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ZAMBIA: Young Voters Push Grassroots Issues to the Fore

Lewis Mwanangombe

Lusaka, Mar 22 2011 (IPS) - Concina Haajila was only a year old in 1991 when Zambia turned from 27 years of autocracy and dictatorship to political pluralism and democratic governance. During the past 20 years she and millions of her peers have grown to adulthood and become disenchanted with the politics of their nation which have swung from an issue base to hero worship and personal purse enlargement.

Concina Haajila with her voter registration card. Credit:  Lewis Mwanangombe/IPS

Concina Haajila with her voter registration card. Credit: Lewis Mwanangombe/IPS

“I intend to use my vote well by choosing leaders who will work for us as the youth in all areas where we have our own concerns,” Haajila, who has just registered as a new voter, observed.

“That is why as the youth we need to encourage other youths to go and register as voters,” explained Marko Mulenga, the executive director of 2410 – a civil society organisation for young people that has turned its full attention to voter registration ahead of national elections due in Zambia towards the end of this year. The national elections coming up in Zambia will see men and women fight for seats in local and municipal councils; parliament and of course the hot seat of president.

“We need to have more people on the voters’ register because democracy derives its power from the number of people that have registered as voters,” Mulenga said. “That is why our target is to ensure that each and every person who is eligible to register as a voter does so and that they are not disenfranchised.”

Registration slow

Voter registration is a concern for government, opposition and civil society at present. When the Electoral Commission of Zambia launched its mobile registration program on Jun. 21, 2010 it was anticipated that it would capture at least 2.5 million new voters by the time it ended on Sep. 18.  But after this initial 90-day period, only a fraction this number of new voters had registered. The government extended registration until Nov. 30.

At the end of this extension, Cris Akufuna – the public relations manager at Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) – reported that 1,422,162 persons had registered as new voters. The government again extended the voter registration period, this time until Mar. 31, to give those who have delayed registration a chance to do so at their district, city or municipal council offices.

Mwimba Malama, is a Member of Parliament for the rural constituency of Mfuwe in Eastern Zambia and according to him the biggest reason for the slow pace of the voter registration exercise has been the slow issuance of national registration cards which are essential for individuals wishing to register as voters.

“In the first instance the voter registration exercise did not get adequate publicity in rural areas. Many potential voters in rural areas could not register because they did not even know about the voter registration exercise and they do not have national registration cards,” Malama said, adding that the government needs to mount a more vigorous and sustained voter registration campaign.

Raising awareness

With support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2410 has implemented a voter registration awareness campaign, that is targeting youth like Haajila who are between 18 and 35 years to register as voters by appealing to them through Mobile Disco Shows, Short Messaging Service (SMS), fliers and civic education conducted on public commuter buses.

“The project’s strategy is anchored on three props namely; drawing large numbers of people to whom information about registering as a voter can be disseminated, taking advantage of captive audiences to relay civic education information to them, and providing targeted information to individual prospective voters,” Mulenga said.

“In addition, 2410 is involved in the ‘Zambia We Want” campaign. This campaign aims to make public leaders accountable to the general public. Furthermore, the campaign aims to publicise the wishes of the people of Zambia vis a vis all matters that are the responsibility of government,” Mulenga added.

The UNDP is supporting voter registration more broadly through a programme called “The Electoral Process in Zambia: Support to the Electoral Cycle 2009 – 2012”.

This project aims at providing support to the ECZ, the department of national registration and civil society organisations like 2410, in the hope of better organising and managing the electoral process in Zambia. Continuous registration of voters, improvement of the registry for ECZ, review of the legal framework and facilitation of participation of women in the electoral process and effective media monitoring of this electoral process are among the measures in progress.

UNDP has supplied Zambia with 1,000 voter registration kits that will rely on biometric technology, a first in the history of Zambia.  The kits, which include a digital camera, a computer, a printer and a lamination machine allow for on-site creation of a voter’s card. The kits have been distributed to every district of the country and have drastically cut down registration time by eliminating complicated paper forms, and reduced errors that in past delayed registration of voters.

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