Skip to content
December 13th, 2017

Conflict management during Zambian elections

In 2001, Zambia's late president, Frederick Chiluba, announced that he would not be seeking re-election. The country then had to establish a dispute resolution mechanism to help its electoral commission supervise disputes in the 2001 general election.

In light of growing public tensions during successive election campaigns, the Electoral Commission of Zambia established conflict management committees to provide a platform for investigating alleged violations of the country's electoral code of conduct.

The initiative

The growing tensions during the 2001 Zambian elections led Priscilla Isaac, the deputy director of elections for the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), to recognise the increasing need for managing the conflict that arose throughout the run-up to elections. Accordingly, Zambia aimed to establish “a new mechanism that would stave off mounting conflict, clarify responsibilities for dispute resolution, and provide complainants with an effective outlet for their concerns before, during, and after an election”.[3]

The ECZ thus introduced Conflict Management Committees (CMCs) to mediate and resolve electoral disputes. CMCs were established at a national level - the National Conflict Management Committee (NCMC) - as well as via 74 district offices that were set up to tackle different local issues. Their membership comprised a variety of different stakeholders, including political parties and civil society organisations that aimed to solve electoral disputes via mediation or conciliation. However, CMCs had no power to compel parties to participate in conflict resolution, nor did they have the power to introduce sanctions.[4]

The challenge

In 2001, after international and local pressure, Frederick Chiluba, who was elected President of Zambia for the first time in 1991, publicly acknowledged that the constitutional term limit of two presidential terms would prevent him from running for office in that year's elections. Those elections were thus a "crucial test" of the nation's democratic processes.[1] They were only the third democratic elections ever held in Zambia, and there was both a fear of violence and a lack of a clear mechanism in place to monitor the electoral code of conduct which governed the campaigning activities of the political parties.[2]

The public impact

CMCs created the first formal democratic procedure in Zambia to issue complaints against political candidates and even against employees of the ECZ itself. This represented an important step for Zambia in monitoring its democratic process.

Throughout the three elections that took place between 2001 and 2011 in Zambia, the impact of the CMCs was mixed. The ECZ as well as international observers agreed that they helped to reduce violence and tension during campaigns. McDonald Chipenzi, executive director of the Foundation for Democratic Progress (FODEP) in Zambia, remarked that “if it were not for [the CMCs], fights would have been erupting every day”. Yet, challenging timescales and lack of staff training reduced the effectiveness of the CMCs.[5]

Despite these improvements, in the 2016 election campaign “several violent clashes, mainly between the ruling party's cadres and those of the [opposition] were reported. Clashes reportedly involved the use of machetes, clubs and other weapons, with frequent reports alleging that the parties were recruiting and training militia."[6]

To reduce these clashes, the NCMC met five times to mediate high-profile political campaign disputes between the Patriotic Front (PF) and the United Party for National Development (UPND), resulting in several agreements between them. Although the precise number of disputes solved via the 74 district-level CMCs cannot be determined, in many districts "CMC mediation helped diffuse tensions and solve minor disputes between parties”.[7]

Stakeholder engagement

The establishment of CMCs in Zambia involved numerous stakeholders at the national and international level, the ECZ being central at the national level (see also Management below). CMCs were able to monitor electoral disputes at the local, district level and engage the many different ethnic groups, while also bringing international organisations on board.

As Zambia's political parties were among the stakeholders involved, the ECZ met with political party leaders prior to announcing CMCs. "Before formally announcing their intention to use the CMC model, the commissioners and senior staff began meeting with political parties to ensure that political party members understood and supported the idea."[8] This formed an important part of ECZ general "open-door policy" to all stakeholders engaged in the Zambian election in 2001. Accordingly, “the ECZ and other stakeholders could freely engage and consult on matters related to the elections, [which] improved relations when compared with the 1996 elections”.[9]

Zambia is largely divided along different ethnic lines, which contributes to the presence of "at least" 72 distinct ethnolinguistic groups. Hence, the setup of 74 local committees increased the chances of having all ethnic groups represented. “Zambia's simple-plurality electoral system increased the importance of each group's vote in deciding the next president, an office with constitutionally broad executive power.”[10]

International stakeholders such as the South African authorities, the Government of Norway, and the Carter Center provided crucial funding and training opportunities to support the ECZ in the setup of CMCs. International observers, such as the Carter Center and the European Union, “expressed interest in assisting Zambians to address problems related to potential electoral disputes and conflict”.[11]

Political commitment

Although Zambia's political parties did engage with the CMCs and the ECZ in the election monitoring process, they did not view the process as being fully independent.

FODEP have argued that the political parties' direct engagement with CMCs demonstrates the confidence they have in the CMC model as part of the dispute resolution process. They are represented at national and local level and are directly involved if election campaigns result in violent disputes.[12]

However, the political parties themselves have long questioned the independence of the ECZ, which established the CMCs. During the 2003 election campaign, Mr. Sikwindi Sitwala, the presidential campaign coordinator of the UPND, expressed his distrust of the ECZ: "the ECZ is not independent, not credible and not transparent". This distrust stems largely from the involvement of ECZ members and CMC leaders with specific political parties. For example, “during the 2008 presidential elections, the opposition PF party indicated that the NCMC could not address its complaint impartially, as the chairman of the committee, Mr Miles Banda, was related to the ruling party candidate, Mr Rupiah Banda”.[13]

Public confidence

Opinion polls showed that, in 2001, only 27 percent of Zambians still had some degree of trust in the ECZ, of which the CMCs form an important part. During the 2001 general election, public protests gave further indication of the public discontent with President Chiluba and the need for new democratic elections.

President Chiluba had been in power since 1991, and there were public demonstrations against his intention to seek re-election. His own party opposed his candidacy, and had threatened to impeach him after he attempted to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.[14] These tensions resulted in substantial public protests against the president, some of which turned violent. The public wanted a fresh democratic election, and the ECZ responded by establishing the CMCs.[15]

However, an Afrobarometer survey which was conducted between 1999 and 2001 showed that only 17 percent of the Zambian population trusted the ECZ "a lot", with 10 percent not trusting them at all. The level of trust has deteriorated over time, as the equivalent survey in 2009 showed that 33 percent of the Zambian population did not trust the ECZ at all.[16]

Clarity of objectives

The initial goal of the CMCs was to enforce Zambia's electoral code of conduct more effectively. In order to do that, they had three clear objectives:

  • “To prevent and manage electoral conflicts with a view to achieving peaceful elections and mutual agreement on resolutions through mediation of conflicts that arise in the electoral process...
  • “To strengthen the capacity of the [ECZ] to deliver successful, free and fair elections by providing an early warning system that can assist it in responding to potential conflicts in the pre-election and post-election phases...
  • “To nurture a democratic culture through encouraging and promoting the conduct of conflict-free elections.”[17]

Strength of evidence

Much of the evidence supporting the establishment of the CMC model stems from the decision of African countries to share best practice on electoral supervision. Based on this pooling of ideas, the ECZ set up a pilot CMC project for the 2001 presidential elections, and this model was established permanently after its initial success.

In a series of interviews given to Princeton University, Priscilla Isaac, former deputy director of elections of the ECZ, acknowledged that she first learned about electoral conflict resolution during a meeting of the Forum of Southern African Development Community countries. There was a session at which the countries' electoral commissions shared best practice, and it include a presentation of the 1999 South African electoral conflict management model, which had helped to “reduce tension and violence in South Africa's elections by providing quick and localised resolution of disputes”.[18] This sparked the idea of adopting the South African model in Zambia.

Based on this approach, the CMC model was deployed to positive effect in a three-month pilot during the 2001 election campaign. After the pilot was completed, the ECZ assessed the evidence and modified the model, specifically in training their staff members more thoroughly. In 2003, Priscilla Isaac and her team succeeded in granting the CMCs a more formal mandate for electoral conflict management and codified the powers of CMCs in the new Electoral Act.[19]


The ECZ initially delayed the training process for their staff and ran into time constraints as a result, which affected their ability to function effectively during Zambia's first democratic election in 2001.

In addition, the legal structure of CMCs did not allow for independent investigations, relying instead on individuals submitting a formal complaint for the dispute resolution process to be activated. This compromised the CMCs ability to mediate electoral conflicts successfully. “The committees had to wait for an individual to submit a formal written complaint outlining an alleged violation of the electoral code of conduct before intervening in a conflict.”[20]

When the committee began its work three months before the elections, it was not yet at full strength because the CMC's employees had only just completed a course in basic conflict management. This problem was exacerbated by the limited funding available for them to organise themselves fully before the campaign.[21]


All political parties and other stakeholders are represented on the NCMC. The NCMC was set up to comprise "various election stakeholders, including representatives of registered political parties, NGOs, the police, the Ministry of Justice, and the Anti-Corruption Commission. Committees were also established at a district level."

However, the composition of district-level CMCs was frequently considered to be unfair - the chairperson was often a party member, for example.[22] This undermined impartial decision-making, and the CMCs have been accused of being politically biased. “It is a notorious fact that most disputes are brought before the Committee by political parties. Therefore, in the event that the chairperson is a member of a political party, the impartiality and indeed credibility of such a Committee is compromised.”[23]


The ECZ and external election observation missions, such as the Carter Center, touched upon the effectiveness of the CMCs and the ECZ as a whole in their post-election reviews on conflict management. However, there exists only limited evidence of internal evaluations or statistics.

A post-election review on conflict management was concluded by the ECZ in 2017, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme and with funding from the EU, UK Aid, Irish Aid, and the US Agency for International Development. The review consisted of four workshops for district-level CMC members. This is one of the few times when CMC stakeholders were able to review the conflict management process and the mediation between political parties during elections. “The review emphasised the need for strengthened partnerships between [district-level] CMCs and the NCMC as well as other role-players, and generated information that will serve as a baseline for future conflict interventions.”[24]

Up until the 2011 elections, international observers had been largely sceptical about any concrete successes made by the CMCs, but the EU remarked that after the 2011 campaign CMCs began to have a positive effect. The CMCs “were very active in the constituencies that were closely contested and served a valuable role in resolving issues such as disputes over posters, incidents of any insults traded between candidates, and threats of violence”.[25]


During the 2001 elections, a lack of awareness of the CMCs' existence persisted among local communities. Additionally, funding problems resulted in weak alignment between stakeholders. Because of the lack of communication with local communities, the 2001 pilot of the CMC model failed to promote awareness among the CMCs' primary stakeholders. “These were new structures. They were not known and they were introduced just about three months before the general elections, so the stakeholders didn't appreciate them”.[26]

In addition, the ECZ suffered from a lack of funding from the Zambian government during the establishment of the CMC model, and this delayed proper training of their staff members in conflict management. Yet the lack of funding from the national government was not limited to the CMC pilot, as the ECZ also complained of a lack of adequate funding for its nationwide voter education campaign in 2001, again constraining the work of the CMC and of the ECZ as a whole.[27]

The Public Impact Fundamentals - A framework for successful policy

This case study has been assessed using the Public Impact Fundamentals, a simple framework and practical tool to help you assess your public policies and ensure the three fundamentals - Legitimacy, Policy and Action are embedded in them.

Learn more about the Fundamentals and how you can use them to access your own policies and initiatives.

Explore the Fundamentals