The history of Zambia before the 19th century can be studied only through archaeology and oral traditions. Iron working and agriculture were practiced in some parts of Zambia by about AD 100. By AD 900, mining and trading were evident in southern Zambia. Between the 15th century (or possibly earlier) and the 18th century, various groups of Bantu migrants from the southern Congo settled in Zambia. By the beginning of the 19th century, three large-scale political units existed in Zambia, in three different types of geographic environment. On the northeast plateau between the valleys of the Luapula and Luangwa, the Bemba had established a system of chieftainships; the Lunda kingdom of Kazembe was in the Luapula Valley; and the kingdom of the Lozi was in the far west, in the floodplain of the upper Zambezi.
Zambia was affected by two "invasions" in the mid-19th century. Shaka's Zulu empire in South Africa set in motion a series of migrations, commonly referred to as the mfecane; groups of peoples, including the Ngoni, were forced to migrate north across the Zambezi in order to avoid the Zulu raids and conquests. The other invasion came in the form of traders from the north—Nyamwezi, Arabs, and Swahili—drawing Zambia into long-distance trading systems.
The first significant European contact was through Christian missionaries. David Livingstone explored the region near Lake Bangweulu extensively from 1851 to his death in 1873. In 1884, François Coillard, a French Protestant missionary, settled in Barotseland (now the Western Province).
In the 1890s, Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, which had already established itself to the south, extended its charter to the lands north of the Zambezi. From 1891 to the end of 1923, the territory—known as Northern Rhodesia—was ruled by this private company. Efforts to stimulate European settlement were disappointing, since anticipated discoveries of mineral wealth failed to materialize.
In the 1920s, new methods of exploiting the extensive mineral deposits in the Copperbelt region transformed the economic life of the territory. Development of these ore bodies, although hampered by the Great Depression, reversed the roles of the two Rhodesias. Northern Rhodesia, formerly viewed as an economic liability in any projected merger with Southern Rhodesia, now was seen as a source of wealth. European settlements rose rapidly, spurred directly by the requirements of the mining industry and indirectly by the subsequent expansion of the economy.
Before federation in 1953, the political development of the territory focused on two relationships: that of the European settlers with the colonial authorities on the one hand, and that between the settlers and the Africans on the other. The European settler community pressed for a greater voice in the colony's affairs. The major political issue involving the relations between Europeans and Africans concerned the allocation of land. Commissions on land policy designated the areas adjacent to the railway line as crown land. Although there was no legal bar to the acquisition of crown land by Africans, the effect of the arrangement was to exclude them from the commercially most attractive acreage.
In 1953, Northern Rhodesia became a member of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Even though the overwhelming majority of Africans in the territory was opposed to the federal arrangement, the British government decided that Northern Rhodesia would participate in the federation. In 1960, a royal commission reported that, despite clear economic benefits, the majority of Africans in both Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland was opposed to the continuance of federation in its present form. In early 1962, Nyasaland's desire to secede from the federation was acknowledged by the British government.
Following its initiation into the federation, the government of Northern Rhodesia underwent constitutional changes, with a growing emphasis on African representation. Africans had not been represented on the Legislative Council until 1948, when two were named to that body. An enlarged Legislative Council, convened in 1954 just after the formation of the federation, included four Africans selected by the African Representative Council. A new constitution, introduced in January 1959, aimed at replacing the council with a political system based on a greater degree of cooperation between the races.
Discussions on a revision of this constitution began in December 1960 but were brought to an early close by disagreement between the European-dominated United Federal Party and the United National Independence Party (UNIP). But agreement was finally reached, and a new constitution came into effect in September 1962. Elections later that year produced an African majority in the Legislative Council, which then called for secession from the federation, full internal self-government under a new constitution, and a new National Assembly based on a broader, more democratic franchise.
On 31 December 1963, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was formally dissolved. On 24 October 1964, Northern Rhodesia became an independent republic, and its name was changed to Zambia. Kenneth Kaunda, the leader of the ruling UNIP, became the nation's first president. Kaunda was reelected in 1969, 1973, 1978, and 1983, surviving a series of coup attempts during 1980–81.
During the 1970s, Zambia played a key role in the movement toward black majority rule in Rhodesia. Zambia's border with Rhodesia was closed from 1973 to 1978 by Kaunda in retaliation for Rhodesian raids into Zambia; the raids were intended to impede the infiltration of Patriotic Front guerrillas into Rhodesia from their Zambian bases. The emergence of independent, black-ruled Zimbabwe eased the political pressure, but a drastic decline of world copper prices in the early 1980s, coupled with a severe drought, left Zambia in a perilous economic position. The continuing civil war in Angola also had repercussions in Zambia, bringing disruption of Zambian trade routes and casualties among Zambians along the border.
A South African air raid near Lusaka on 19 May 1986 was aimed at curbing Zambia's support for black nationalist groups in exile there. Later in the year, Kaunda supported Commonwealth sanctions against South Africa but did not take action himself, since Zambia was heavily dependent on imports from South Africa.
Riots, the worst since independence, broke out on 9 December 1986 in protest against the removal of subsidies for cornmeal, which had caused the price to rise by 120%; 15 people were killed, hundreds were injured, and hundreds of shops were looted. Peace returned two days later when Kaunda restored the subsidy and nationalized the grain-milling industry. He also ruled thenceforth with state of emergency powers. Reduction in government spending in order to reduce the deficit had been demanded by the International Monetary Fund, along with the devaluation of the currency, as a condition for extending new loans to enable Zambia to pay for essential imports. On 1 May 1987, Kaunda rejected the IMF conditions for a new financing package of about $300 million. He limited payments on the foreign debt to well under 10% of export earnings and established a new fixed currency rate of eight kwacha to the dollar. This did little to improve the economy or the popularity of Kaunda and UNIP.
By early 1989, Zambia, in consultation with the IMF and the World Bank, developed a new economic reform plan. In early 1991, Zambia qualified for World Bank assistance for the first time since 1987, although this was later suspended. By 1990, a growing opposition to UNIP's monopoly of power had coalesced in the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). A number of UNIP defectors and major labor leaders came together to pressure Kaunda to hold multi-party elections. In December 1990, after a tumultuous year that included riots in Lusaka and a coup attempt, Kaunda signed legislation ending UNIP's legal monopoly of power.
After difficult negotiations between the government and opposition groups, Zambia enacted a new constitution in August 1991. It enlarged the National Assembly, established an electoral commission, and allowed for more than one presidential candidate. Candidates no longer were required to be UNIP members. In September, Kaunda announced the date for Zambia's first multi-party parliamentary and presidential elections in 19 years. On 31 October and 1 November 1991, the 27-year long state of emergency was terminated. Frederick J. T. Chiluba (MMD) defeated Kaunda, 81% to 15%. The MMD won over 125 of the 150 elected seats in the Assembly. UNIP won 25 seats, although UNIP swept the Eastern Province, winning 19 seats there.
Despite the change of government, the economy still sputtered. Chiluba's austerity measures may have been popular with Zambia's creditors, but not with its people. Likewise, his privatization plans alarmed the unions, his original base of support. Chiluba's MMD in power became autocratic and corrupt. Kaunda, his family, and UNIP officials were harassed. The press began to criticize Chiluba's government and Chiluba lashed back. An Anticorruption Commission investigated three senior cabinet ministers suspected of abuse of office.
UNIP remained the principal target of Chiluba's wrath. In February 1993, a document known as "Operation Zero Option" was leaked to the press. Allegedly written by Kaunda loyalists, it called for a campaign of strikes, riots and crime to destabilize the government. On 4 March 1993, government declared a three-month state of emergency and detained 26 UNIP members, including three of Kaunda's sons. Chiluba lifted the state of emergency on May 25 and released all but eight of the detainees, whom he charged with offenses from treason to possession of seditious documents.
Throughout the 1990s, Zambia continued to face troubles in its attempts to modernize its economy and to reform its political system. Despite liquidation of the government's huge stake in the nation's industrial sector, and implementing a drastic austerity program to reduce its budget deficit, the country saw only marginal growth. Further, despite the promise of fresh beginnings in 1991, the country momentarily reverted to one-party rule under Chiluba as the MMD fraudulently won huge victories in the November 1996 elections prompting foreign donors to suspend aid payments briefly in early 1997. Subsequently, a campaign mounted by Chiluba and his party to amend the constitution to allow a third term was defeated. In the election of 27 December 2001, Chiluba's handpicked candidate Levy Mwanawasa was elected president with 29% of the vote; the MMD picked up 68 of 150 seats in the National Assembly. The vote was ruled flawed by international and local poll monitors—mainly on grounds of misuse of state funds and vote buying. An opposition petition to the Supreme Court alleged that the elections were rigged.
In an overture for national unity, or perhaps a bid to save his presidency, Mwanawasa named nine opposition MPs to his cabinet in February 2003. The move provoked a constitutional crisis when Mwanawasa refused to back down against a High Court ruling that the appointments were unconstitutional. Opposition parties expelled the MPs from the National Assembly. Later that month the Supreme Court declined a petition by former president Chiluba seeking immunity from prosecution under the government's anti-corruption drive. Chiluba was accused of abuse of office and 60 counts of theft during his teny-ears in office. In May 2003, under pressure from church, women's and other civil society groups, Mwanawasa conceded to the formation of a constituent assembly to review the constitution. Civic groups contended that the current document grants the executive far-reaching powers, which groups say is at odds with their vision for a people-driven constitution. Activist opponents of the president's vision for the constitutional review process took to wearing green ribbons and honking their horns on Fridays.
By mid-2003, the government was considering participation in a future free trade area as part of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) arrangement. Food security and care for AIDS orphans and vulnerable children were also on the policy agenda. The government had also commenced the repatriation of some 5,000 Rwandan refugees. An estimated 1.2 million Zambians are HIV positive, with 21.5% of all adults aged between 15 and 49 years infected with the virus. Around 86% of Zambians are classified as poor, which impacts nutritional status. Lingering fallout from crop failures and drought in the sub-region in 2001-2002 required targeted food aid for some 60,000 persons, down from a high of 2.7 million in 2002. However, given calls for Mwanawasa to step down and to call for fresh elections, it was unclear how able the president would be to manage this agenda.