. Two days after we voted, when the results started coming in from across the country (and after seeing many of his cabinet ministers lose their parliamentary seats), he could see he was losing and he issued an interesting (ill-advised) statement claiming that the elections were not free and fair, particularly in the opposition strongholds. It appeared that he wanted to prevent the Electoral Commission for releasing the results but he had no authority to do so. By Sunday night, with all parties doing their own voter tally it was obvious that President Hichilema had won by a landslide and he had no choice but to concede. Another very strong point is the role of the leaders in the region – all of them value peace and security. And I think a number of the leaders in the region were in touch, and were speaking with the former president to encourage him to do the right thing.

Read Also: Zambian election: How hunger, debt burden cost Lungu return bid

Now that election and the processes are over, what do you think is the major yearning of the Zambian people today, and the expectation from the Hichilema administration?

There are huge expectations and it’s going to be tough. He has a lot of work to do given the current state of affairs. I think the first priority is really economic stability, coming out of a situation of very high debt, low productivity, low growth, high inflation (the highest inflation ever in the last twenty years). There was an excellent picture of a graduate who went to vote in his graduation gown, because he had left university four years earlier and had failed to get a job, so he voted for better opportunity for himself. We’re looking for better education, better health facilities, lower cost of living. We’re looking also, very importantly, looking at this Government to fight rampant corruption that was associated with the former Government.

For the process to be free and fair to a large extent that produced the new president, it means that even the Commission that handled it was transparent. Could you please tell us the process of appointing electoral officers; is it exclusively done by the president or the parliament in Zambia?

I have to be honest; I don’t know the exact details of how they are appointed. However, I would think that the appointing authority would be the President and then they would be ratified by the parliament. The last parliament was majority Patriotic Front (the former ruling party) so they controlled the appointments. All eyes were on the Commission to perform and the then opposition really put them under pressure – calling them out on procedure, on delays in announcing results and protected their votes at polling stations by making sure their officials were stationed at all polling stations around the country witnessing the counting.

We have issue of election rigging in Nigeria starting even on the day of election, where voters will be given some form of bribe right at the polling units where they are going to vote. Did you witness any of such in the last election in Zambia?

Oh yes – but most people know to take the free food, t-shirts and sometimes money but know that their vote is private and they can vote as they please. But I must say rigging does not manifest itself in just bribes. I believe that it’s a little bit more sophisticated now. We see governments tampering with voters registers to reduce the numbers in opposition strongholds, giving national IDs to foreign nationals and getting them to vote, buying of voters’ cards, buying the opposition candidate so he/she does not file in nomination papers on time or holding elections when you know people are planting crops (no one has time to sit 8 hours in a line). These are just some examples – not Zambia-specific too. But I think the fact is that when people want change, they will get up and vote; I myself lined up for six hours to exercise my right to vote. In some constituencies people waited in line until 10pm to cast their vote. It was time!

If someone walks up to you now and say, in three words, how would you describe the Zambian economy, what would you say?

I think the first word in my mind would be resilient. We are hopeful to unlock opportunities now.

The second one sadly would be debt. So, a lot of the development in Zambia has been funded by unsustainable amounts of debt and we have to really figure out how to finance the economy going forward.

Lastly, mining. The way you talk about oil is how we talk about mining; mining drives this economy, and any policy that’s going to encourage growth, will have to include a discussion about how we can extract value from the mining sector.

Mining of Copper I guess?

Not just copper, but obviously Copper being the largest one. We do have a lot of other minerals as well.

In Nigeria, a lot of illegal mining activities are going on and government is losing a lot of revenue from there. How is the situation in Zambia?

In recent times, especially in the run up to the elections, we saw an increase in illegal mining activities. I think it was done for political mileage. There was just no political will to effectively deal with it. The reality is to run a successful mining operation takes a lot of capital, expertise and access to markets. I think in the short term we need to encourage growth of industries around mining – from supply of additives/concentrates to distribution for example. This could help address illegal mining. But you have to really be brave enough to enforce the law, and that is not just Nigeria, or Zambia even South Africa. But it’s about the political will to really enforce the law.

There must be some lessons for the rest of Africa, because it is said that there had been about 27 leadership changes in Africa since 2015; do you have any word of advice for Africa as a continent?

I think leadership is key and we cannot sit here as Africans and think by sheer luck things will be different for each of our countries. If we do not choose the right leaders and not only just at presidential level, in our Parliaments; at local government, at every level. We do need to get involved. I think all too long we have just left it to the politicians. We have seen what good leadership has done elsewhere. Rwanda is a perfect example of leadership which has been focused; I mean, it’s not without its flaws and problems but you saw Rwanda 25 years ago, and tell me where they are today, because they’ve had a leader who is fundamentally focused on key things. So, but it cannot happen without our involvement, active questioning and active participation.

Increasingly in Nigeria, the court, rather than the electoral Commission, appears to be determining the results of the elections; what do you think about such a process?

It is very difficult you know, because of the way it is set up in many of our countries. I mean, it is your right to petition; if you see there was fraud or there was undue bias, it is your right. And what we need to do is make sure we deal with those biases or you find a way to eliminate them before you get to the poll. In Zambia, we’re not seeing as many petitions; I think where you see that there’s a lot of loopholes in legislation, you’re seeing a very weak electoral system, that’s when you see a lot of petitions, but if the electoral system is able to get rid of some of these problems before you vote, then you’ll get limited petitions.

Another thing is to really force people to petition in a period of time; so people don’t wake up one morning, four months later. it’s critical you must petition within seven days and the court must rule in two to three weeks, and at that stage; maybe, if it’s so grave, the courts can actually ask the Electoral Commission to allow for an election in that region or another round in that region.

We read that some people had to drag Lungu to court to stop him from contesting again. But it would appear that the people believe Hichilema will change a lot of things, not being a career politician. What level of hope do you have in Hichilema as president?

First of all, on the first one about taking Lungu to court, he came to power when one of our presidents died, and he finished that president’s term, then won his own term in 2016 and the Constitution says you cannot run twice for president. And the people who took him to court asked the court to state that he was ineligible because he had already stood twice. The court in their own wisdom ruled that he was eligible.

I think we are willing to bank on someone who has not been a career politician; someone who wears a different lens sees things slightly differently. I think the question yet to be seen as you know is how he will manage all the social issues. But the most part I think what we’re willing to do in Zambia is now, try a different approach for a better result. So, I think we are optimistic; we recognised he is a very disciplined person; we are hoping for a very disciplined team, and people who will focus much more on the people’s agenda and not on their self-agenda.

Whenever a new government or a new administration comes on board, there is this euphoria, but experience has shown that over time, the expectations do not match the delivery. So, what do you think the Zambians would do just in the short term; because I know that they do not have the patience to wait for too long?

I think the first thing you’re going to see is the number of seats held by the party will begin to diminish, and people don’t want to vote for them; And then the second thing will be that now they have found their voice; I think people are saying that if you do not work, we just can go back to the poll, and get rid of you too. I really hope that would actually be the case. I think if people do not deliver we don’t need to wait 10 or 20 years to get them out.

How effective is the rule of law in Zambia, you have been in Nigeria and can tell the story of Nigeria when it comes to how the rule of law works here. Could you attempt a comparison of what happens in Zambia, vis-à-vis Nigeria?

I think, the rule of law exists in both of these countries, but I think what you asked about is the implementation or the selective implementation. So, in fact, you’ll find that Nigeria and Zambia, and given our common law background are very well legislated but we see the selective application of many pieces of legislation. What remains important is active civil society, such as, Legal/Bar associations who do comment and really do question a number of things that our governments do and we need to see much more of that.

In Nigeria, one of the issues that people are not happy about is the high cost of nomination forms and expression of interest forms and all that. Some women who are in politics are crying out that they are being marginalised because they may not be able to afford the high costs. Do you have an idea of what the situation is in Zambia and how do you think we can deal with that?

It’s an excellent question about inclusive politics, because we cannot speak about inclusive politics without having more women on the ballot, and in our Parliaments, senates, etc. So exactly, the same problems you have in Nigeria about this we have in Zambia. It’s a fact that women are being left behind, at every level, at the council level, at the federal level, in the parliaments and senate mainly due to discrimination during nomination process, high nomination fees and high campaign costs.

So, if you are not coming from a large party, or if you do not have personal funds available to you, you are very unlikely to then go forward. In fact, for us in Zambia, we saw a reduction in the number of female candidates this year because of the high costs, and secondly, because of the way in which the political environment had disintegrated. It was very violent.

The youths are clamouring for power shift, and they are also complaining that they are not being given that opportunity. But you know, power is not just dashed out, people struggle for it. Was there any such thing in the last election in your country?

Yes this is true. Of course, the youth must be given more opportunity but in some instances what is needed are more experienced hands. I mean, for certain critical positions, you need experience, but I think we need to find a way to include them, but also we really need to focus on really changing their opportunities, their lives, people agitate when they have nothing to do. You really need to get them busy and then get them organised, when you organise better, it’s much easier to include you in the political system. So yes, it’s a hard one and it can be a headache, because if not well managed, it can be your downfall, ask Lungu that question, he knows now.

In Nigeria there is what we call power shift; a gentlemanly agreement reached in 1998 that power will rotate between North and South. I wouldn’t know if any semblance of rotational presidency exists in Zambia?

It doesn’t exist and I actually congratulate Nigeria for such foresight. We know we come from countries which have been put together by former colonial masters and we have many, many different ethnic tribes and backgrounds. Clearly, Nigeria understood its dynamics. We have something very similar in Zambia where 73 tribes, and only two or three of these tribes have consistently ruled Zambia. Where President Hichilema comes from, they have never ruled and people used to say they would never rule but it has come to pass.

But I think, what we have also realised is that the country is very polarised. It is very divided along these different ethnic and tribal divisions, and therefore, we have to find a way to unify the country. President Hichilema has already stated that he is going to have an inclusive cabinet type with qualified professionals/politicians from all across the country.

When you were here, you probably were reading and hearing about killings, abductions and all that, which have continued to happen. What is your prayer for Nigeria, as the country prepares for a new round of national election?

I think my prayer really is that you have the political will to deal with this. Nigeria cannot, as one of the leading countries on this continent, have a situation where its people are abducted continuously in one region of the country, and the problem continues to persist.


Corporate lawyer-turned entrepreneur, Monica Musonda is the founder of Java Foods, a Zambia-based food processing & consumer goods manufacturer. Java Foods vision is to become a leading branded food company in Southern Africa whose brands are synonymous with high quality, good value and nutrition. She is one of the few Zambian women involved in manufacturing at a scalable level.

Monica is a dual qualified English solicitor and Zambian advocate with over 16 years post qualification experience. She has held senior positions in private practice with Clifford Chance & Edward Nathan as well as worked as in-house corporate counsel at International Finance Corporation and for the Dangote Group. Her experience working with Aliko Dangote, one of Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs, gave her the impetus to start Java Foods.

Monica currently serves as non-executive director on several boards including Airtel Networks Zambia Plc & Zambian Breweries (where she is chair) and Arcelor Mittal South Africa Plc. She is the recipient of the 2017 African Agribusiness Entrepreneur of the Year award, which is an award conferred annually to entrepreneurs who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in agricultural input and value addition in Africa. She is a 2013 Young Global Leader (World Economic Forum) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow. Forbes Magazine and Africa Investor named her as one of the leading Young Power Women in Business in Africa in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

When she is not manufacturing food, she speaks at several conferences on entrepreneurship, women empowerment and the role of business in the Global Nutrition agenda. She is passionate about food and is trying to get her running shoes back on.

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