“HOT Politics and Peaceful Elections” with Patricia Luhanga in Zambia

Hot politics makes it challenging to hold peaceful elections and witness the peaceful power transfer.  Globally, the challenge of protecting our democracies from ‘would-be’ autocrats and powers that seek to undermine our democracies leaves our democratic systems hanging in the balance. Patricia Luhanga and her team stepped in and stepped up to immense political pressure to ensure that the electoral process went smoothly in her African country home, Zambia. In this conversation with Anne Pratt, she talks about how, in partnership with the Zambian media, the Independent Electoral Commission of Zambia was able to put guardrails in place and mediate an amicable resolution to the hotly contested 2021 general elections. She also shares her hard-earned insights on bold leadership and how we can step up.

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“HOT Politics and Peaceful Elections” with Patricia Luhanga in Zambia

You, Too, Can Protect Your Democracy Against the Odds

Thank you to all you future bold leaders; thank you for joining us from around the world. My name is Anne Pratt, formerly from South Africa, and I relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Leadership Fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. Our bold leader joins us from Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, a landlocked country in Southern Africa. She’s a well-respected financial journalist and keynote speaker. Empowered by her humble beginnings, she became parentless in high school in grade eleven.

After several successful years in private-sector banking, she became the Head of Corporate Affairs for the Independent Electoral Commission of Zambia seven months prior to the very hotly contested 2021 general elections. Undeterred by immense political pressure and temporary setbacks of increased violence in COVID cases during the election, she and her team delivered magnificent results.

She is the proud recipient of the 2017-2018 prestigious Chevening Scholarship funded by the British Government for International Change Makers. A nominee of the US State Department, she attended the International Visitors Leadership Program on election management. She received multiple awards in Zambia for her contribution to the successful outcome of the 2021 general elections, which resulted in the peaceful transfer of power against the odds. We warmly welcome Patricia Luhanga and welcome to the show.

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Patricia, thank you so much for joining us from Lusaka. Thank you for coming on and having this conversation.

Thank you for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure for me to sit with you and speak about all issues in leadership and leading boldly into the future.

Thank you. That’s a great place to start. You’ve had a number of profound, significant, and important leadership positions. You’ve also been recognized in different forums, not only in your own country in Zambia, but also in the United Kingdom. And you have had an invitation from the United States. You’ve got this interesting global perspective. From what you’ve gleaned and learned, what is your definition of leadership and, specifically, bold leadership?

For me, leadership is about learning. Once you learn, you serve. If you ask me about bold leadership, it is about resilience. It’s the resilience that always remains unmatched. There is a backstory to why I have said it’s about learning and serving, and thereafter, I speak about resilience. I grew up in a less-than-conducive environment. When I say that, you can imagine you’re coming into a family where your parents are divorced. You grow up with a mother who was a civil servant. Speaking about civil service in this country in relation to pay, there’s nothing to write home about.

Leadership is about learning. Once you learn, you serve. Share on X

There are four of us. I’m the 2nd born in a family of 4. The first are 2 girls and the last 2 are boys. Suddenly, this is a home where your father disappears, and you remain with your mother. If you had 2 incomes, it means you have 1 remaining. That also means a drop in the standard of living. Whatever the bits of luxury that you were enjoying, it comes to a stop.

If you ask me, I was six years old when my parents divorced. I had started my first grade. Life became miserable. You see it from the word go. We didn’t even realize that was a divorce. We didn’t have the courage to ask Mom the question, “Where is Dad? What does this mean for us?” In our minds, he’s going somewhere and will come back, but he never came back.

We grew up in a rural area where my mother worked as a nurse. It meant some of the luxuries I’ve spoken about had to drop. For instance, we never had electricity that propelled a stove, nor a gas one. It meant we needed to get some firewood from the bush for us to be able to cook, or you used charcoal for you to be able to cook.

When you look at that trajectory, I remember telling my mother, “This life is too hard. I’m not happy with what is going on.” She indicated to me to say, “There will come a time in life when all this will be history.” When it is history, you look back and say, “It looks like a dream,” and here we are. She said, “What’s important is for you to pay particular attention to education.” We came from a family that believed in education regardless. She made so many sacrifices. These sacrifices included forfeiting her remaining 350 meals of cooking oil for a period of 1 or 2 months for her to send us to school. She made sure that she sent us to schools.

I love it when I look back then and say what we are learning as entrepreneurship existed back then. It’s that we didn’t realize what it was. My mother was a nurse but used to sew and knit. She would go into a maternity wing of a hospital where she was working, look at these pregnant women, and market her products to say, “I can knit the baby towels and the baby dresses.” Many of them give her orders, and when she does the orders, she gets money out of it. That is what supplemented our life.

One other thing that we were doing was she realized earlier that the way life was moving was not possible for her to be able to feed us and send us to school properly if we were spending the money that we were generating on buying things that we could easily grow. We had a backyard garden where we had vegetables. We had a field where we grew maize. You’ve got some connection to Zambia. You know that our staple food is called Nshima. Nshima is drawn from maize, which some people call corn meal. (Editor’s note: Nshima is the staple food of Zambia. A thick porridge made from finely ground corn called ‘mealie meal.’ It is served in lumps and eaten with the hands.) That’s what you used to prepare. She said, “Let’s not spend money on things I can easily grow and send my children to school.” She did the best she could and sent us to school.

The leadership issue started in school for me because I would be chosen as a class representative or maybe a class monitor. Initially, I thought it was about policing the noise makers and writing up noise makers until I realized that it was about service. Service came in the form of you making sure that everything was in order. Making sure that everything was in order didn’t mean policing people, but it also involved playing an advisory role to your colleagues. This happened as early as my third grade when I was at a class monitor. That was the beginning of the leadership trajectory for me to begin to learn that you need to serve, learn, and serve.

If you talk about the story of resilience, I lost my mother when I was doing my eleventh grade. Where we come from in our African culture, we know that we have people we call breadwinners, even in extended families. My mother was that breadwinner, and she died. Who else would I look up to? It meant going into my twelfth grade, which in other countries is known as matric, like in Africa, for instance. It meant going into my twelfth grade in misery with little to look up to. You don’t have somebody to encourage you. Above all, the ability to supply the material needs for your school is limited.

I was in a boarding school. It meant that when I used to consume 3 bars of soap, I only had 1 bar of soap to see me through the three months per given term. It was not easy. I remember after Mom died, one of her friends called me with my elder sister and asked us a question. She said, “I’m going to be very brutal because brutal facts are what we need in order to see some of these things begin to change. Your mother has died.” We said, “Yes.” She said, “It’s okay to cry, but for how long can you cry? I want you to tell me what the results of crying will be. I’m asking a question. If you cry, is she going to come back?”

We looked at each other and shook our heads. She says, “I want to hear you say it.” We said, “No,” so she said, “This is the honest conversation I want to have with you. You can’t cry forever. You need to pick up your pieces and ensure that you do the best you can to get a good future. This is your make-or-break moment. The reason it’s a make-or-break moment is that you’re vulnerable now. You are vulnerable in every sense that whatever decision you make today will have an effect or impact on what you become in the future.”

I went into twelfth grade not minding why I had one bar of soap to last me 3 months, but I assured myself that I paid attention in school and studied beyond even what I used to study when my mother was alive. When we wrote our grade twelve exams, I got a distinction. I qualified to attend the University of Zambia, which is still one of the most prestigious universities in this country. I managed to get a 75% bursary, but if you ask me where was the 25% going to come from, it’s because I had nobody else to look up to. It wasn’t going to come from nowhere. I had to make a bold decision, and the bold decision for me was to start from somewhere.

I went into a maid center and said, “I would like to have a job as a domestic worker wherever this role is available.” I remember the owner of the med center looked at me, and she heard my English. She asked about my level of education. I told her I’d gone up to grade twelve. She was interested in looking at my grade twelve results and couldn’t begin to reconcile the two.

According to her, people in my shoes would not want to work as a domestic worker. I told her, “Only if you know my story, then you’ll understand. I would rather get something right from the word go than put myself in a position where I am not okay. Right now, this is my position. I need to come down to a level where I accept that it’s okay to start small.” This takes a lot of honest introspection, and that is what I did. I got the job and started working as a domestic worker.

Going back to where we grew up from, we did all the chores in the house. We used to clean. We didn’t have the luxury of having maids in our homes, so everything rested on us. For me, that was the preparation that helped me to settle into my first job. I managed everything with all the excellence that I could. The homeowners where I worked saw the diligence in how I conducted myself. I didn’t know that behind closed doors, they were trying to look out for, “What is better for Patricia other than this?”

She had applied for a job for me in one of the government departments that wanted people like me who had grade twelve certificates. I remember her bringing the letter that I’d been invited for an interview. I was so excited. I was emotional and everything. For the first time in my life, I wore a suit given to me by her daughter.

I went to that interview and was asked about my work experience. I proudly told them, “I’m a domestic worker.” You should have seen the faces of the people on the panel because they didn’t even expect it. That in itself spoke millions to them and said, “A person, first of all, who’s not shy to speak about who they are, where they’re coming from, and their background are the people we need.” For me, when you ask about leadership, I thought I should lay that background so that even when I speak going forward into this conversation, people will understand better that this is the reason why I’m speaking about learning, serving, and resilience in whatever we do.

That’s a wonderful backstory. It’s a very inspiring story. Our backstory often shapes and defines who we are. I am deeply inspired by that. It’s remarkable. It talks about the character of the person and the woman you are. Today, what do you think are the big leadership challenges not only for Zambia but for the African continent and perhaps globally? You have a strong global perspective. What are perhaps the top three challenges that stand out for you?

You’ve rightly said the globe is looking for the kind of leadership that will push all sectors forward. I’ve also noticed that leadership has evolved. When we look at the political arena, the pre-independence period, post-independence, and where we are now, there’s quite a lot of evolution that we have seen. I’m going to tackle this from a corporate as well as political perspective because that is where I have spent my life working.

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In terms of corporate leadership, we want to see transformational leaders because there’s quite a lot that is happening globally. You’ve got technological advancements. You’ve got pandemics that are hitting when we least expect. You have a world that is moving at a faster pace than expected. For you to keep moving forward, be innovative, and be able to catch up, transformational leadership, for me, plays a critical role. That is why I’m saying from a corporate perspective, it’s very important.

Speaking to the political side of things, I work for the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Our role is to administer the electoral process and conduct elections. What we have seen and what people are demanding is ethical leadership from our politicians because there are a lot of governance issues around everything that is going on. For instance, corruption is one of the things that countries in Africa, and Zambia in particular, are speaking to.

We know that corruption is a cancer that eats into all sectors of the economy and social life. If you look at everything that you need to have in order for you to move, this is a huge challenge. For Zambia, you also see that in 2021, it was a big issue for a new government. The top of the agenda is the issue of, “Let’s see how we can maybe stamp out corruption if at all it can be done completely. It’s very critical that we begin to go in that direction.”

Another issue that applies across the board is issues of governance. Corporate governance is critical. It’s an overarching leadership perspective that I want to bring to the table. Whether you’re in corporate or politics, if you understand your role very well, you’ll be able to allow a certain perspective of leadership and way of working. You’ll allow all the systems, procedures, and policies to flow accordingly. Those are the challenges that I want to bring into perspective that this is what is happening in many countries and Zambia inclusive.

That’s a wonderful segue. Congratulations. You won the 2022 award for your work in public relations and communications from the Institute of PR and Communications in Zambia. I believe that award is for how you covered and delivered on the 2021 general election. I was curious. You talk about governance. Reading a little bit about the Zambian election, I believe your election happened on the 12th of August 2021.

On the 14th of August 2021, your incumbent president started making noises about, “Will they be free and fair? Was this a rigged election?” On the 16th of August 2021, he went on to public television and congratulated his opponent, your then president-elect turned president. I wondered. To your point, having won this award and having played a major role, what, for you, are the critical governance issues? What role do you think the media play?

To give you the backstory, I am a specialized financial journalist. I did Financial Journalism at the Master’s level and have worked in financial services (banking.) When I was approached to attend an interview for the role of Corporate Affairs Manager for the Electoral Commission of Zambia, I didn’t even know what I was doing sitting in that interview room. You begin to look at the two, finance on one side and governance on the other, and you’re like, “What is it that I even know?” I then realized in communication, you can’t say you know nothing. In fact, communicators are better placed. They’re better positioned to understand any sector.

Fast forward to my appointment. I was appointed seven months before Zambia’s general election. If you have been reading about this, you’ll know that the 2021 general election came against the backdrop of credibility questions concerning the Independent Electoral Commission of Zambia. My role was to provide solutions in terms of our stakeholder engagement strategies and ensure that I also contributed to the acceptance of the election results by stakeholders.

You have different departments. Each one is playing a role. What was critical for us in corporate affairs was communication and stakeholder engagement. We put in place very deliberate measures regarding our engagements with stakeholders. We also had some interesting support from our ICT and electoral operations departments. In achieving this, for me, it’s teamwork.

What is it that the Zambia Institute of Public Relations looked at for them to give me that award? First of all, they looked at the time that I was in the commission seven months before an election. My appointment itself was a crisis because people doubted and said, “She’s coming from the banking sector into governance. What does she know? How is she even going to handle this?”

You and I know that politics on the continent are very emotive. People will call you all sorts of names. They’ll say whatever they want because there’s an agenda that they’re driving. I went in, not really being sure what I would find, but I said, “Let me go in. If I fail, I’ll come out. I don’t want to have a situation where I regret not going there. If I fail, I will learn something from it, and I’ll be able to progress.”

I’m curious about your description. Having got there and analyzed what was there, what was your light bulb moment around, “This is what we’re dealing with, and this is what we need to do.”

I walked into a meeting room where political parties had gathered. They looked at me and said, “Now they’re bringing children to deal with us.”

When and where was that?

It was in Lusaka, where we had a meeting with the political parties. My office handles the political parties. I am the link between the commission and the political parties. I walk into the room, and they don’t even want to speak to me because they think, “This is a child.” I said, “This is what I should expect. There is going to be a lot of disrespect.” They said, “She’s a woman.” I said (to myself), “There we go now with the story of women.”

I remember that moment because all they want to see, especially for a woman, is this notion that we’re emotional. I told myself, “They want to see emotions. They want me to burst, scream, and do whatever. You are not going to do that. You’ll stay calm regardless of what they’ll say or the disrespect that will come to you.”

One of the things that people ask is, “How did you manage to go through that moment? From when we started preparing for the election to when we were done with the election, how did you manage to remain calm?” They say, “If you want to define calmness in the face of adversity, trouble, and chaos, Patricia is that description. She is that definition.” Even for me, I didn’t know how calm I could be until I was thrown into the fire.

When I speak about fire, it’s not as simple as the politics we watch in Western countries. In Africa and Zambia, in particular, the politics are hot. It’s a place where you don’t even want to go to if it is election time. Everybody wants to win. Depending on which side they’re sitting on, they look suspiciously at you. Your role as an electoral commission or as an electoral management body is that of a referee. All you are doing is enabling the process.

The people of Zambia are the ones who are deciding and enabling the process by counting the number of votes cast and announcing the results on their behalf. That is where issues of governance come in. You know there is a ruling party in place. You also know there are opposition political parties. We had sixteen presidential candidates in the 2021 general election. Everyone came with their own expectations. They had their own views about the Electoral Commission of Zambia. If anything, we were looked at as a commission that was being used by the ruling party.

Comes the hour we declared the election results, the opposition won. People came back and said, “What a credible election. What an incredible work that you have done.” I remember meeting the Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness, Dr. Patricia Scotland. She spoke to me and said, “People said Zambia needed a miracle to deliver this election. You and your team are the miracle that this country needed.” We showed clearly that we could stick to governance issues regardless of who was in power because the decider was not ourselves but the people of Zambia.

Looking at the history of Zambian elections, you’ll see that we have frequently changed leaders. In 1991, we changed. In 2011, we changed. In 2021, we changed different political parties, and different leadership came into office. This comes with its own challenges. The challenges are the things I’ve spoken about where there’s a certain perception that maybe because you are working and there’s a ruling government, then that ruling government has a role to play. Maybe they control you and tell you what to do. That is one of the issues.

I’m really curious to know. You walked in, and they said you’re a child and a woman. You remained calm. What were the steps that you went through? This was seven months before the election. Can you very briefly illustrate what steps you went through? What did you do to get to that point of credibility?

First of all, at the individual level, I knew the kind of environment I was getting into. It demanded that I prepare myself. We’ve always talked about the three Ps, the triple bottom. From the Profits, People, and Planet, we have added Preparedness. That is what I went with. I said, “This is not an institution where we look at profits and all, but we have people. We also want to see prepared leaders.”

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Peaceful Elections: The environment I was entering demanded that I prepare myself. We’ve always talked about the three Ps—the triple bottom—profits, people, and the planet. We have added preparedness. This is not an institution where we look at profits and all, but we have people. We want to see prepared leaders.

In terms of preparation, I started working on my mental readiness or my mental health. How that was done is accepting that these things will happen and people will insult me. I have seen what is going on and what my predecessors went through. These are things that are all over TV and in the papers. You know that this is the kind of environment you’re going into. The question you ask yourself is, “Am I any of these things that these people are saying I am? The answer is no. If the answer is no, then why should I be bothered?” That is what, for me, was bringing the calmness to say, “Do your job and walk away.” That was at the personal level.

When it comes to the team, we had an amazing team. We had amazing leadership that was ready to deliver a credible election. We engaged with our stakeholders, mapped our stakeholders, looked at their needs, and looked at our shortcomings. It was too little time for us to be able to do everything, but I can assure you that we did everything we could to carry our stakeholders along the way in the electoral process.

Political parties were informed. The media was informed. If anything, the media played a very critical role in ensuring that we had a credible electoral process. They were our allies. Every time we had scheduled briefings and if and when we had issues coming up, we would invite them to the office. We would take them through processes, and they’d be writing to give us credible information.

On top of that, the issues of disinformation and misinformation were much more pronounced during that period, but the mainstream media played a critical role in helping us to debunk some of these conspiracies. They became credible sources of information. If somebody reads about the Electoral Commission of Zambia, they would want to confirm from the credible institutions and established media houses, “Are they saying the same? What are they saying?” We also made sure that our social media platforms were up to speed and up to date with the information we were giving out regarding voter education, electoral processes, and so on and so forth.

From an IT point of view, we had given ourselves a target of declaring results within 72 hours. I remember most of the stakeholders said, “You’re too ambitious. This is being over-ambitious. It’s never happened in the country. If this is done, we’ll give you a lot of respect as a commission.” Our IT team, together with the elections and logistics teams, worked out a model that was going to help us deliver and announce the general election results within 72 hours.

We had the end picture and the end game in mind. We were like, “If we have to deliver this election within 72 hours from the time the last polling station closes, what do we need to put in place regarding logistics? In terms of monitoring, how is this going to be done?” We also gave ourselves the service level in terms of the turnaround time. We were like, “How long should we move the ballot papers from the polling station to the totaling center?” We also looked at probably the maximum number of voters per polling station. We asked, “How many voters are in the polling station, and how long will it take us to count? Remember, this is a physical count that we’re doing. How long will it take us to do the count?”

We worked out all that and delivered the general election within 69 hours. We had a few extra hours to go, and that for us, played a critical role. Above all, we allowed political parties to have agents in all the polling stations. We have about 12,000 polling stations nationwide as the Electoral Commission of Zambia to ensure they mobilize agents.

What we were doing was enhancing the transparency of results. Results were announced at polling stations. These agents were allowed to have a copy of the results so that in case of any dispute, you have a comparison. You could be like, “What is it that was issued at the polling station, and what is it that is being declared or announced at the National Results Center?” That helped a lot. We also allowed international observers to come through. International observers give credibility to the electoral process. If you say you’ll not allow them to come, people will become suspicious and say, “What is it that these people are hiding?”

There is a parallel auto-tabulation system. We had a system that we are using as an independent electoral management body that is mandated by law to undertake elections. You also have civil society organizations that are doing the parallel tallying of results. The law does not allow them to declare or announce any results until the Electoral Commission of Zambia does that. When we announced and declared the result, they agreed and said there was a small margin of error, which was 0.01%, give and take. That gave us credibility in terms of how we worked.

What really made the Electoral Commission of Zambia and myself particularly recognized by the Zambia Institute of Public Relations was the way we engaged the stakeholders in the run-up to the general election. It took away most of the suspicions. It enhanced transparency. It also contributed to accepting election results because we communicated all the processes. With the help of the media in Zambia, we did reach the masses of the Zambian people. 

That’s incredible; well done to you and your team. What struck me reading a little about it was that your former president, Lungu, two days after the election happened, was making these allegations of, “Could it be free and fair?” Yet, two days later, he congratulated his opponent. My question is, what happened on the 14th of August 2021? Why were those allegations made? Secondly, with the role of the media, how did you persuade the media? What was it that you did to ensure that the media were committed to the integrity of the election process rather than being dramatic in trying to fuel these false allegations?

Let me also mention that the election in 2021 happened during COVID-19, so it wasn’t business as usual. It was business unusual. Having the physical campaigns, the rallies you usually have, and everything people are going to to talk about these issues, like the roadshows, we didn’t have that. It meant us moving virtual, online, or to social media, including ourselves as the Electoral Commission of Zambia, because our voter education equally takes that particular format.

We came up with standard operating procedures for us to be able to conduct an election during the time of COVID-19. You may be interested to know that election day for Zambia is enshrined in the Constitution. There is nothing anyone can do to move it unless you have a state of emergency. When you talk about the pandemic, it wasn’t a state of emergency. As a commission, we consulted the Ministry of Health and our stakeholders to say, “How are we going to handle this election?”

We developed a technical committee on elections in COVID, which eventually developed standard operating procedures to help us run an election. As we run this election, we should also minimize the infection levels and the number of dates out of COVID-19. Some of these standard operating procedures did not sit well with the political parties because they thought we were stifling their campaigns. We had to engage them on several occasions to bring them up to speed with where we were in terms of COVID-19.

Regarding those issues, the Ministry of Health became an authority. We were not and are still not in authority regarding health-related issues. We’ll call the experts to come and speak to the political parties, give them the patterns of infection, and tell them to say, “These rallies are super spreaders. If you subject the people who want to come and vote for you on Election Day to this pandemic, some may be sick on that particular day. Others may even die. It means you do not have the numbers that you require.” For us, what was important was we had communicated.

If you look at the COVID-19 cases in Zambia in the months of July and August 2021, when we held the election up to September or October 2021, somewhere there, the numbers had drastically reduced. Part of this is because of the measures that we have put in place. That is where the media equally helped us to play a role. What we did partly was to train them in election reporting.

Others did their in-house training, and they could only call us to go in and provide expert advice and information on the electoral process. For others, like community radio stations who do not have enough resources to do the training on their own, we had a program from the commission supported by the United Nations Development Program to roll out media training nationwide. We brought together different media houses in the ten provinces of Zambia to speak to them and take them through the election reporting. That was a plus on our part because we had equipped them with the right information to be able to handle the electoral process.

Even when a political party representative comes and speaks about an issue, they would go back to what it is that the Electoral Commission of Zambia said. If they’re unsure, they’ll pick up the phone, call you, and say, “This is what has been said. What is the commission’s position on the matter?” This is why I indicated that the media was and is still our ally in delivering a credible election from the get-go. For us to be able to handle the rest of the processes, the media plays a critical role.

Come to the election period itself, and you’ve mentioned August 14, 2021, in order to enhance transparency, we taught the political parties to ensure they had representatives in all the polling stations and they had access to the results. That is what we were using even at the National Results Center to be able to declare.

The media plays a critical role in the elections. Share on X

I can’t really say on the part of the former president, but I can speak authoritatively from the Electoral Commission of Zambia’s point of view that we followed the procedure. That in itself is what led to the acceptance of the results of the 2021 election procedure in that we engaged and involved the stakeholders who are not just political parties but who had the media covering the election in every polling station and bringing the people of Zambia up to speed with everything that was happening.

In this period, normal programming is disrupted. Everybody is focused on elections, so the story is about elections. We have over 150 media houses combined in this country. That’s radio, television, and newspapers. We also have online media. We ensured that we accredited media, including international media such as the BBC and Bloomberg. We had the Voice of America. They were there with us to cover the election and bring the globe up to speed on what was happening in Zambia. That helped us diffuse the tension and ensure that every stakeholder accepted the election result. 

That is really smart and very interesting in your description of the relationship with the media, how it was a mutual win-win relationship that you were helping educate, inform, and be a helpline. In return, they also did accurate, fair, and diligent reporting. I was also struck that in 2022, the US Department of State invited you to come and attend an International Visitor Leadership Program on election management. I was curious. The United States has gone through its own difficult election period. From the outside, what are your perspectives on US elections, the dynamics of those elections, and the role that media plays?

I’ll tell you that there is no perfect electoral system globally. Each electoral system is unique. It’s got its own shortcomings, challenges, and positives. That is what we learned when we came through to the United States for us to be able to do this. This was at the invitation of the US government itself to say, “You’ve delivered an election here in Zambia. We have nominated you.” I went with 5 other colleagues plus myself, so 6 of us. They specifically curated this program for us to be able to see how they handle their elections. That was an amazing thing to do for us because there are things you can learn. There are things you can come back, adapt, and adopt in your electoral system, but there are also things that cannot apply.

There is no perfect electoral system globally. Each system has its own shortcomings and challenges. Share on X

We laugh with my colleagues when we think about it that every state in the United States has its own unique electoral laws. In Zambia, that’s a different story. The electoral laws apply across the country. You won’t find different laws in the given province. You also find that everything is in one line: the constitution and the Electoral Process Act. The Electoral Commission of Zambia Act guides how we handle elections.

It was also good to see the fact that the US still uses its postal services to handle an election. We look back at that and say, “That system cannot work back home because there will be suspicion.” How do you even talk about early voting in a country like Zambia? Otherwise, stakeholders would be suspicious to say, “What is the Electoral Commission trying to do?” More so, for you to be able to send ballot papers through the postal services is unheard of. We saw how that system is effective in the United States compared to what we have here in Zambia.

There is also the use of technology. At the beginning of 2023, we gave our strategic direction (our strategic intent) that one of the areas that we would like to explore is electronic voting. When we had an opportunity to go to the US, we went to Virginia, St. Louis, and Denver. We looked at how they are using technology in terms of e-voting.

We also went to a company that manufactures some of the pads they use in electronic voting. It’s amazing. That is why I say technology keeps advancing. You need to be agile for you to be able to adapt to the growing systems globally. We learned that for us here, we need a lot of stakeholder engagement or a stakeholder buying into that if we need to go that direction. Our friends have had systems where they’ve used electronic voting. At some point, they dumped it, went back to it again, and so on and so forth. They also shared their lessons with us on what transpired.

Technology keeps advancing. You need to be agile for you to be able to adapt to the growing systems. Share on X

Coming to the story of the media, one of the things that I really wanted to have a look at is how misinformation and disinformation have affected the American electoral process. We sat at the State Department when they received us. One of the people I was given to speak to is an expert in media issues. He said, “If you’re expecting a miracle on disinformation and misinformation from the United States, you’ll not have that miracle because this is rampant even here.”

We went to St. Louis and met with this civil society organization that spoke to us and said, regrettably, they had a situation where a law was enacted based on disinformation. This is when they were trying to normalize things, push that law back, and so on and so forth. We learned that this issue of social media misinformation and disinformation is a global challenge. We must continuously see how we can keep improving, especially since we also have fact-checking platforms. We have one in Zambia. This has been supported by the UN program. We have collaborated with them to ensure that we do fact-checking.

The issue of social media and misinformation/disinformation is a global challenge. Share on X

Speaking overall, media equally plays an important role even in the US elections. For them, it’s from a point of view that they have to give results. These results are mainly in a bipartisan way. For us, we have over 70 political parties. In 2021, we had 16 political parties participating in the general election at the presidential level. Our colleagues on that side were handling an election for two political parties. We also saw in St. Louis how the two political parties work together for them to be able to deliver the electoral services closer to the people. It’s important for us to note that media plays a critical role.

If you may allow me, we were in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, at the International Conference in the Great Lakes Region (and the United Nations) to speak about the inclusivity and integrity of the electoral process and how media can enable those processes. We also discovered that there are certain biases in how the media covers the electoral process.

Political parties are more pronounced than women, the youth, and persons living with disabilities. That is an area of focus for us. If we need to begin to amplify women’s participation, youth participation, and persons with disabilities participation, what is it that we need to do? We want to begin conversations with the media going into 2024 on how we can bring inclusion into the electoral process.

That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing that. Shifting to a person who famously was televised casting his very first vote in the first free Democratic elections of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, can you take us back to a moment when Mandela inspired you somehow? What was it? Where were you? What was that moment?

Nelson Mandela still remains a global Icon. Zambia’s relationship with South Africa makes us inseparable. We know each other’s history at the back of our hands. For me, I started learning about Nelson Mandela when I was in primary school in Civics and History. We used to call that Social Studies. It brought us up to speed on what was happening in South Africa in relation to apartheid and how Nelson Mandela was involved in trying to create a South Africa that was conducive for everybody.

These are things that we read through stories and history books. I personally didn’t have an opportunity to meet President Nelson Mandela, but I watched a movie called Long Walk to Freedom. That somehow speaks hugely about this African or global Icon, Nelson Mandela. The story is one of resilience. It is resilience unmatched.

That is why when we opened our discussion, I spoke to boldness in terms of resilience. It was amazing to look at that story through the movie Long Walk to Freedom, where this man never gives up. Even when he’s in prison, he’s still not giving up. He comes out of prison and is still not giving up, and things happen. What else are we asking for if we need to look at a resilient person? What else are we asking for if we have to look at the lessons? Where do we draw the lessons of resilience?

Twenty-seven years in prison, and somebody still comes and continues hoping that one day this country is going to be free and it is going to go and have its independent elections. Those elections did happen, and he became president. A few years in that, he says, “I’m stepping down.” That’s amazing. For me, that is where the story of resilience really starts and ends, at least for now. I’m yet to come across any other person that will inspire me in such a way.

Is there a particular part of the movie that you recollect a moment that really touched you?

Absolutely. There is a part where he leaves home and joins the other freedom fighters. Apparently, there are people who are looking for him because they want to take him to prison. He returns home, and they take him, but he’s so calm about it. Mandela keeps reassuring his wife and his children that it’s going to be okay when you know for sure that what is happening is not going to be okay. For me, that in itself was something else. It was very emotional.

Zambia and South Africa share a rich history. Having read about something like that in books and then having that story being told in a movie, a movie, brings some sort of reality to you. It was quite an emotional moment. I said to myself, “What level of sacrifice is this that you leave your wife and your children, and you are looking at the bigger picture and say, ‘This is not about me. It’s for the entire South Africa.’” Who else sacrifices like that? I reached a new level of respect for Nelson Mandela at that moment.

Do you think his leadership example is still relevant to the world? If so, why?

It’s very relevant. Even then, I speak to the spirit of forgiveness. We live in a world where wrong things are done in different ways. It could be at a family level. It could be at a national level or community level. He showed us that we need to love one another. What’s in the past remains in the past. We need to forge ahead. We cannot forget quite all right, but there’s always a moment of moving forward. That moment of moving forward is what brings growth. He is telling us, “Don’t be stagnant. Don’t look at where you are today. Don’t focus on the past, which didn’t help you. Learn from the past mistakes and move forward. Even as you move forward, learn that you can go somewhere out of moving forward.”

The past remains in the past. Moving forward is what brings growth. We need to forge ahead. Share on X

That’s very significant. Where have you applied that in your own life? It reminds me of your story of when your mother passed. Did that resonate with you? Did that reinforce your decision in grade eleven when your mother passed away? 

It did. At that moment, I didn’t realize when my mother died because I didn’t have an opportunity to watch this movie. When I watched the movie, I went back into my own life. I’ve had people that described me as a resilient person, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t really sure where that description was coming from. When I looked at Nelson Mandela’s life, I knew the true definition of resilience. That’s when I said, “It makes a lot of sense.”

I could have been anything. Maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here and speaking to you if I wasn’t resilient. Life was tough. In this description, it sounds a bit easy because these are things that have passed. You look back and say, “I never thought I would even come out of that.” I’m sure even Nelson Mandela, when he sat in prison, never thought it would come out of that prison.

Prison, for me, was that life of suffering. It is that life where I had to move at some point without shoes when other kids have shoes. Prison was carrying one tablet of soap in a boarding school, and you’re a girl while other children have so many tablets of soap. Prison was to work as a maid when I had the right qualifications at that point to sit in a university. The prison was everything around losing a mother. When you don’t even have a father, your life drastically changes. You have to begin to think about how things will happen and how your life will change.

It even makes it worse when you realize you are on your own. You are all you have. If you make a mistake, if you miss this person, if you lose this person, or if you lose this opportunity, you’re done. You’re gone. What do you need to do? You have to remain focused. You have to weather the storm regardless of what is happening.

I look at what was happening in Robben Island in that movie, the hard work they were made to do, those stones, and things like that. It’s not typically that kind of prison for me, but it relates to the very things that I went through. It’s the sweat that came in doing all the manual work (for me to be able to raise kids to go to school.

I’m able to pick a whole lot of lessons from that movie or from the life of Nelson Mandela. I’m applying it to myself. It doesn’t end with me because I do a lot of mentorship for young ladies. These are young ladies who are more or less in my shoes. They look at me because I’ve told my story. It’s easy for them to relate to the story. They’re asking you how to navigate the environment where they are, and you share your own experiences. It gives them encouragement. They look at you and say, “If she is where she is now and was in our shoes, probably worse than where we are, then there is true hope for the future.”

In our final moments, what are your final words about leading boldly into the future regarding what you would say to our generation and the next? Also, what do you think Nelson Mandela would say to our generation and the next?

For me, I’m a firm believer of process. I describe the process as we should never allow ourselves to jump the process. If the process to greatness or leadership demands that we go through prison, and I’m using the word loosely in terms of prison because of the description that I have given, then let’s allow to go through that prison. That is where a character is shaped. That is where we are made. If you jump the process because you’re in a hurry to get things done, you may find that you might not even reach the level that you want to go through. We also need to be quite deliberate about what it is that we want.

We should never allow ourselves to jump the process. Share on X

In speaking about this, I talk about networking. For me, networking is being strategic. It is strategic because I know what I want in my networks. I cannot afford to be everywhere or all over, but I’m identifying the right people. I’m like, “Who are these people that can help me to move?” From networks, that’s where I said mentorship is very important. Mentorship is what has made me to be where I am.

I worked with this amazing woman who’s the CEO of one of the banks here in Zambia called the Zambia National Commercial Bank. Her name is Mukwandi. Mukwandi believes in mentorship. She’s the kind of leader who will move from her seat and make you feel at some point that you’re the CEO of the institution. She deliberately exposed me where she needed to be. She would tell them, “Patricia will come and represent me.” She says, “What I’m doing is I am mentoring you. I’m growing you to become this person who should overtake me. In overtaking me, I want that when I sit back one day, I look back and should be able to say, ‘I played a role in that girl’s life.’”

For me, that is where I want to end. Remember, do not jump the process. Also, remember that networking is very important, but be strategic in your networks. Whatever you do, please find a mentor. Get a mentor who will help you walk through your journey, whether it’s career, business, or whatever it is you do. I am where I am because it’s a journey I have worked on.

What a gift to talk to you. I look forward to picking up the conversation and sharing many more special moments with you. Thank you so much.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you.

Talking to the bold Patricia Luhanga about her leadership and her electoral commission team’s actions to protect Zambia’s democracy and facilitate the peaceful transfer of power in the 2021 hotly contested elections evokes many thoughts around the meaning of democracy, its trends, and its fragility. What does the word democracy mean? It comes from two Greek words, Demos, meaning people, and Kratos, meaning power. Simply put, ‘the power of the people.’ It is a system of governing that depends on the will of the people.

Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute and think tank based in Washington, DC, over the years, annually measures and reports on freedom in the world. They measure political freedom and civil liberties measured by country, giving us a global and a country freedom index. Its core conviction is that freedom flourishes in democracies when governments are accountable to their people. Its 2023 report records that the rise of autocrats and the democracy recession are real. Global freedom has consistently declined for its seventeenth consecutive year. While the rise of authoritarianism is a dangerous and real threat, they are beatable.

LBF 46 | Peaceful Elections

In the United States, where I live, we have seen that democracy, once a global gold standard, is under a brazen attack. It begs the question: who is killing democracy? Is it the politicians, the publicly elected officials, or is it we, the people? Some Harvard research suggests that it is both. The politicians, many of them, no longer play according to the rules. They fail to deliver what the people want. In this unprecedented income disparity and inequality, the government is not delivering.

On the other hand, we, the people, multimillions of Americans, firstly, do not want democracy. They want to protect their White privilege. Many multimillions do not trust the system. Even most Americans who say, “We want democracy,” fail to commit to daily action, to fight the good fight, and to keep it.

To keep our democracies, it requires that we, the people, wake up, stand up, and speak out. Speaking is not enough. It requires that we take action to get onto those campaign trails, to go to the polls, and to take the daily actions to protect our system in our communities, our counties, and our states.

It is we, the people, that will determine whether our democracies survive and thrive.

Until next time, take care and take thoughtful, bold action.

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About Patricia Luhanga

LBF 46 | Peaceful ElectionsPatricia is a premium corporate communications expert in Zambia. She was appointed Corporate Affairs Manager for the Electoral Commission of Zambia in December 2020. Prior to that, she worked as Head of Public Relations at National Savings and Credit Bank Zambia, where her role was to reposition the Bank’s brand and earn its share of voice on the market. She has held similar roles at FNB (Zambia) and in the water and sanitation sector. Patricia has also served in mainstream media at the helm of news management.

She is a specialized Financial Journalist with a Master of Arts in Financial Journalism from City University of London in the United Kingdom. She also holds qualifications in Mass Communication and International Relations from Cavendish University and Mulungushi University.

Patricia is a 2017-2018 recipient of the prestigious Chevening Scholarship, administered by the UK Government, which enables emerging global leaders to study in the UK whilst joining a global community of professionals creating positive change worldwide. Some of her thought leadership moments include delivering a keynote at the Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa conference, where she shared on Financial Journalism Landscape in Southern Africa and its role in economic development. Additionally, she recently made a presentation at the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region and the United Nations on the role of the media in enhancing integrity and inclusivity in the electoral process.

In April 2022, she was nominated by the US Department of State to undertake the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on election management. The IVLP is the US Government’s premier leadership exchange program where respective embassies nominate candidates who have contributed to critical sectors of a country to focus on professional development in a given area.

Later, in May 2022, Patricia was named the Public Relations /Communications Practitioner of the Year 2021 by the Zambia Institute of Public Relations and Communication in recognition of her role in delivering Zambia’s 2021 General Election. She recently received two Accenture-Business Engage Awards as a Positive Role Model Winner for Zambia and Public Service, respectively.

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