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Surviving on Borrowed Power: Rethinking the Role of Civil Society in Zambia’s Third-Term Debate

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Countries in Africa that feature a strong civil society are often assumed to have the best prospects for democratic consolidation. Zambia is often held up as an example of the democratic gains that can result from a robust non-state sector capable of checking the power of the government. Indeed, the literature is characterised by a remarkable consensus on the capacity of trade unions and religious organisations to force presidents to compromise, whether under authoritarian or democratic rule. The most significant recent victory is typically said to be the creation of the Oasis Forum, a coalition of civic associations formed to defend term limits against the attempts of the former president Frederick Chiluba to secure an unconstitutional third term in 2001. Drawing on previously unavailable and under-utilised newspaper, archival and oral primary sources, this article argues that the role played by the Oasis Forum was necessary but not sufficient. The erosion of Zambian civil society at that conjuncture made it weak and incapable of shifting Chiluba’s position; other forces were therefore required to do the job. Members of parliament from Chiluba’s own party and elements of the military emerged to fill this void and deal a decisive blow to his plans. More broadly, I argue that the capacity and the willingness of the unions and the churches to defend democracy have been overstated. The fragmentation of religious organisations has undermined the significance of the churches, while the twin processes of privatisation and the informalisation of the labour force have reduced the power of trade unions. Paradoxically, the transition to multi-party politics has gone hand in hand with the weakening rather than strengthening of non-state actors, as it has in many parts of the continent, demonstrating the limits of civil society.




Sishuwa, S. (2020). Surviving on Borrowed Power: Rethinking the Role of Civil Society in Zambia’s Third-Term Debate. Journal of Southern African Studies, 46(3), 471–490.

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