Zambia’s main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema wins presidential election after defeating his main rival, the outgoing President Edgar Lungu, by more than a million votes to become the country’s seventh president.
On the surface, Zambia has had a good election. But what does the arrival of a new president mean for the state of democracy in the country?
Zambians went to the polls on 12 August 2021 under very difficult circumstances and seems to have pulled it off.
Much like a whirlwind the election came and went, leaving behind a cloud of political dust that the new president must settle.
Former President, Edgar Lungu, 63, had a bit of a fight on his hands. The Patriotic Front (PF) flag-bearer faced an election in August in which his closest rival was Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND).
The two men were evenly matched – Lungu was popular in his party’s northern and eastern regions of the country, while Hichilema was counting on the south and western strongholds.
Because of this, the candidates had to appeal beyond their ethnic bases, and so the contest looked likely to become one of the policy as much as personality.
The UK-based journal, Africa Confidential had predicted that Hichilema was expected to make inroads into PF strongholds, including in Eastern province. That came to pass as he won majority votes in the capital Lusaka, mining towns on the Copperbelt and garnered more support in the north and eastern regions than in previous elections while maintaining his strongholds.
Hichilema, 58, a former managing partner in accounting firm Grant Thornton, is respected by business. He played a key role in the privatisation of the country’s mines. But he is excoriated by the trade unions.
His policy offering range from sweeping statements about the need to fight corruption and improve Zambia’s investment climate.
At a virtual public rally in Lusaka, Lungu was upbeat about his achievements since taking power in 2015. “I can refuse to accept the loss because things don’t show that I can lose,” he told a group of cheering supporters.
Lungu claims he has been able to change the face of the country through investment in roads, airports, energy, schools, and hospitals, and that he has achieved more than what previous governments did.
His opponents, however, charge that he has been divisive as a leader, who allowed graft to grow thereby collapsing the country’s governance and economic system.
Young people to the rescue
It was clear that the country would have to prepare for some kind of transition when on the voting day, young unemployed graduates turned up to deliver a golden vote that prevented Lungu from going for his third term in office. Many had opposed his candidature because it was against the constitutional two-term limit, having been elected in 2015 to finish off late Michael Sata’s remaining term and in 2016.
According to the new voters’ register which was hastily drawn, over 7.2 million registered to vote despite a well-orchestrated plan by Lungu’s party to reduce numbers, mostly in opposition strongholds. Voter turnout at around 70 percent (representing just about 5 million voters) was hugely impressive.
In an overwhelming turnout, particularly by young Zambians, who make up a majority of registered voters, long lines formed in front of polling stations on voting day. Many polling stations had to close late to accommodate voters.
Since 1991 when multi-party democracy was re-introduced, voter turnout in Zambia has been declining, especially in the last decade. The average voter turnout since 1991 has been 56.41 percent. In the 2016 general elections voter turnout was 56.45 percent compared to 53.65 percent in the 2011 general election.
Heavy task ahead
There is no honeymoon for Hichilema. He has to immediately deal with the worrying rise in the cost of living, youth unemployment, debt, governance and mining reforms, following complaints from mining companies.
During Lungu’s seven-year rule, he utilised ethnic divide and rule to neutralise critics and opposition, observers say. Tensions between the ruling PF party and the opposition UPND were heightened in advance of the 2021 general elections.
The ruling party deployed cadres, made up of its supporters, to carry out acts of violence, and extortion in public places such as markets and bus stops. The youth used intimidatory tactics against UPND supporters and others as a means of preventing from campaigning and disrupting peaceful assemblies, beating them and destroying their property.
Other strategies were legal harassment of private media leading to the closure of The Post and Prime TV. They also destabilised trade unions and NGOs. There was also crackdown on human rights for those supporting the opposition say Amnesty International.
In 2017, as part of a troubling trend in the country’s democratic credentials, Hichilema was arrested for allegedly refusing to make way for Lungu’s convoy, while travelling to a ceremony in Western Province.
He spent four months in prison on charges of treason before he was acquitted after the intervention of the Commonwealth.
Hichilema has a heavy task of cleansing the police which has been heavily infiltrated by cadres, some of them employed under the veil of police reservists. It is these who employed tactics of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention, and on some occasions, to prevent peaceful protests by activists and opposition supporters.
Within the police, those who remained professional where maligned, and in some cases transferred to non-influential posts. For example, the officers who were handling the case involving theft of medicine at Medical Stores were all transferred from police headquarters.
Perhaps more pressing is the need to heal the bleeding economy. The national debt reached over US$12 billion and was expected to increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it had suspended lending to the country as it is worried that its debt is unsustainable.
Zambia defaulted on its debt after failing to pay a US$42.5 million coupon on one of its Eurobonds in November last year. The kwacha currency’s nearly 40% depreciation since January 2020 has made life more expensive for ordinary Zambians, the majority of whom survive on less than US$1 a day.
Experts say Zambia’s economic collapse is, to a larger extent due to reckless borrowing, corruption, and misuse of public funds.
Government’s own Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) pointed out in its 2018 money laundering and terrorism financing report that procurement corruption is ‘so vast that it has led to the crowding out of legitimate businesses and increased costs of public projects’.
The FIC observed a trend where companies not registered with the Patents and Companies Registration Agency, PACRA, were awarded public contracts. ‘Most of these companies were connected to Politically Exposed Persons,’ says the report.
Anti-corruption investigations and protests have had success in a few cases, most notably with regard to the Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway, which the government announced at a ceremony in September 2017. The fact that it was costed at a whopping US$1.2 billion for a 321 kilometre stretch evoked public concern to such an extent that the government was forced to ice the project.
Corruption in the education and health sectors
The corruption has also affected the health and education ministries.
In 2018, the auditor general highlighted that people in the ministry of education established shell companies to divert funds.
Money from the Social Cash Transfer programme was used to buy expensive vehicles, Africa Confidential reported in 2018.
With the election dust settling, a good place to start maybe a simple change of attitude.