Succession tensions are mounting in Zambia following the death of Michael Sata on 28 October. On 3 November, rioting broke out in Lusaka after interim president Guy Scott dismissed presidential front-runner Edgar Lungu as the ruling party’s secretary-general, forcing Scott to reverse the decision a day later. There remains a high risk of further violence as the country heads towards elections due in the next three months, particularly in Copperbelt and Lusaka. The outcome of the vote will have significant implications for the government’s relationship with mining companies and determine the extent to which Sata’s interventionist policies may be moderated.
The unrest marks the first incident of violence in what is likely to be a highly contentious election campaign. Immediately after the announcement of Lungu’s dismissal, rioters armed with stones, machetes and other weapons clashed with police in several locations in Lusaka, including the University of Zambia and Belvedere Lodge, which has been designated as a location for Sata’s mourners to gather. Police fired teargas into crowds and cordoned off several areas of the capital. Although the situation has since calmed, Scott appeared on state-owned radio on 4 November to announce he had reinstated Lungu, without providing an explanation.
Under the constitution, elections must be held within 90 days of Sata’s death, before which the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) will have to nominate a candidate. Sata’s tendency to promote factionalism within the PF has fuelled a succession crisis over the past year as the president’s health has deteriorated, resulting in the emergence of two principal factions. Scott is aligned with a left-wing faction promoting interventionist policies and the reform of the copper mining sector. Also in this faction is former defence minister and PF secretary-general Wynter Kabimba, who had been widely tipped as Sata’s successor. However, he was dismissed from high office in August, in what was seen as an attempt by the late president to reassert his authority.
The opposing camp, of which Lungu is a member, is led by led by Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda and is made up of members of the majority Bemba ethnic group. Chikwanda has previously denied he is interested in the presidency, and has indicated he would support the mayor of Lusaka, Mulenga Sata, who is also the son of the late president. However, this has received a lukewarm response from within the party, amid fears that it could lead to the emergence of a Sata dynasty. As such, Lungu and Chikwanda remain the most likely candidates to emerge from the Bemba faction.
Despite some media reports that the dismissal of Lungu reflects Scott’s own presidential ambitions, this currently appears unlikely. Under the constitution, Scott is barred from assuming the full office due to his Scottish parentage and he has repeatedly denied harbouring presidential ambitions. He is also understood to have previously turned down the position of acting president during Sata’s many trips overseas for medical treatment, allowing those responsibilities to go to either Kabimba or Lungu. It is more likely Scott hopes to assume a kingmaker role, and the dismissal of Lungu was probably an attempt to undermine the Bemba faction in favour of Kabimba. However, this now appears to have failed. With Kabimba increasingly side-lined and lacking a nationwide support base, the Bemba faction will likely prevail with either Lungu or Chikwanda as their candidate.
Irrespective of who secures the PF’s nomination, the party’s victory in the presidential by-election is by no means assured. The opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and United Party for National Development (UPND) have both made gains in recent months, with the UPND winning a local government seat in Copperbelt province in February. Copperbelt is vital to the PF’s re-election campaign, but resentment in the region is growing amid claims the party has failed to meet campaign pledges to improve living standards and take a tougher stance on mining companies. The opposition has exploited these concerns, with the UPND calling for a restoration of windfall tax on mining profits, and the MMD accusing the government of “incompetence” in its management of relations with mining companies.
As such, the PF now faces a highly contested election, which is currently too close to call while the party remains divided on its candidate. In the event that either Chikwanda or Lungu were to win the election, this would likely see a moderation in government rhetoric towards mining companies and a reversal of some of Sata’s interventionist policies. This could include an end to a dispute over some USD 600 mn of withheld VAT refunds to the mining industry, which has prompted several companies to scale back investment. If either Kamimba or Mulenga Sata lead the PF to the presidential election, their lack of a national support base means there is a strong risk they would lose, while their candidacy could also trigger rioting among Bemba factions in Copperbelt and Lusaka. A victory for the MMD as the next largest party could see some contract revisions for mining companies that have poor relations with the party, as has been common in previous transfers of power. However, the MMD has traditionally had closer relations with the mining sector, and this would likely result in a moderation of government policy and potentially some limited incentives to attract renewed investment in the sector.