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Zambia’s youth lift Hichilema to top of power hill

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Zambia’s youth lift Hichilema to top of power hill

On his sixth attempt at the highest office, Zambia’s new President, Hakainde Hichilema, eschewed economic jargon and spoke the language of the people, especially the youth. Voters rewarded him with a crushing win over longtime rival Edgar Lungu. Reginald Ntomba profiles the man who has pledged to change the fabric of the country’s governance. 

When Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964, Hakainde Hichilema was two years old. He came from a humble family in the southern farming district of Monze, where he tended cattle as a young boy and walked to school barefoot.

To build a cadre of professionals that would meet the country’s future human resource needs, the post-independence government of Kenneth Kaunda provided free education from primary school to university. Hichilema benefitted from this and read economics and business administration at the University of Zambia. In 1986, he completed his studies on a Friday and on the following Monday had settled in a job. 

Throughout his campaign for the Presidency, Hichilema or HH, as he is popularly known, told the story of his upbringing with so much fondness that he ultimately connected with the youth, especially on social media, who saw him as an inspiration.

Having received free education – without which he says he would have ended up as a poor peasant in the village – Hichilema repeatedly says, “I have a debt to the Zambian people”, which he now wants to repay by providing free education for all. 

From his own pocket, Hichilema has over the years sponsored hundreds of young people through university, but he now wants to do it at a national scale using government systems. 

About 60% of Zambia’s population is below 30. It is this block, some of them first time voters, that registered and turned up in droves to swing the election outcome in Hichilema’s favour – and this is the group he is focusing on even as he took office on 24 August.

Wealthy businessman

After university, Hichilema went on to a highly successful career in the corporate world where he became a wealthy businessman. Although he had been a member and sponsor of the United Party for National Development (UPND) since its formation in 1998, he remained deep in the background and was known more for chairing company boards and brokering multimillion- dollar business deals that kept his empire growing.

He was a government consultant during the privatisation era in the 1990s, for which he was paid handsomely, something his political detractors would use decades later to accuse him of having profited from the sale of hitherto state-owned companies.

When his mentor and leader of the UPND, Anderson Mazoka, died in May 2006, Hichilema abruptly quit the boardroom and took over the leadership of the party and unsuccessfully ran for President in that year’s election. That marked his entry into politics and he has contested every Presidential election since, with many ups and downs on the way.

But why did he succeed this time? 

First, he harnessed the right demographic. In 2011, the Patriotic Front (PF) benefitted from over one million new voters, who tilted the election their way and dislodged the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which had been in power since 1991. 

But by 2021 – after 10 years in office – the PF seemingly got carried away by the trappings of incumbency and forgot the potency of the youth demographic, as its officials antagonised them and withdrew meal allowances for university students.

When Hichilema identified with their plight, shared his humble upbringing, his university story and spoke to their wider need for jobs and entrepreneurship support, they lifted him to the pinnacle and ended his chase for the top slot, as he finally became Zambia’s seventh President on his sixth attempt.

Second, Hichilema rebranded himself and came down to the floor.  In his early days in politics, he struggled to connect with the ordinary voter. Straight out of corporate corridors, he was seen as enigmatic, detached and his message was highly pitched in economic jargon that lost the voter. But the longer he patrolled the political frontline, the more he refined his approach. By the last election, he had abandoned his talk of GDP, inflation, interest rates, macroeconomic indicators and financial markets, and was now speaking the language of the street and articulating the needs of the stomach in a manner the commoner could understand.

Third, he massively capitalised on the decade-long political and economic mismanagement by the PF to promise a reversal of fortunes, creation of jobs, a restoration of the rule of law and the reuniting of a country deeply polarised between the two power blocs of the North-East and South-West. He packaged himself as the best man to rescue Zambia. He was in the right place at the right time.   

Fourth, his consistency just paid off.  He had been on every presidential ballot since he entered politics in 2006. In the last ten years, he had been arrested fifteen times, including spending four months in a maximum security prison on a treason charge in 2017, which the State later dropped under pressure from the Church and the international community. Asked why he was not giving up on the presidency despite losing five times and amid persistent State harassment, Hichilema said he was least bothered by the number of times he had failed, but more focused on the future. As such, his triumph is seen by many, especially young people, as a glowing example of tenacity and determination.

But Hichilema’s 15-year chase for the Presidency pales in the face of his party’s 23-year pursuit for power. The UPND was founded by Anderson Mazoka in 1998 after he retired as Anglo American’s CEO for Central Africa. He ran for President in 2001 and came close to scooping it but missed by a whisker, although the consensus is that he won the election but was robbed, making him ‘the President Zambia never had’. 

In his plush Anglo office in Lusaka, Mazoka had what he called a ‘mentoring room’ where, over drinks, he gathered several younger executives for pep talks. Among them was the future President. Therefore, it was not surprising that Hichilema opened his inaugural speech with a reference to “a visionary by the name of Anderson Kambela Mazoka”.

The road ahead

The new President took over an office with an overflowing in-tray. Top of the agenda is an economy reeling under enormous debt which the previous administration increased from $2bn in 2011 to nearly $13bn currently – although Hichilema recently revealed that it is higher than officially stated.

The debt has impacted the delivery of social services such as health and education as the bulk of the revenue goes to servicing debt (40%) and paying the civil service wage bill (50%), leaving only 10% for public services.

The youths that lifted Hichilema to power are waiting for the jobs he promised and he knows this too well, as he has referred to it in almost all his early speeches. Hichilema’s first Cabinet appointment was the respected economist Situmbeko Musokotwane as Finance Minister, to deal with a host of economic issues, including the 2022 national budget, and jump-start stalled negotiations with the IMF.   

Known for their thriftiness, Hichilema and Musokotwane are preaching prudence and have already read the riot act to civil servants. They have banned “useless meetings and trips”; “no more large delegations to meetings” and no one will fly business or first class.

Despite being a rich man who can afford luxuries, Hichilema always flew economy. It is this frugality he is imposing on government, from which he wants to save money for recruiting more teachers, health personnel and funding public institutions than can spur job creation to reboot the economy.   

On the political front, Hichilema is taking over a country whose civic space had shrunk, where media houses had been threatened and some closed, while citizens’ rights and freedoms were increasingly trampled upon.

He has promised to reverse all this. “Under the new dawn, no one will be arrested for criticising government,” he said as he appointed a new Inspector General of Police, whom he charged with the task of reforming an institution the former administration used to harass the opposition and other dissenters. Hichilema is also intent on restoring the credibility and independence of several governance institutions, which played to the PF’s ruinous tune.

It is early days, but from his speeches so far, Hichilema is striking the right chords and earning himself praise for signalling a clean break from the past. Having been overwhelmingly elected with over 2.8m votes, the highest of any winning candidate since independence in 1964, public expectations are high and he has five years to deliver on his promises under the watchful eye of the vanquished. 

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