Zambia celebrates peaceful transfer of power after elections

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Supporters of Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema remove campaign posters of Zambian President Edgar Lungu from street poles in Lusaka, Zambia, Monday Aug, 16, 2021. Hichilema has won the southern African country's presidency after taking more than 50% of the vote. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

LUSAKA – Business quickly returned to normal in Zambia Tuesday, a day after veteran opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was declared president-elect and the incumbent president Edgar Lungu conceded his election defeat.

Citizens brushed aside concerns of violent chaos that had been prevalent in the tense days before and after voting day last week. Traffic was busy in the capital, Lusaka, while businesses and markets reopened.

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Many residents are still marveling at the southern African country's rapid return to normal.

When Aahil Phiri saw a convoy of police and military vehicles zoom toward Hichilema’s residence, he didn't know what to make of it.

“I thought ‘Oh my God, they're going to arrest him again!’ Then I thought ‘No, they can’t arrest him using those luxury cars. That’s not how they took him in the past,’” he said. “I was confused.”

But the convoy was carrying security commanders going to pledge allegiance to Hichilema, the man who had been arrested several times and once charged with treason.

Several other low-ranking police officers had already taken their place at Hichilema’s palatial residence on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka, to be in charge of security for the 59-year old businessman turned politician.

Zambia has established a reputation as one of Africa's stable democracies, with regular elections and peaceful transfers of power since founding president, the late Kenneth Kaunda, introduced multi-party democracy and subsequently accepted defeat in 1991.

However, fears of a reversal of those gains emerged recently as Lungu closed some media houses and detained critics, such as Hichilema.

Lungu had deployed military onto the streets and had signaled that he would contest the results in which he lost by a large margin to Hichilema. But hours later he conceded, even calling Hichilema “my brother.” Later the two rivals were pictured together, smiling.

Zambia's peaceful transition from one leader to another, from one political party to another “is a major shot in the arm for democracy not just in Zambia but well beyond its borders,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham.

“Along with Malawi, Zambia is now one of the only countries in the world that managed to move towards democracy during the pandemic,” he told The Associated Press, referring to the neighboring country where an opposition leader was also recently elected.

“As a result, Africa is leading the way when it comes to good news stories — and that will inspire activists and pro-democracy groups across the continent,” said Cheeseman, who was in Zambia to follow the elections.

Zambia has “shown the world that after all, Africa is capable of handling its own affairs,” tweeted Ernest Bai Koroma, former president of Sierra Leone, who led the African Union's mission observing the elections.

Opposition supporters in Zimbabwe, Zambia's southern neighbor, are watching enviously.

"I salute the Zambian army, police, intel (intelligence) and the electoral commission for the exemplary professionalism and independence. Africa leads! Zimbabwe, you are next,” tweeted Nelson Chamisa, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader. Zimbabwe has a history of disputed polls and the same party has ruled the country since it achieved independence in 1980.

Some analysts are cautious though, noting that unlike some African countries, Zambia’s institutions have a history of respecting vote outcomes.

In the meantime, Zambians are just happy that the country’s democracy has passed a stern test.

“This is the Zambia we want, the Zambia we know!" said Gift Nyirongo, one of scores of street vendors who are again out on Lusaka’s busy streets selling everything from food to clothes, kitchenware and medicines. "We can now start looking for money to feed our families without fear of bloodshed.”

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