…Lessons for Lesotho’s 2022 polls
In September 2022, Lesotho will hold general elections. In 2017 when the Kingdom had its last polls, Basotho knew what they wanted; they wanted Change.
Basotho wanted to see their country develop, poverty eradicated and jobs created, especially for youth and the country just at peace with itself.
However, the result of 2017 was never really what the people voted for, leaving much still desired.
I had an opportunity to observe the Zambian elections together with colleagues in the region fighting for accountability and transparency. It is during this brief time in Zambia that one got immersed closely into their political economy as they undertook the exercise of electing their new administration.
In its 12 August Presidential elections, Zambians had quite a different feel as they like the whole world was battling to contain spread of the Coronavirus while they had to adjust to the new normal of smaller crowds of people to minimize the rate of infection. Amid campaigns starting 90 days before the polling day, people had to understand the political campaign messages without the normal massive political rallies that go with pomp and fanfare known to accompany these times.
Nevertheless, one thing that was clear for Zambians taking to the polls is that they wanted change. And change they got, at least the majority did.
It was tricky voting for this much desired “Change” let alone defining what it really was. But it boiled down to “…we are tired of the Patriotic Front Edgar Lungu corrupt regime”, one voter said.
Leading up to the elections, the eve of Election Day was quite serene, very calm one would not tell they were going for polls the very next day. The general mood was not at all tense, even with the dispatch of the military around the country in strategic locations.
This was the first time according to locals that the military was dispatched into the streets ahead of elections in a long while, a move by President Lungu that attracted much criticism.
One commendable thing about the military however was its discipline, quite different from the impression that Basotho had with their military, but with the help of the region much has changed as the army can once again be referred to as “the Trust of the People”.
It was quite evident that Zambians would do anything democratic to attain the change they longed for by exercising their right to vote. At one polling station at Vera Chiluba Primary School in Hellen Kaunda, polling officers told us voters arrived at the voting station from as early as 02.00 am. This was to ensure that they get the opportunity to cast their votes and of ‘course evade the ensuing queues as the sun rose.
These voting stations used a very different approach from what Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission does by separating voters by their gender- with males on one side and females on another. This was to work the queues faster.
By 09.00 am, the queues were extremely long; I mean this country boasts over 7 million registered voters, different from our 1 million.
Corruption is a very tricky and slippery issue in many countries because it manifests itself in very different forms and shapes. Being from Lesotho, corruption looks very obvious all around from the lack of development ranging from potholed roads, basic to no bridges to dilapidated buildings. Many of those who had enough of Lungu PF government complained of corruption that impoverished many in different sectors and benefitted the elites.
But coming into the country, seeing newly built huge bridges and buildings and hearing from people that had visited Zambia two years back talk of the impressive developments that had happened in those two years, it was hard to grasp the widely talked off corruption.
Each to his own I guess, “The shoe burns the owner”. But the people still complained of the abuse of public office for private gain by Lungu’s administration hence they felt he had to make way for a better candidate.
Internet governance, digital rights, and media rights and freedoms organizations in Zambia have tools to monitor internet shutdowns in the country and the subsequent implications of such actions.
The partial shutdown of the internet gradually started a few days before the Election Day targeting specific platforms; jamming websites and social-media platforms throttling and filtering, mainly to restrict the amount of information that can be accessed and/or shared. This is something that has become a trend in Sub-Saharan Africa impeding freedom of expression and the very essence of democracy.
These came at the backdrop of promises made by the presidency that there would be no internet shut down.
The turn of events did not come as much of a surprise though because of the fast-tracking of the cyber security and cybercrime laws as they essentially give Information and Communications Technology regulator the power to direct network providers to switch off the internet whenever they think there is a threat to them or the presidency.
Similarly in March this year, the government of Lesotho introduced the draconian Computer Crime and Cyber Security Bill of 2021 and gazette the Communications subscriber identity module and device registration regulations 2021.
This was met with a lot of criticism both from the general public and the civil society due to the risks of undermining citizens’ human rights and livelihood. These laws both seek to silence critics of the government and criminalize online freedom of expression.
The internet has been crucial in making elections credible, transparent, and accountable because of participation and the scrutinization of the electoral process.
Technologically advanced countries like Zambia use models such as the Netblocks Cost of internet shutdown estimator that estimates the economic impact of internet disruption if people cannot transact on the internet or send money through mobile money applications. Zambia for one hour of internet shutdown had lost over 200, 000 million dollars according to Chief Executive Richard Mulonga of Bloggers of Zambia- an independent enterprise working in internet Governance and Digital Rights.
VPN –an arrangement whereby a secure, apparently private network is achieved using encryption over a public network was widely used in order to maintain an online presence. But this is a luxury that was highly criticized as not every single member of the populace could afford to have one installed.
Local Media Coverage
While the Zambia media industry is challenged as with many across the continent, from an outside view, reporting seemed quite fair especially from state media whose reporting independence is often questionable during elections. The running mates’ debates ran on different stations where each candidate was allocated equal time to make presentations and asked standard questions all around.
Colleagues from Zimbabwe even shared that “this is not what happens in Zimbabwe if its state platforms opposition’s airplay is cut short as opposed to that of government”.
But generally, the opposition still depended much on private media for coverage, according to local reporters. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions of public rallies, many candidates made use of the online platforms, ironic that it was shut down for public use thereafter.
International Media Coverage
Zambia is a very media-friendly country that generally treats the foreign or international media with great acceptance and respect. With accreditation, there were no solid challenges with gaining entry into voting stations around the country, making observation and reporting easy. The Electoral Commission even though swamped with electoral activity tried its best to address the media as and when they were available.
It was not however particularly easy to get information from government officials inclusive of the police on the prevailing safety and violence during the elections.
Despite the delay in announcing the electoral results, the Electoral Commission of Zambia was very clear and intentional in its communication to the public on the pre-election day. They sent out target messages that clearly stated that there would be no violence tolerated and further went on to stipulate the consequences to any violence that may ensue.
In Lesotho and Zimbabwe, I have come to learn the electoral commissions only talk to “Go and vote, no intimidation or influencing of votes by accepting food or clothes and do not wear parties’ regalia.
The locals however were still critical of their electoral commission saying they could be doing a lot better in all other aspects.
Covid-19 impacted very negatively on the economies of many countries around the world over the past year and Zambia was no exception as the economy was underperforming and the currency had depreciated leading up to the elections.
However, in the last one month or so leading to the elections, the currency had appreciated, and on the 9th August, just 2 days before Election Day the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a 1.3 billion dollars package to the country. While this was quite positive, a number of Zambians questioned the sudden progression of the economy on whether it was a ploy to get voters to keep the Lungu government in power for another term.
It was promising to the many unemployed youths who were hopeful that jobs would be created with all the funding coming into the country.
Is Lesotho ready for the polls?
Lesotho’s political space is one that is vast, from a number of parties being formed and registered with the Independent Electoral Commission; to more women coming up and brave enough youth taking a stand to compete and challenge the old political status quo.
But the real question is; do Basotho know who they are voting for? Will they be Keeping those in government in power because better the devil you know, going for a woman because they have not tested woman leaders or voting the youth in just because they were brave enough to run? It will be interesting to see where the competency to lead line will be drawn come 2022.