Tomorrow (September 20) is “erection” day in Zambia. Ask any Zambian how frequently this occurs and they’ll say, “we have erections once every five years.” Okay, they really mean “election” day but Zambians mix their r’s and l’s such that election sounds like erection, so I always do a double take when they talk about the upcoming “erections.”
Anyways, everyone is pretty nervous and excited about the elections. There is the incumbent president, Rupiah Banda, and the challenger, Michael Sata. Some say the former is corrupt and others say the latter is cruel. Of course, some say the former is wise and others say the latter is progressive. One thing you can’t deny, however, is that Zambia is booming and a middle class is emerging. According to an article in The Economist on Saturday, regardless of who is elected they expect the policies to remain the same.
All around town there are the blue posters of Banda…
…and the green posters of Sata.
All month there have been rallies where people from one party or the other will dress in the party colors (of blue or green) and then sing, chant or whoop it up. Vehicles with megaphones on the tops of them drive through town broadcasting election rhetoric, usually responded to by people raising their fists or yelling some slogan.
Not only are the locals nervous about the election, but expats and embassies are too. In fact, some of my friends have left the country for the week of elections (went to South Africa) and everyone has been urged to lie low and stock up on food.
Election violence and riots can break out in an instant in Africa and though no problems are expected, someone is fueling the rumor mill that if one or the other candidate is not elected, then there will be riots. What I’ve personally seen is that one party or the other will go out to the compounds (poor, crowded areas), load up a truck of young adult high testosterone men (probably plied with alcohol), and then drive where the other party is campaigning with a similar truckload of young adult men from another compound, and then have them shout campaign slogans at each other until one shoves another and then fighting breaks out. This is what apparently happened August 26th, when all Americans registered with the “Smart Traveler” program at the U.S. Embassy here in Zambia received this emergency email:
|Subject:||Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens|
|Date:||Fri, 26 Aug 2011 10:32:37 +0200|
|From:||ACS Lusaka <WardenLusaka@state.gov>|
U.S. Embassy Lusaka, Zambia Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens August 26, 2011 Political Unrest - Downtown Lusaka The U.S. Embassy has received reports that political party cadres have engaged in violent clashes today in downtown Lusaka. The Embassy's American Center at the COMESA building downtown has closed today. U.S. citizens are strongly urged to avoid the downtown area until the situation calms. U.S. citizens in Zambia are reminded that there is a potential for violence leading up to and immediately following the elections on September 20, 2011. For further information, see the U.S. Department of State's Travel Alert for Zambia <http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/pa/pa_5544.html> . U.S. citizens can obtain Embassy updates by checking the U.S. Embassy, Zambia web site <http://zambia.usembassy.gov/> (http://zambia.usembassy.gov). You can also obtain global updates at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs website <http://www.travel.state.gov/> where you can find the current Worldwide Caution <http://www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/pa/pa_4787.html> , Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts and Country Specific Information for Zambia <http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1062.html> . If you do not have Internet access, you may contact the call center for updates--1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or outside the U.S. and Canada on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except federal holidays). If your contact information has changed, please update your information with the Embassy via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program <http://travel.state.gov/step> (STEP) (http://travel.state.gov/step) - formerly known as the Internet Based Registration Service (IBRS). It is important to include your current phone number and current email address where you can be reached in case of an emergency. U.S. Embassy Ibex Hill Road Lusaka Tel. 0211-357-000
(This smart traveler program is kind of cool. You get these emergency messages in real time through email and text messages.)
I called Thom immediately to let him know to avoid downtown and his phone rang and rang and rang. After about 30 rings I gave up. His office is in the ex-pat part of town, a good half-hour away from where these skirmishes were taking place so I figured he was in a meeting. I just texted him the information.
About half an hour later he called me from, you guessed it, downtown! He had gone to a doctor’s appointment which happened to be about two blocks away from where the demonstrators were. He asked the guard at the gate if he saw anything and the guard said, yes, about an hour ago, some stupid young men started pushing each other.
Every Zambian you talk to will tell you how peaceful and conflict-avoidant Zambians are, and that they aren’t tribal in the least like Kenya. Well, tomorrow will tell.
One of my Zambian friends who is a physician at the teaching hospital said that if there are problems, they won’t start until Thursday when the election results come in. He predicted that the urban vote will go one way (Sata), but that the rural vote will go the other (Banda). Because the urban votes will be counted first it will look like Sata won, but then when all of the rural votes trickle in Banda will be declared the winner, because the rural population is much larger than the urban. Then, he says, he can see the Sata supporters saying the election was stolen from them. If this happens then he thought there might be trouble (i.e., demonstrations turned into pushing matches with police crackdowns, etc.). Having said that, he was doubtful there’d be any problems because there are so many election monitors here from the European Union, the African Union, and other countries and organizations around the world, that he thought charges of corruption and rigging the vote would be hard to prove with so many independent observers here.
The newspapers appear to be hopelessly partisan with The Post claiming Banda’s government is reacting with violence (see this), and The Times claiming that Sata is inciting violence (see this). (By the way Mom and Dad, Chipata’s about 7-8 hours from here, about the same distance Sacramento is from Orange, so no need to worry.)
Though I’m not worried in the least, given our location out here in the boonies and on the other side of town from the more dodgy compounds, I’m being cautious. I know all too well how close all of Africa is to violent outbursts. I was watching CNN in the downtown Hilton Hotel in Nairobi in 1994 (Thom was at a meeting at the USAID office) when a news flash said, “Airplane with Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda shot down, all passengers killed.” I remember thinking, so much of Africa is one day away from a civil war. As Hotel Rwanda showed, all hell broke loose shortly after the assassinations. In 1995, we were in Ethiopia when Thom’s project officer at USAID called and said, “where’s Thom?” I said, “On his way to meet you.” He said, “there’s been an assassination attempt on Mubarek and all roads are closed and there are snipers everywhere — if you can find Thom tell him to come back to the hotel and stay there” (see this). Yeah, right, I think we still used dial-up modems in 1995 and there certainly were no cell phones. Of course, the bush network in Africa works with mind-boggling speed and Thom walked in our room shortly after this phone call. His taxi driver had heard about it and brought Thom back to the hotel immediately.
It seems that the rest of Lusaka is being cautious too. I went to the grocery store this morning and for the first time ever, about 3/4 of the parking places were empty! (Usually you have to wait with your turn signal on for someone to leave.) It was like a ghost town!
So what have I done? Well, I’ve stocked up on videos (season 2 of Glee — thanks Emily!), food, and extra propane for our gas grill (in case we lose power) and plan to stay at home until we get the all clear sign. Of course, as Murphy’s Law would have it, Thom’s away in Kenya this week, but don’t worry Mom and Dad, I have Coco the Adorable Boerboel and Buddy Big Boy here to protect me.
Oh, and my man-eating attack-chickens too. (See how they keep Coco in line below. Yes, that’s our brave watch dog.)