Hichilema’s Zambia: New era, new change?

When it was announced that the Zambian opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema had won the presidential election, there was dancing in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Hichilema defeated incumbent President Edgar Lungu by nearly a million votes in a landslide victory after five failed campaigns.

However, Hichilema, a businessman cum politician, has a lot to do, because when copper prices fell in 2011, Zambia, which is Africa’s second-largest copper producer, saw its economy stall. Commodity price declines and the coronavirus outbreak have hampered its economic recovery. Zambia, thus, became Africa’s first pandemic-era government to default on international loans in November of last year after failing to make payments.

No wonder Hichilema himself has vowed democratic reforms, aiding economic policies, and off-corruption policies which he claimed are absent in Lungu’s administration as he made his inaugural address to the nation.

Hichilema’s journey

Hichilema’s tale as a hustler is an interesting one because his career as an opposition politician has opened his eyes and got him the presidency, after several attempts, though many alleged that as a business elite and enormous fortune gave birth to it.

In total, he has run in six elections. His previous five presidential runs were all unsuccessful. In 2006, he stood for president as a member of the United Party for National Development (UPND), which he also partially funded. However, it wasn’t surprising enough to see that Hichilema won the election comfortably this year, backed by the endorsement of Zambia’s other opposition parties against Lungu.

Before becoming one of  Zambia’s wealthiest men and before owning one of Zambia’s largest cattle herds and ranching operations, Hichilema has characterized himself as a “cattle boy” who grew up herding his family’s livestock.

He earned a degree in economics and business administration. Hichilema completed his education at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, getting an MBA. He returned to Zambia to lead Coopers and Lybrand’s Zambian operations, which ultimately became PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton. Property management, financial consulting, and tourism are now part of his business portfolio.

Hichilema’s journey to politics encountered challenges because he was a significant opponent of Edgar Lungu. Hichilema was arrested and charged with treason on April 11, 2017, in what many saw as an unlawful maneuver by Lungu to stifle a political opponent. The arrest and charge were widely criticised, with rallies taking place both in Zambia and overseas, calling for Hichilema’s release and decrying Lungu’s regime’s increasing authoritarianism. On August 16, 2017, Hichilema was released from prison and the allegation of treason was dismissed.

However, Hichilema has promised that reprisal is not part of his agenda and will focus on socio-economic development of Zambia.

Zambia under Lungu

Zambia during Edgar Lungu’s reign witnessed a series of events that led to calls for change. There was a lack of policy consistency, particularly in the critical mining industry, which is Zambia’s main source of revenue. The policy unpredictability caused major concern among international investors, in addition to jeopardizing revenue collection. With robust commodity prices, it appeared to be a favorable time for Zambia economically, but the Lungu’s administration intervened with mining in an unpredictable manner, pressuring mines to submit to nationalization.

Another thing was the country’s massive debt, which showed lack of commitment to resolving the country’s debt crisis through better fiscal management, and harmed the Lungu’s ability to enhance service delivery, invest in social sectors, and reduce high unemployment. It is on record that Zambia’s external debt was $1.9 billion when the PF took power in September 2011.

It climbed to $12.74 billion by December 2020. While Lungu’s administration claimed that the money was spent on roads and infrastructure, the opposition claims that much of it was lost to corruption. The lack of service delivery was felt most acutely in the health sector, where the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation.

Authoritarianism was highlighted at the end of Lungu’s rule, despite the fact that Zambia’s Electoral Commission maintained that it had conducted the elections reasonably smoothly. The outgoing Patriotic Front administration has been accused of harassing media outlets and journalists who have exposed suspected corruption, and opposition lawmakers have been imprisoned for criticizing government choices. Also, Hichilema easily admits to being arrested 15 times, most recently in 2016 for failing to yield to Lungu’s convoy.

New era, new change?

It is now expected that Hichilema will do better and handle things differently than the previous leadership. Especially due to his worldwide business experience, it is believed that he would help in reviving Zambia’s copper industry.

Many Zambians believed that Hichilema’s triumph was aided by a sagging economy. Thus, economic recovery is the top priority for those who voted for him as Lungu’s administration was overthrown due to long-term economic decline and Zambia’s serious financial predicament.

As Zambia’s election results could be interpreted as a “protest vote”, it is hoped that Hichilema has a stronger foot to negotiate agreements with international creditors and investors in mining and the economy due to his business etiquettes.

Educator, writer and legal researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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