MBALE – Late Prof Musamali Nangoli, the scholar-cum-prolific writer who was not always the best student in class, once wrote, “One cannot always read a man’s future in the record of his younger days.”
And indeed, many Zambians did not guess Mr. Hichilema Hakainde’s future as a young boy who spent most of his youthful years herding his family livestock from the kraal to the field and from the field to the kraal.
At time 59, Mr Hakainde, described by many as an ordinary “cattle boy”, with his name associated with the kraal, is now the president elect of Zambia.
Whereas he spent most of his childhood herding cattle at their family, the president-elect and leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), today he has taken the world by shock moving from a little known ‘cattle boy’ to a president of Zambia.
Although in Uganda Rtd Col Dr Kizza Besigye has run four times against Mr Museveni Tibuhaburwa in presidential elections prompting many Ugandans to say he has run for long and should leave it to other people, this was Mr Hakainde’s sixth time running for presidency and he has finally become president of Zambia after five unsuccessful attempts.
Like other African countries, Zambia went through years shrinking political space where opposition campaigns had no freedom of movement and access to media but the opposition leader Mr Hichilema defeated his main rival, the outgoing President Edgar Lungu, by more than a million votes, something that must give Ugandan voters some lessons to learn from,
In Zambia according to Amnesty International “there has been ruling by fear and repression”, the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly have been under increasing attack, with opposition leaders and activists jailed, independent media outlets shut down, and several people killed by police.
Mr Hichilema had unsuccessfully contested the 2016 election which observers noted lacked integrity when he lost by just 100 000 votes, but on Monday his margin over incumbent was nearly a million.
“There was a shutdown of social media platforms on election day which sent a worrying signal about the state’s desire to maintain control of the politics. And when early results showed Mr Hichilema was leading the incumbent President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front, Mr Lungu released a statement declaring that the election was not free and fair and that isolated incidents of violence “rendered the whole exercise a nullity,” Mr Charles Phiri, a local opinion leader.
Mr Phiri adds that despite the shutdown, bounds in terms of impunity and violations, many Zambians were determined to get a change, a change that would usher in a credible government to save Zambia.
The 59-year-old opposition leader has been a strong critic and dissatisfied by the way the outgoing president Lungu was running of the economy and described the reign as a “brutal regime.”
Mr Hichilema is no stranger to controversy in Zambia, he had always gone against government and to him breaking the rule of law was a moral thing as long as it would help the people of Zambia, this explains why he regularly mentions that he has been arrested 15 times since getting into politics for going against the authorities numerous times.
Shortly after the 2016 Zambia elections, he was slapped with treason charges for allegedly failing to pull over to give way to the presidential motorcade and he spent four months in a maximum-security jail before the charges were dropped.
But despite, is an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights, characterized by brazen attacks on any form of dissent in the midst of deep economic crisis and fears of political violence, the Zambian people took decisive action in favor of a change in course.
Zambia media says that they turned out in robust numbers to elect veteran opposition politician Mr Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) their next president.
After a campaign dominated by the country’s economic woes and marked by sporadic violence, Mr. Hichilema captured 2,810,757 votes against 1,814,201 for President Edgar Lungu, according to nearly-complete results.
But who is the new president?
Mr Hichilema was born into humble beginnings and looked after cattle most of the time during child hood before managing to get a scholarship to the University of Zambia, and later graduated with an MBA degree from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
Mr Hichilema, 59, has describes himself as an ordinary “cattle boy”, who herded his family’s livestock in his youth before going on to become one of Zambia’s richest men.
Although 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.
The president-elect is a leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND) is widely referred to as HH says he remembers walking to school bare feet and attending class without shoes like most children of the poor in Africa.
After graduating with an MBA degree from the University of Birmingham in the UK, he went on to make a fortune in finance, property, ranching, healthcare and tourism in Zambia.
He also led the Zambian operations of Coopers and Lybrand – later part of PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton and his business portfolio has now diversified and today includes property management and financial consultancy.
And as if not to forget his youthful days as ‘a cattle-boy’ and his childhood love for cattle, Hichilema owns one of Zambia’s biggest cattle herds and cattle ranching.
He reportedly used both aspects of his background to appeal to voters and would occasionally tell voters that they needed
a successful businessman to understand how to get the economy moving in the copper-rich nation, where there is high unemployment.
His determination took him to presidency
Mr Hichilema has shown resilience in his political career, along with his five electoral losses, he often reminded people that he has been arrested 15 times since getting into politics and that even then he was determined to take Zambia on the road to economic recovery.
Mr Hichilema is one of Zambia’s richest people but a man who worked hard to shed his image as an elitist who lacks the common touch but determined to achieve his targets.
He describes himself as “an ordinary citizen, an ordinary African” and adds I’m just a cattle boy… it’s a childhood love,” he proudly speaks.
And wiping away tears, Hichilema said his victory was the “historic moment millions of Zambians have been waiting for.”
He also used his agricultural roots to appeal to the country’s farmers, saying he could turn Zambia into a food basket for the region.
His ability to connect with younger voters that was perhaps the biggest factor in his success because more than half of the seven million registered voters in Zambia are under the age of 35 and about one in five of them remain unemployed.
The governing Patriotic Front (PF) swept to power in 2011 on the promise of “less tax, more money in people’s pockets and more jobs”. But this did not materialise for many young people and they turned out in their millions for Mr Hichilema.
Mr Phiri says that one of the ways he connected with young people was through social media and that this was not the first election that Mr Hichilema attempted to use the likes of Facebook and Twitter to connect with voters, but that in the 2021 elections he upped his game to reach out to everyone in the country.
He mobilised, campaigned to the young people, made sure that his message gets out to the youth of Zambia and he exploited social media to his advantage; Whatssup, facebook, Instagram, tweets etc and he knew where to touch for his victory.
According to Mr Phiri the messaging was on point, he weaponised the social and economic problems taking place in Zambia today; the soaring food prices, the inflation, the kwacha, the currency of Zambia losing value and took advantage of all these problems, weaponised them, and turned them into vote-winning issues.
Mr Hichilema first ran for the presidency in 2006 as a member of the United Party for National Development (UPND), an organization he also partly bankrolls himself.
“And he was also willing to play dirty and a number of the voters voted for Mr Hichilema because they see Zambia’s economic recovery in him,” said Mr Neo Simutanyi, a scholar and Zambian political and economic analyst.
In 2020 amidst Covid 19 outbreak across the world, he released a video entitled “The tale of two professionals…”, which presented Mr Hichilema as a shrewd and responsible businessman, and Mr Lungu as someone who spent all his money in bars and nightclubs. “Which of these two is smarter?” the video asked.
What does a change mean to Zambia?
In his acceptance speech to the nation, President-elect Mr Hichilema extended an olive branch to his predecessor.
He urged the Zambians to be the change they voted for and embrace the spirit of Ubuntu (humanity) to love and live together harmoniously.
He promised democratic reforms, investor-friendly economic policies, better debt management and “zero-tolerance” for corruption, which had allegedly characterized Mr Lungu’s administration.
Mr 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.”
But like many political analysts have said a change in leadership does not solve Zambia’s problems, but the resilience and resolve of Zambian institutions and voters is cause for optimism.
“The journey will be tough and challenging, there will be ups and downs, but I am certain that with hard work and commitment, we will succeed in building a better Zambia for everyone,” said Mr Nathan Nandala Mafabi, the Budadiri West Member of Parliament in Uganda.
Mr Hichilema inherits a crushing debt burden and rising inflation where he needs to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and I think this will be at the top of the new government’s agenda.
Mr Nandala Mafabi, an economist and accountant says that Mr Hichilema is going to inherit a troubled economy after years of Mr Lungu’s infrastructure spending spree in a country where more than half the population has lived below the poverty line even before the Covid pandemic.
“He has an enormous task ahead to revive Zambia economy and deliver on the promises,” said Mr Nandala Mafabi.
Mr Kisos Chemaswet MP for Soy County in Kween district said Mr Hichilema, the challenge ahead is daunting, the youthful Zambian voters turned out to demand change because, for too many, their livelihood prospects are grim.
Mr Chamaswet revealed that Mr. Hichilema’s prime task on taking office will be to tackle an economy wracked by high debt, inflation and unemployment.
“I know that the kind of changes needed in Zambia cannot be affected quickly but the population is going to be impatient for this change,” said Mr Chemaswet.
It is true that even with long years in the political doldrums, opposition powers behave like the historical French Bourbons who had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing as they hardly change from what the old leaders were doing when they attain power.
But alongside this, there is usually the possibility of progress, and of setting a powerful example in a region where democracy has been on the ropes.
It is true that elections whether successful or not, are mostly the product of local context and so there’s no clear way to say how the success of the Zambian election can affect elections elsewhere in Africa.
But I think that we can say that parties in countries where elections are being planned can learn from the success of the messaging of the opposition party in Zambia, which is soon to be the ruling party and they can also learn in terms of the legal environment, in terms of how the Zambian election commission run this election.