1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

High hopes for Zambia's president 'HH'

Cai Nebe
August 24, 2021

The election victory of Zambia's newly inaugurated President Hakainde Hichilema is a boon for democracy in southern Africa. But he faces the monumental task of rebuilding confidence in Zambia's democracy and economy.

Supporter of Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema
Hakainde Hichilema will be under pressure to bring change in ZambiaImage: DW/C. Mwakideu

Hakainde Hichilema ran for president five times before winning this year. Popularly known as "HH" or "Bally", a slang term for for "father," Hichilema won the Zambian election by almost a million votes. But the work ahead was not lost on him during his victory speech: "We have an enormous task ahead to revive our economy and deliver on your expectations." He vowed that his leadership would "foster a better democracy, respect the rule of law, restore order, respect human rights, liberties, and freedoms."

As monumental as the task may be, many Zambians feel the 59-year-old businessman-turned politician is the right man for the job, if not the only one. There was an impressive voter turnout, and people aged 24 to 34 made up a third of the electorate. 

Rebuilding Zambia's economy

"I think he going to focus mainly on the well-being of the economy. He is going to ensure that poverty is reduced," Benjamin Yombwe, 25, told DW in the capital Lusaka.

"The first thing he must do is create more decent work opportunities. Two, workers should be accorded the enjoyment of their full rights. Three, there should be guaranteed organizational rights for representative unions. Four, workers should enjoy standard of living that meets their basic needs," says trade unionist Bright Sinkala.

Most analysts agree that Hichilema's success as a businessman prior to his political career made him an attractive candidate for Zambian voters. However, the copper-rich country is heavily in debt, and a fall in commodity prices coupled with unsustainable infrastructure spending plunged the nation of over 18 million inhabitants into default. As a result, the Zambian kwacha currency plummeted and inflation rose over 24%, rendering basic goods unaffordable in a country where over half the population lived in poverty before the pandemic.

Hichilema supporters wave flag bearing his face
Many hope Hichilema will turn Zambia's struggling economy aroundImage: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/picture alliance

"The price of chicken has gone up by about 75% over the last year. Things like cooking oil, other staples have gone up about 50%. So, people here are really struggling," says political analyst Nic Cheeseman.

While focusing on improving economic conditions is critical, political scientist Neo Simutanyi says Hichilema also faces a big challenge in encouraging international investment. Simutanyi singled out the copper industry as well as restructuring parastatals.

"Some of the mines are on their knees. Mopani Copper Mines, for example, was taken over by the state in a very irresponsible manner, where the government was almost footing the bill. That's not how you do business. The state has never been able to run these big private concerns," Simutanyi said, adding that what is now needed is an injection of foreign capital. 

"I think Hichilema will be in a better position to find international investors," he told DW.

According to him, the current lack of confidence in the Zambian economy had spooked investors.

Celebrating democracy

"For me Zambia is a democracy. It means the people have decided and the people's voice was followed and respected and I am also proud of my leader President Edgar Lungu for conceding defeat and choosing peace over violence," says 50-year-old Rose Mumba, a supporter of ex-president Edgar Lungu.

While Hichilema won by a landslide, some analysts have now pointed to irregularities in the election. Cheeseman said the Zambian election was of "poor quality" and was manipulated. Hichilema only won because his margin was so big, adding the results "could easily have been rigged for the ruling party."

Portrait of Edgar Lungu
Former president Edgar Lungu was accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian Image: picture-alliance/P.Wojazer

Change of power from incumbency to the opposition is not that common in southern Africa. In recent years, only Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera upset the ruling party in the country's recent election. In Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique, the ruling parties have not lost power since the 1990s, and neighboring Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa was quick to warn any opposition parties from harboring similar ambitions.

Armed soldiers sit on top of armored cars
During the 2021 election, President Lungu ordered the military to curb election violence, which critics saw as an act of intimidationImage: Salim Dawood/AFP/Getty Images

Zambia itself was facing questions over its democracy, as the outgoing President Edgar Lungu was accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian. Citizens and opposition figures who publicly criticized government policy were arrested. Even Hichilema was once tried for treason charges after allegedly blocking Lungu's presidential motorcade during Zambia's previous election. In 2019, another opposition leader Sean Tembo of Patriots for Economic Progress (PEP) was arrested on charges of defamation for questioning the purchase of a $400 million (€340 million) presidential jet amid a ballooning national debt crisis.

Hakainde Hichilema waves at supporters outside court
Opposition figures, including Hichilema in 2016, were arrested under Lungu's governmentImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Salim

Fighting corruption

"Hichilema is going to bring sanity to Zambia. The most important thing he should focus on is to restore law and order, to improve the economy and fight against corruption in Zambia," 36-year-old Sodala Mulima told DW.

During Tuesday's inauguration in the capital Lusaka, Mateyo Simukonda, who had travelled from the northern Copperbelt Province, said: "I came to witness the total burying of Lungu and corruption."

Zambian supporters of Hakainde Hichilema protest in a street in Lusaka
Zambians are hoping for significant change under Hichilema's adminsitrationImage: Salim Dawood/AFP

For Simuntanyi, the overwhelming support for Hichilema showed that Zambians were voting for something bigger than a candidate.

"People were voting for change." He said there is an expectation that "Hichilema is going to move away from a culture where you had to belong to the ruling party to achieve anything."

Transparency International, which measures corruption trends internationally, ranks Zambia 117 out of 180 countries, meaning it is more corrupt than regional nations like Botswana (35) Namibia (59), and South Africa (69).

At the inauguration, Stali Boma, wearing red overalls featuring a portrait of Hichilema, says "We will be patient with 'HH', but we expect to see some change. If he fails after five years, we boot him out. He will join Lungu in retirement.''