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Who is Zambia's president-elect?

Cai Nebe
August 16, 2021

After five failed campaigns, Zambian politician Hakainde Hichilema has finally won the presidency. But he has to deal with a devastated economy. Experts believe that Hichilema's business background could prove pivotal.

Zambia's president-elect Hakainde Hichilema
Hakainde Hichilema, known as HH by his supporters, will become Zambia's seventh presidentImage: Reuters/R. Ward

There was dancing in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, when it emerged that Hakainde Hichilema had won the presidential election. Hichilema beat incumbent President Edgar Lungu by a landslide of almost a million votes. Still, there was an anxious wait until midday on Monday, when Lungu conceded defeat.

It marks redemption for the 59-year-old Hichilema, popularly known as HH by his supporters. Hichilema lost both of his most recent bids for the Zambian presidency to Lungu.

In his opening address to the nation, Hichilema promised democratic reforms, investor-friendly economic policies, better debt management and "zero-tolerance'' for corruption, which had allegedly characterized Lungu's administration.

Zambia, Africa's second-biggest copper producer, saw its economy stagnate when copper prices collapsed around 2011. Depressed commodity prices and the coronavirus pandemic have further slowed any economic rebound. In November last year, Zambia became Africa's first pandemic-era country to default on international debts after failing to keep up with with payments. 

"It is in no doubt what the instruction is to all of us," he told supporters in Lusaka. "We will not let you down," he said.

Hichilema's journey to the top

Born into a low-income family in southern Zambia, Hichilema has cast himself as a self-made businessman who worked hard at school to win a government bursary to attend the University of Zambia.

He graduated with a degree in economics and business administration. Hichilema continued his studies abroad at the University of Birmingham, earning an MBA. He returned to Zambia and led the Zambian operations of Coopers and Lybrand - later part of PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton. His business portfolio diversified and now includes property management, financial consultancy, and tourism. Additionally, Hichilema owns one of Zambia's biggest cattle herds and cattle ranching. About the latter, Hichilema said in May that "I'm just a cattle boy. ... It's a childhood love." He said he was "an ordinary citizen, an ordinary African."

Portrait shot of President Hakainde Hichilema
Zambia's new president, Hakainde Hichilema, won the election by almost a million votesImage: Salim Dawood/AFP/Getty Images

But, for analysts, Hichilema's rise to Zambia's business elite and considerable wealth made him an outsider in the election. He has contested six elections in total. His five previous presidential campaigns ended in defeat. He first ran for the presidency in 2006 as a member of the United Party for National Development (UPND), an organization he also partly bankrolled. But this year, buoyed by the endorsement of Zambia's other opposition parties against incumbent Lungu and an ailing Zambian economy, Hichilema won the election convincingly.

Zambian analyst Neo Simutanyi said Hichilema's 15-year career as an opposition politician prepared him for the presidency. "We're looking at someone who has grown into the role of political office by being able to engage to opposing politicians for long and accumulated serious political experience," Simutanyi, who is also executive director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Lusaka, told DW.

Languishing economy propels Hichilema's victory

"The number one focus of the people who voted for him is economic recovery," Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, told DW from Lusaka. According to Cheeseman, the long-term economic decline and Zambia's critical debt situation led to the downfall of Lungu's government.

"A lot of Zambians blame the Patriotic Front government for the economic difficulties they're facing," Cheeseman said. "They connect it to corruption. They connect it to the rising debt." Moreover, many Zambians felt that the economy was not going to get better under the Patriotic Front. So they are now banking on Hichilema's reputation as a business figure who could perhaps be better at managing the economy and dealing with the international community, Cheeseman explained.

Simutanyi said the election results could be seen as a "protest vote" against Lungu's rule.

"It's a referendum, really. The constituencies that voted for Hichilema never voted for him before. So the election was much more a rejection of the Patriotic Front," he told DW.

Voters queue in Zambia
Many of Hichilema's votes came from constituencies that rejected him in previous pollsImage: Patrick Mainhardt/AFP/Getty Images

The youth vote

"The youth played a critical role in voting out the previous regime and voting in a new UPND leadership," Joseph Kalimbwe, of the UPND, told DW, referring to a high turnout of first-time voters in the 18-24 age category. He points to Hichilema's business successes as a motivating factor in getting the vote of young people. International election observers have commended the polls' transparent and peaceful organization, with a turnout of 70.9% — a huge jump from the 57.7% recorded in the 2016 polls.

"Hichilema has to ensure that now he fulfills the promises that we've been advocating for. We want young people to have access to resources for them to start up their own businesses, which did not happen in the previous regime," Kalimbwe added.

Cheeseman said that, though the youth vote certainly played a role in delivering the presidency to Hichilema, there has been a "swing towards the opposition in almost all segments" of Zambian society.

"Hichilema expanded his support base into urban areas, the populous Lusaka and Copperbelt areas," he said. "He has done a better job of campaigning in other areas and building his heartlands."

Open-cast copper mine in Zambia
Zambia's copper mines have been hard-hit by lower commodity pricesImage: Imago Images/Zumapress

Lungu's tarnished legacy

Though Zambia's Electoral Commission conducted the elections fairly peacefully, observers noted a worrying trend toward authoritarianism toward the end of Lungu's rule. The outgoing Patriotic Front administration was accused of targeting critical media houses and journalists who reported alleged corruption, and opposition politicians were arrested for questioning government decisions. During the campaignperiod, the military was deployed, and Hichilema readily mentions that he has been arrested 15 times, most notably in 2016, for failing to give way to Lungu's motorcade.

Zambian soldiers walk in a street during the Zambian election campaign
President Edgar Lungu deployed the army to quell unrest during the election campaignImage: Salim Dawood/AFP/Getty Images

Simutanyi says there is now an expectation that Hichilema will move away from a culture of patronage and do things very differently to the outgoing regime. But he expresses optimism in Hichilema's ability to handle the extra pressure, especially in revitalizing Zambia's copper industry due to his experience in international business.

"I think he will be in a better position to negotiate terms with international creditors and investors in mining operations and the economy," he said. "Until now, there has been a lack of confidence in the economy."

Cheeseman believes a peaceful transfer would help in "resetting trust" for Zambians and reforming the police to protect citizens better, be less corrupt and predatory toward citizens.