The challenges ahead for Hakainde Hichilema

By Dr David Monyae

UNDER ousted president Edgar Lungu, Zambia’s economy was in freefall. In 2019 and 2020, the Zambian kwacha was one of the world’s worst performing currencies. In 2011, when Lungu came to power, Zambia’s external debt was $1.9 billion. Ten years later, external debt stands at more than $12 billion.

On 24 August 2021, Zambian businessman and cattle rancher Hakainde Hichilema was sworn in as the seventh president of the Republic of Zambia. The task that falls before him is enormous. I will sketch out what could be next for Zambia, but first many people would want to know about Hichilema’s long quest for the position he now occupies.

Hichilema became the president of the United Party for National Development (UPND) in 2006 after the death of Anderson Mazoka, the party’s founding president. His first attempt at the presidency was in 2006 under the United Democratic Alliance (UDA), a coalition of three opposition parties. He came third in the election, with more than a 25 percent share of the aggregate vote.

Since then, HH, or Bally, as he is fondly known, ran four successful attempts. The UPND became Zambia’s main opposition party in 2015 when Hichilema came second to Edgar Lungu, the man he has now succeeded as national president. Political animosity between the two became more pronounced after the disputed 2016 general election.

HH refused to recognise Lungu’s slender win over him, and this stance ushered in some of the worst abuses of state power that Zambia has seen since the return to multiparty democracy in 1991. HH and his party were subjected to a raft of restrictions, justified by the Public Order Act. The UPND was not allowed to campaign freely.

In April 2017, HH and several aides were arrested on charges of treason for refusing to give way to Lungu’s presidential motorcade. They remained in prison for four months until August when the state entered a nolle prosequi and the accused were released. With time, anyone — including ordinary citizens — who was critical of the Lungu administration was automatically accused of being an HH surrogate.

VOCAL OPPOSITION

Thus, civil liberties were severely limited and activists such as Chama Fumba and Laura Miti were arrested for their vocal opposition to the manner of Lungu’s governance. Data from the Democracy Index and Civicus established that since Lungu came to power in 2015, Zambia was tilting towards authoritarianism.

Compounding Zambia’s political problems under Lungu was an economy that seemed to be in freefall. In 2019 and 2020, the Zambian Kwacha was one of the world’s worst performing currencies. In 2011 when Lungu’s party, the Patriotic Front (PF), came to power, Zambia’s external debt was $1.9-billion. Ten years later external debt stands at more than $12-billion. The Zambian government tried to commit a reluctant IMF into giving it much-needed loans but was stonewalled. In 2020, Zambia had the unenviable distinction of being the first country to default on its debt repayment since the onslaught of Covid-19.

These troubling realities played into HH’s hands and advantage. He whipped up anti-government sentiment by highlighting his political travails and persecutions under Lungu, by drawing attention to how PF cadres had usurped the role of city councils and the police, and how Zambia’s economic woes were squarely the responsibility of a debt-hungry and autocratic government.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE YOUTH

Social media was the main channel through which HH reached millions of Zambia’s youth, who formed the majority of the more than seven million registered voters. His adoption of the word ‘Bally’, a moniker that means “Father”, presented him as a personable politician in contrast to Lungu, who he successfully depicted as autocratic and aloof to the suffering of ordinary citizens.

In addition, the PF did not do itself any favours by embarking on a tribalist campaign filled with bombast that the youth found disturbing and ineffective in shoring up the fortunes of a desperate incumbent. That Lungu did not rein in those who used ethnic sensibilities was a result of at least two possibilities: he either supported tribal politics or he was powerless to stop those who used it. Either possibility boded ill for a country that prides itself in its One Zambia, One Nation mantra.

This was highlighted even further by the fact that Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s founding president died at the time when the campaign for the 2021 election was in full swing, with Lungu’s minions going against Kaunda’s cherished vision of a Zambia free of tribal politics.

Eventually, the confluence of Lungu’s blunders and the allure of HH combined to deal Lungu a crushing defeat in the August 2021 elections. A caveat, though, must be made to the new president: many Zambians voted against Lungu, rather than for the new administration. HH should also keep in constant mind that he has inherited a country of impatient and demanding citizens who will not hesitate to drive him out of power should he not meet their expectations.

Since 1990, 24 peaceful and democratic transitions of power have happened in Africa, and Zambia alone accounts for three of those. This is testimony to the maturity of democracy in Zambia, but also the determination of the country’s citizens to have their say in who leads them.

FORMIDABLE CHALLENGES

HH is confronted with formidable challenges. Domestically, he bears the responsibility of pulling Zambia’s economy from the precipice. He showed good intent to do this by making Situmbeko Musokotwane, a seasoned economist, the minister of finance. This was his first Cabinet appointment, and it has largely been commended because Musokotwane has served in the position before (between 2008 and 2011) and was largely successful. His stints at the IMF and World Bank will presumably help Zambia’s negotiations with these institutions to a successful outcome.

Corruption is another body blow that has occluded economic progress. Extant structures such as the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Financial Intelligence Centre have to be given both latitude and resources to fight public misuse of resources.

In addition to economic recovery, HH must cleanse public facilities of political cadres who were extorting innocent citizens. City councils should reclaim their space and collect revenue from bus stations and marketplaces. Under Lungu, party cadres had abrogated this responsibility to themselves.

Outside the country, HH should demonstrate that Zambia has turned over a new leaf by being more democratic and more modest in the country’s economic affairs.

Finally, the appointment of competent diplomats will be essential for Zambia to successfully navigate a world that is fraught with economic, political and health hazards.

* Dr David Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.