Zambia’s political climate: Reactions to the return of former president, Edgar Lungu

Zambian Former President Edgar Lungu. Image by Chalo Chatu from Flickr (PDM 1.0 DEED).

Former Zambian President Edgar Lungu has announced his return to active politics, aiming for the 2026 presidential elections after retiring in 2021 following a significant defeat.

His previous six-year tenure left the country grappling with economic challenges, impacting the lives of Zambians.

Lungu declared his readiness to defend democracy in a speech honoring Michael Sata, the former president of Zambia and leader and founder of the Patriotic Front (PF), who died in office in 2014. According to News Central TV, Lungu stated:

I'm ready to fight from the front not from the rear in defense of democracy those who are ready for this fight please come along with me I'm ready for anything.

Lungu has launched a bid to lead the Patriotic Front, the party he led until his defeat in 2021, but faces a leadership challenge. The party has splintered into two factions: one led by Miles Sampa, who was proclaimed the party's president and the other faction wants Lungu to lead the party. There are accusations that Sampa is backed by the state. As reported by Africanews, Lungu's return to the forefront involves his commitment to salvage the party, which is facing potential deregistration by the government due to internal leadership disputes.

Lungu accuses President Hakainde Hichilema, of using state institutions to suppress the opposition and violating his rights. Police actions, including stopping Lungu from jogging and seeking medical attention abroad, have fueled tensions.

In May of this year, police surrounded Lungu's home, demanding to search it as part of a corruption probe.

The report by Africanews said that on the matter of Lungu's claims of being targeted by supporters of the ruling United Party for National Development (UPND), the government spokesman, Cornelius Mweetwa, dismissed the allegations as baseless.

Capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the current economic hardships, Lungu says he aims to regain support, especially considering growing concerns about inflation, unemployment, and poverty under Hichilema's administration.

Government reaction

In response to Lungu's return to politics, the Zambian government has withdrawn his retirement benefits and privileges. Government spokesman Cornelius Mweetwa cited compliance with the country's laws, which mandate the withdrawal of such benefits when a former president re-enters politics. This includes the removal of security personnel, diplomatic passport, state cars, a furnished house, medical insurance, and funeral expenses.

Mweetwa emphasized that Lungu will now be treated equally under the law, raising questions about the potential removal of his immunity from prosecution. Notably, Zambia's parliament has previously revoked immunity for two former presidents: Frederick Chiluba in 2002 and Rupiah Banda in 2013.

Reactions from Zambian citizens

Reactions among Zambians are mixed, with some expressing excitement for Lungu's return while others believe it may not be in the country's best interest.

In an interview with News Central, geopolitics analyst, Aon Gambi, said:

Mr Sata who died in office, was a man that was loved by the people and was a man that the common people could actually relate to. When he died prematurely from falling ill while in office and as a result did not finish his five year term of office, Mr Lungo came as a successor. Since then Mr Lungu went on to lose the elections to his opponent in 2021 who is now the president. So the mixed reactions to Mr Lungu's return is because the people that belong to the party of Mr Lungu that you see in the video of course are excited but also there are people that feel like it is not a good move for Mr Lunga to come back because he's the only remaining and surviving former head of state.

According to Gambi, many Zambians express disappointment in Hichilema's performance as president, citing elevated levels of inflation, unemployment, and poverty as key concerns with the current government. While some comments on this video align with Gambi's analysis, others argue that the government is making sincere efforts, as one individual pointed out:

Debt was restructured, teachers recruited, health workers employed, defense and correctional services personnel employed, free education, and the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) is equal to the task at grass roots, empowerment to youths and women is a game changer, people are encouraged to work and empowered under entrepreneurship. It's only a biased person who cannot see any positive efforts put in place. We are Zambians in Zambia on ground and not false clips from social media. People can make films to create what's not on the ground. Let's be factual!

Gambi asserted that because of the perceived shortcomings of the current government, the ruling party is gradually losing support, even among those who voted for President Hichilema in 2021. Consequently, Hichilema is allegedly adopting authoritarian and autocratic measures, constricting the democratic space.

According to Gambi, Edgar Lungu's return to politics is motivated by a desire to restore unity within his party:

President Hakainde Hichilema is actively working to dismantle the Patriotic Front, the political home of Mr. Lungu. Thus, Mr. Lungu feels compelled to re-enter politics, believing he is the only one capable of fostering unity and preserving the party's cohesion leading up to the 2026 elections.

As Zambia navigates this political turbulence, the upcoming 2026 elections will likely play a pivotal role in shaping the country's political landscape.

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