The “welfare state” that seemed to emerge soon after independence in Zambia quickly turned into a system based on patronage. The ruling elite, far from being in charge of impartial redistribution, promptly became a machine of patronage. The politicoeconomic organization tended toward an extreme concentration of power in the hands of the architects of independence. It aimed at eliminating any potential opposition by way of the systematic co-optation of any leader with some importance, arbitrary arrests, and many other manipulations.
The regime was to set up a one-party state system from the first of January 1973, for “peace, progress, and stability.” President Kenneth Kaunda’s prerogatives became so extended that, for the most part, Zambian political life during this period was organized from the presidential palace. Kaunda transformed himself into an autocrat able to monopolize the distribution of the main resources; he incarnated both the supreme head whose munificence reinforced his legitimacy and the fickle leader with whom it would be particularly advisable not to fall into disgrace.
Many studies emphasize the manifest absence of merit-based criteria in official appointments, which were more than ever linked to loyalty bargaining. Continually increasing the number of his counselors, practicing a subtle game of musical chairs among his ministers so as to master them better, Kaunda asserted himself as the one orchestrating all power relations. Observers from this period consider that qualified political actors easily lost interest in their respective tasks at the head of governmental offices or nationalized companies, obsessed as they were with the factional game and their personal lot. The opposition, or what remained of it, was hardly worthy of credibility insofar as it did not have anything really solid to hand out. Everything seemed connected to the one-party state, of which one had to be a loyal supporter to obtain anything at all.
These dynamics proved to be functional for the stalwarts of the regime but equally for those holding the slightest bit of power, who often acted the role of crucial intermediaries. More precisely, this system was able to last as long as it remained possible to draw from the copper revenue to finance it. But the combination of the drop in prices from 1975 and a tendency to sacrifice economic capital for political favoritism was to gradually ruin Zambia. In spite of a considerable proliferation in governmental bodies, institutionalization was very limited. Relations remained extremely personalized, essentially linked with exchanges, be they of a nepotistic or clientelist nature.
Right to the end, Katinda proved to be little inclined to draw inferences from this alarming spiral. While the country’s indebtedness reached a disturbing level, for a long time he refused to call into question the subsidy of food products, one of the pillars of his popularity. The malfunctions, which were more and more evident from the beginning of the 1980s, were invariably attributed to the heritage from colonialism and to indiscipline. On the other hand, the purely internal logics of the decline were completely ignored. For many years, Kenneth Kaunda and his lieutenants could ascribe the internal difficulties to hindrances linked to the wars in Rhodesia, Angola, and Mozambique, but the independence of Zimbabwe (in 1980) and the evolution of regional conflicts no longer gave them leave to do it in such a convincing way. The ambiguous relations with South Africa and other neighbors, the pragmatic denial of foreign affairs displayed dogma were also to disconcert quite a number of the regime supporters.
From an ideological point of view, the 1980s were to appear very uncertain, characterized by many steps backward. At one time the president would seem to give in, a little reluctantly, to the neoliberal injunctions of the indispensable donors. At another time he would attack the capitalist structure and claim to be the advocate of scientific socialism (as in 1982), then of a national recovery program (after the 1987 break with the International Monetary Fund). However, with the economic and social situation constantly deteriorating (Zambia had one of the worst growth rates in the world), disillusion increased. The weak institutionalization of political power is the reason why the malcontents tended to personally attack the leaders and their representatives. The trade unions did not hesitate to denounce the practice of personal enrichment. As early as 1980, the government was compelled to introduce an anticorruption bill to its parliament, but faced with the rise in protests against the one-party state, the regime had to grow tougher while the great dogma did not seem to be respected anymore by its promoters.
Political violence has always prevailed in Northern Rhodesia and then in Zambia, one authoritarian system having succeeded another. However, Zambia was not going to reach the level of atrocity perpetrated by the most woefully bloody dictatorships of the continent. It must nevertheless be emphasized that the practice of torture seemed established under the Second Republic, along with all kinds of repressive practices that became more pronounced as the regime was contested. Generally speaking, the deprivation of freedom to opponents on all sides proved to be a weapon used very much by Kaunda.
Kaunda’s downfall was hastened by the extreme crisis of the redistribution system. If a non-negligible fraction of the population had originally benefited from Zainbianization and other such advantages, the combined effect of the fall in revenues, accumulated indebtedness, bad management of resources, and diverse misappropriations ended up ruining the prestige that the regime might have accumulated. A sort of general disillusionment settled in and grew stronger as hospitals lacked medicines and schools fell into decay. Unpaid salaries and retrenchments were synonymous with the rapid deterioration of means of subsistence. Even the purchasing power of those managing to maintain steady employment was brought down to reduced material wealth. A good deal of the population could not afford to eat properly, while the majority of town and city residents were exasperated by the desperately empty stalls and the endless queues that had to be endured in order to obtain food.
While average citizens increasingly resented Kaunda, so did the elite, who were often forced to undergo humiliations by Kaunda so as to retain their position. Although the president tried to divert the anger of the people toward the IMF and World Bank, his decline and overthrow seemed irreversible. Contrary to previous hunger riots that were tied to the doubling of the price of maize in 1990, Kaunda’s removal from office was driven by a focused and organized opposition. He fought to retain power, but was forced to make concession after concession under pressure from the populace, finally accepting the principle of multipartyism and free elections. The enormous gatherings of the new Movement for Multiparty Democracy must essentially be interpreted as a sign of exasperation mixed with disproportionate expectations, in line with the frustrations endured.
See also: Kaunda, Kenneth; Nkumbula, Harry Mwaanga; Zambia: 1991 to the Present.
Bratton, Michael. The Local Politics of Rural Development: Peasant and Party-State in Zambia, Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England, 1980.
Burdette, Marcia M. Zambia: Between Two Worlds, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988.
Chan, Stephen. Kaunda and Southern Africa: Image and Reality in Foreign Policy. London: British Academic Press, 1992.
Good, Kenneth. “Debt and the One-Party State in Zambia.” Journal of Modern African Studies 27, no. 2 (1989): 297-313.
Mwanakatwe, John M. End of Kaunda Era, Lusaka, Zambia: Multimedia, 1994.
Osei-Hwedie, Kwaku, and Muna Ndulo (eds.). Issues in Zambian Development. Boston: Omenana, 1985.
Tordoff, William (ed.). Administration in Zambia. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980.