Some Bantu-speaking peoples (probably including the ancestors of the Tonga) reached the region by c.AD 800, but the ancestors of most of modern Zambia's ethnic groups arrived from present-day Angola and Congo (Kinshasa) between the 16th and 18th cent. By the late 18th cent. traders (including Arabs, Swahili, and other Africans) had penetrated the region from both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts; they exported copper, wax, and slaves. In 1835 the Ngoni, a warlike group from S Africa, entered E Zambia. At about the same time the Kololo penetrated W Zambia from the south, and they ruled the Lozi kingdom of Barotseland (see Western Province from 1838 to 1864.

The Scottish explorer David Livingstone first came to the area that is now Zambia in 1851; he visited Victoria Falls in 1855, and in 1873 he died near Lake Bangweulu. In 1890 agents of Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company signed treaties with several African leaders, including Lewanika, the Lozi king, and proceeded to administer the region. The area was divided into the protectorates of Northwestern and Northeastern Rhodesia until 1911, when the two were joined to form Northern Rhodesia.

The mining of copper and lead began in the early 1900s. By 1909 the central railroad from Livingstone to Ndola had been completed and about 1,500 Europeans had settled in the country. In 1924 the British took over the administration of the protectorate. In the late 1920s extensive copper deposits were discovered in what soon became known as the Copperbelt, and by the late 1930s about 4,000 European skilled workers and some 20,000 African laborers were engaged there. The Africans protested the discrimination and ill treatment to which they were subjected by staging strikes in 1935, 1940, and 1956. They were not allowed to form unions but did organize self-help groups that brought together persons of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In 1946, delegates from these groups met in Lusaka and formed the Federation of African Welfare Societies, the first protectorate-wide African movement; in 1948 this organization was transformed into the Northern Rhodesia African Congress. In the early 1950s, under the leadership of Harry Nkumbula, it fought strenuously, if unsuccessfully, against the establishment of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953–63), which combined Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi). The booming copper industry had attracted about 72,000 whites to Northern Rhodesia by 1958, and the blacks there experienced increasing white domination.

Kenneth Kaunda, a militant former schoolteacher, took over the leadership of the Africans from the more moderate Nkumbula and in 1959 formed a new party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP). Following a massive civil disobedience campaign in 1962, Africans were given a larger voice in the affairs of the protectorate; there was also agitation for greater autonomy for Barotseland in the early 1960s. On Oct. 24, 1964, Northern Rhodesia became independent as the Republic of Zambia, with Kaunda as its first president; he was reelected in 1968 and 1973. The main problems faced by Kaunda in the first decade of independence were uniting Zambia's diverse peoples, reducing European control of the economy, and coping with white-dominated Southern Rhodesia (which unilaterally declared its independence as Rhodesia in Nov., 1965).

European economic influence in Zambia was reduced by increasing the number of trained Zambians, by diversifying the country's economy, and (from 1969) by the government's acquisition of a 51% interest in most major firms (especially mining and banking companies). Barotseland had become part of Zambia through the Barotseland agreement in 1964, which preserved some of Barotseland's autonomy, but that autonomy was subsequently lost, and separatist sentiment in Barotseland continued into the 1970s.

Zambia joined Great Britain and other countries in applying economic sanctions against white-ruled Rhodesia in 1965. It discontinued transporting goods via rail through Rhodesia to the seaport of Beira in Mozambique. Instead, overseas trade items were transported to and from the seaport of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, by plane and by truck (via the Great North Road). A petroleum pipeline between Dar es Salaam and Ndola was opened in 1968, and, with the help of China, the Tazara Railway (also known as the Great Uhuru or Tanzam Railway) connecting Dar es Salaam and Zambia was opened in 1975. In addition, the country halted imports of coal (used especially in the copper industry) from Rhodesia; mining in S Zambia increased until it supplied most of the country's needs. The Rhodesian army pressured Zambia to lift the sanctions by destroying parts of Zambia's transportation network. Zimbabwean independence was finally won in 1980. Throughout the 1970s Kaunda had combined his support of liberation movements in Rhodesia as well as Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa with the encouragement of diplomatic solutions—the approach favored by the West.

Beginning in the late 1960s Kaunda faced formidable opposition from political and student groups protesting the growing concentration of power in his hands. In 1972 all political parties except UNIP were outlawed and Zambia became a one-party state. Kaunda's frequent shuffling of the cabinet prevented a strong political rival from emerging, and he ran for reelection unopposed in 1978.

During the 1970s, the economic sanctions against Rhodesia and a drop in copper prices had put Zambia's economy under severe strain. In the 1980s, as a condition for future aid, Kaunda was forced by foreign creditors to introduce economic austerity measures. Shortages of basic goods, cuts in food subsidies, and unemployment led to rioting and strikes. Meanwhile, popular calls were heard for multiparty rule. In 1986, South Africa launched raids against Zambia and other neighboring countries, targeting camps that were suspected of being used by the African National Congress.

In 1990 another round of austerity measures sparked more unrest, and Kaunda was the target of a coup attempt. In the same year the constitution was amended to allow opposition parties. In 1991, Frederick Chiluba, a trade unionist who promised both political and economic reform for Zambia, overwhelmed Kaunda in the presidential election, and Chiluba's Movement for Multiparty Democracy party (MMD) won the majority of seats in the parliament. A coup allegedly plotted by the opposition led to a brief state of emergency in 1993.

Chiluba's economic reforms, including plans for privatizing the copper industry, initially resulted in better relations with foreign-aid donors, and economic conditions improved somewhat, but Zambia continued to be burdened by a large international debt. Chiluba was reelected in 1996, after parliament passed a constitutional amendment preventing Kaunda from running again. Following a 1997 coup attempt, Chiluba again declared a state of emergency. Numerous opposition leaders and military officers were arrested, including Kaunda, who was freed in 1998 and announced his intention to retire from politics.

By the end of the 20th cent., the standard of living in Zambia was about half what it had been in the mid-1960s, before copper prices began falling. Unemployment and inflation were high, and the country was threatened by the unprecedented prevalance of deadly AIDS/HIV infections. In May, 2001, Chiluba abandoned a bid for a third term in office; it would have required changing the constitution's two-term limit. Chiluba's attempt to change the constitution had provoked a political crisis, both within the country and within his own party.

In the December elections the MMD candidate, Levy Mwanawasa, was elected with less than 30% of the vote; the badly divided opposition also failed to win control of the national assembly. Opposition leaders rejected the victories, charging vote rigging, and some international monitors described the poll as seriously flawed. The country's supreme court, however, ultimately rejected (2005) opposition challenges to the election. Although Mwanawasa was originally viewed as Chiluba's protégé, he embarked on an anticorruption campaign that led to charges against Chiluba and others in the preceding government. Mwanawasa's anticorruption moves also resulted in the dismissal of his vice president and finance minister. A resulting attempt to challenge Mwanawasa's leadership of the MMD was easily defeated in July, 2005.

Meanwhile, the president rejected (Feb., 2005) a draft constitution submitted by a commission he had appointed in 2002; churches and civic and opposition groups supported the changes, foremost among them the requirement that a candidate receive more than 50% of the vote to be elected president. A new draft, which still contained that requirement and other recommendations, was submitted before the end of the year, but Mwanawasa said that it could not be adopted before the 2006 presidential election. In the September presidential vote Mwanawasa won reelection with 43% of the vote after trailing early in the campaign. The opposition accused the president of stealing the election, and there were some clashes between opposition supporters and police after the election. The MMD also secured a narrow majority in the national assembly.

In Nov., 2006, former president Chiluba's corruption trial, which had stalled because of his ill health, was officially suspended, and he was permitted to travel (December) to South Africa for medical treatment. However, a case brought in Great Britain, in which the Zambian government sued Chiluba and 19 other people to regain assets in Europe that the government asserted had been acquired through corruption, continued, and in May, 2007, the British court order the 20 defendants to repay $46 million. That same month, a Zambian court ordered Chiluba's trial to resume.

Meanwhile, opposition leader and Patriotic Front (PF) presidential candidate Michael Sata, who had placed second in the 2006 presidential election, was charged in Dec., 2006, with false declaration of his assets prior to the election. Sata denounced the charges as politically motivated, and they were soon dismissed. In June, 2008, President Mwanawasa suffered a stroke; he died in late August. Vice President Rupiah Banda succeeded him as acting president. Banda was elected president in October, narrowly defeating Sata; Hakainde Hichilema was a distant third. Sata again charged the victor with fraud, but southern African observers called the voting free and fair. In Aug., 2009, former president Chiluba was acquitted of corruption. The Sept., 2011, elections ended the MMD's 20 year hold on the presidency when Sata won the office with 43% of the vote, defeating Banda, Hichilema, and others. The PF also won a plurality of the national assembly seats. In Oct., 2014, Sata died and was succeeded on an interim basis by Vice President Guy Scott, an economist born to Scottish parents. Sata's death also led to a split within the PF between a faction aligned with Scott, who was ineligible to run for president, and one aligned with Defense Minister Edgar Lungu, who was chosen by the party's central committee as the PF's presidential candidate. Lungu won the Jan., 2015, special election, edging out opposition candidate Hichilema.

The early 21st cent. saw a revival of a desire for independence or autnonomy in the former Barotseland (now Western Province); the Zambian government was criticized by the Lozi (or Barotse) for not honoring the 1964 treaty that led to Barotseland's incorporation into Zambia. In 2012 traditional Lozi leaders in the Bartoseland National Council called for the area to pursue its own self-determination. Barotseland's traditional royal household supported the call for autonomy, which was denounced by the Zambian government and not supported by some of the other ethnic groups in the region.

The Aug., 2016, presidential election largely duplicated the 2015 special election. Lungu narrowly won more than 50% of the vote, but Hichilema's party accused the electoral commission of reducing its candidate's vote. Hichilema was charged with sedition in October after allegedly telling a crowd not to recognize Lungu as president. In Apr., 2017, he was charged with treason for allegedly obstructing Lungu's motorcade and jailed, but the charges were dropped in August. In July, 2017, after a series of arson fires that Lungu blamed on the opposition, the parliament approved a 90-day state of emergency.

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