/ 25 August 2022

Zambia’s Hichilema promised widespread change. A year later, how much has he accomplished?

Hakainde Hichilema Al Jazeera
Hakainde Hichilema, President of the United Party for National Development. (Photo: Al Jazeera)

Nothing demonstrates Zambia’s political polarisation quite as much as responses to the basic question: How much has President Hakainde Hichilema, inaugurated on 24 August 2021, accomplished in his first year in office? Where his supporters see total economic transformation and democratic renewal, his critics see sustained decline and an abject failure of leadership. 

Below, I attempt to offer a balanced assessment of both the positive indicators and persistent challenges of Hichilema’s past year, focusing on six areas that featured prominently in his campaign.

Economic recovery 

Zambia’s economy faced severe challenges under former president Edgar Lungu. Alongside the high cost of living, the country faced a staggering debt crisis, a declining currency and high inflation. In confronting this situation, Hichilema’s first year has seen five major – albeit mixed – achievements. 

First, certain economic indicators have stabilised. Inflation has been reduced from an average 20% in 2021 to 9% today, while the kwacha has improved against major currencies. This has provided a reprieve for Zambians but many fear it is only temporary. That is because these changes are largely the result of external creditors pausing debt repayments pending a deal with the International Monetary Fund. 

Second, the government has recruited about 40 000 workers in health and education. This has created promised jobs and helped fulfil the campaign pledge of free public education. 

The problem is that this job creation has relied on expanding the public sector and will be difficult to repeat. In fact, this year’s increase in the public sector wage bill, which already consumes at least 60% of government expenditure, could constrain the government’s finances in the future and lead to tension with trade unions if the cost of living continues to rise. 

Third, Hichilema has increased the Constituency Development Fund from K1.6 million ($90 000) to K25.7 million. This is a significant step towards decentralisation, local participation and democratisation, as it gives each constituency autonomy to decide how to spend its allocation. 

However, this expansion appears hurried and insufficiently planned. For instance, the present local government system is based on districts (of which there are 116) and not on constituencies (of which there are 156). There is no administrative infrastructure at the constituency level to support the facility. And there are not yet sufficient regulations on the budgeting and disbursement of fund allocations. 

More worryingly, project proposals still need to receive approval from the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, perhaps indicating the central government’s reluctance to wholly devolve power. 

Fourth, Hichilema has all but secured a bailout programme with the International Monetary Fund. This deal is essential to debt restructuring but might raise problems for the government’s job creation programme. 

And fifth, the new administration has created a more predictable investment climate in the mining sector. In the past year, the Canada-based First Quantum Minerals has announced a $1.25-billion expansion of its Kansanshi copper mine and a new $250-million nickel mine is set to start operating soon. 

While these projects are expected to create jobs, questions remain about how much Zambia will benefit in terms of revenue contributions. Opposition parties have criticised the government’s willingness to give mining multinationals huge tax breaks and other incentives. 

Notwithstanding some at least promising economic developments, major problems remain. Protracted disputes over Mopani Copper Mine and Konkola Copper Mines – which had led the previous government to nationalise the former and attempt to liquidate the latter – are still unresolved. 

The government’s issuing of treasury bills has pushed bank lending rates up to 25% for much of the last 12 months, undermining its promise to support small businesses. And instead of reducing fuel, fertiliser and food prices as pledged, these costs have increased. 

Democratic reform 

Zambia’s previous government undermined democracy and was willing to use both ruling party cadres and state forces against political opponents. It is to Hichilema’s credit that this has largely ceased and that a relatively open, democratic environment now exists. It is still early days, but the climate of lawlessness that characterised much of Lungu’s rule is slowly dissipating. The government’s claims of democratic renewal are, nevertheless, overstated. 

In the area of institutional democratic reform, Hichilema has wasted his first year in office. Despite his promises, repressive legislation remains on the statute books. Not only that. More people have been arrested and sent to prison for breaking a dubious 1965 law against defamation of the president – a law that effectively criminalises criticism of the president – in Hichilema’s first year than were under six years of Lungu. 

Moreover, when recent videos emerged of soldiers beating youths for allegedly defaming the president, Hichilema criticised the victims, stating that young people should respect their elders. This shows the lure of authoritarian power is very hard to resist and that Lungu’s legacy will take some time to be undone. 

The notorious Public Order Act also remains intact. In fact, it was only earlier this month that the Ministry of Home Affairs published a newspaper advert asking for public input into identifying the problems with the law and how it should be reformed. It is difficult to see this move as anything but an elaborate exercise to postpone new legislation until after the ruling United Party for National Development’s (UPND) first term of office expires. Why did the party promise to reform the Public Order Act if it did not know what was wrong with it? Why don’t they publish a draft bill to be discussed in public and parliament, as is the usual process for legislative reform?

Hichilema’s pledge to pass a law on access to information has seen a similar lack of progress. Like many governments before it, the current one has dragged its feet on passing an act – or even producing a draft bill – that would make the government more transparent and corruption easier to observe. 

This procrastination is symptomatic of the new administration’s lack of willingness to make structural changes that would strengthen accountable governance. As a result, Zambian institutions remain as susceptible to manipulation now as they were under Lungu. While in opposition, Hichilema promised wide democratic reform. Now, in office, his administration will have recognised the advantage of leaving laws that restrict the opposition in place.

The rule of law

The former government of the Patriotic Front (PF) frequently broke with the rule of law. It failed to comply with the requirements for selecting new judges. It exercised control over who anti-corruption watchdogs investigated. The director of public prosecutions became famous for discontinuing prosecutions against Lungu’s allies. 

The police arrested opposition members on trumped-up charges and restricted the activity of civil society organisations. And PF cadres were given licence to terrorise opponents with impunity. 

Over the past year, the UPND has moved purposely, if slowly, to reverse its predecessor’s  state capture of these functions. It has appointed professional and independent-minded people to head the judiciary, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC) and the police. Party cadre-ism has been drastically reduced. In this way, the abrogation of the rule of law has been diminished and political differences restored to some semblance of civility.

However, some serious concerns remain, particularly regarding executive interference in prosecutions. When Hichilema took power, for instance, he declared that corrupt members of the previous regime could be given amnesty if they returned stolen assets. Not only does the president lack the power to confer such protection but this policy undermines equality before the law. 

Nonetheless, a year later, the government gave immunity to the liquidator of Konkola Copper Mines, who faced huge corruption charges, in return for his resignation. The current director of public prosecutions Lilian Siyunyi, a Lungu appointee, conferred this immunity, though legal questions remain about whether she had the power to do so. Furthermore, there is evidence that top-ranking Hichilema officials worked closely with Siyunyi to facilitate the deal. 

The anti-corruption campaign 

Hichilema has shown the political will to tackle the massive corruption which took place under Lungu. He has appointed the highly regarded former attorney general Musa Mwenye to chair the ACC, which has arrested high-profile former officials who were untouchable barely a year ago. 

And he selected the well-credentialed Mumba Malila, who genuinely abhors corruption, as Zambia’s chief justice. One hopes Hichilema will make a similarly wise decision in appointing the director of public prosecutions – once he succeeds in getting rid of Siyunyi – and not install an ally to do his bidding.

At the same time, there have been several major weaknesses in Hichilema’s first year of tackling corruption. First, delays in enacting legal reforms have left the ACC without adequate power to prosecute private entities. These were among the worst offenders under Lungu, though Hichilema also has many business associates with private companies that could benefit under the current administration.

Second, Hichilema’s repeated refusal to publish his assets and liabilities – in violation of Zambia’s constitution – undermines the fight against corruption and need for government transparency. This has added to suspicion about the extent of the president’s involvement in Zambia’s economy and whether his policies are deliberately designed to benefit companies in which he has an interest. 

Third, Hichilema’s persistent suggestions that thieving former officials can be absolved if they return stolen assets has the obvious effect of seeming to legalise, even encourage, corruption. 

And fourth, Hichilema has shown unwillingness to deal with corruption in his own government. The president has, for instance, maintained complete silence over a controversy in which the tourism ministry cancelled 18 hunting concession contracts signed by the previous government in a potentially illegal move aimed at benefiting friends of the UPND. 

Another cause for concern has been the clandestine meetings between Hichilema and top-level management of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, a creation of the Oppenheimer family, to discuss possible participation in the Zambian mining industry. The main question is whether Hichilema is using State House for his own, private business dealings and blurring the line between private and government business amid a lack of transparency. 

Diversity in public appointments 

Under the previous government, most cabinet ministers and key officials across the state were either from Lungu’s home Eastern province or from one of the three Bemba-speaking provinces that supported the PF. Zambians from Southern, Western and Northwestern – who voted for the opposition – were marginalised.

Hichilema promised to do things differently if elected but has barely delivered. While his cabinet is relatively representative of Zambia’s 10 provinces, areas that historically voted for PF are grossly underrepresented, while most ministers are from ethnic groups that have typically formed the core of Hichilema’s base. The key ministries (such as home affairs, defence, finance, justice, education and local government); the leadership positions of all five security services; the leadership of the justice system and most permanent secretaries in the civil service are all held by people from the regions that have traditionally voted for Hichilema. 

There has been a near complete inversion whereby yesterday’s victors have become today’s victims and vice versa. Among other things, this adds to the risk of a vicious cycle whereby each new leader continues this trend and makes it more likely that the next election will be driven by ethnic rather than policy considerations. 

The new president’s record on other forms of inclusion is even worse. Even though the constitution calls for equal gender representation in public offices, only five cabinet ministers are women, half the figure under Lungu. Furthermore, just one of Hichilema’s eight nominations to parliament – a constitutional provision meant to address electoral imbalances – was female. And only one of the president’s 10 provincial ministers is a woman. In addition, Hichilema has made no appointments of either youths (aged 18 to 35) or people with disabilities to senior government roles in clear violation of the constitution.

Foreign relations 

Political repression and violence damaged Zambia’s international reputation under Lungu. Hichilema has begun to restore it, in part by simply not being his predecessor. He has put trade and cooperation at the heart of Zambia’s relations with countries in the region. 

He has restored relations, especially with Western countries, although his proximity to them has raised suspicions among southern African liberation parties. Some privately view Hichilema as a stooge, especially after he swiftly moved to allow the US to establish an Africom-like military office in Lusaka. 

Hichilema is in a tricky position because of the current geopolitical context. The country’s Copperbelt mines are tied to both South African capital – with links to the Oppenheimer family – and the Chinese, who control large stakes in Zambia’s economy. This leaves Hichilema with a careful balancing act of managing both Western and Chinese interests. 

Yet rather than listening to officials in his government with a record of looking both east and west, the president has seemed unwilling to devolve responsibilities. A large part of the problem, one minister told this author, is that, “Hichilema is not truly a democrat and leans much towards autocracy.”

Ideologically, Hichilema is the closest Zambia has come to having a leader with a clear belief in free market enterprise. This explains his inclination to the West and his association with groups with a classically liberal, centre-right political agenda. This approach would leave him open to trade with China, but tension between the US and China make it complicated. Nonetheless, while the West is the source of much foreign investment, the East provides Zambia’s market for commodities. 

As the world becomes more geopolitically polarised, Hichilema needs to position Zambia in a way that minimises the risk of the country locking itself into a dependency path with one major power bloc or, even worse, becoming the site of proxy wars. 

Also, within and beyond Zambia, there is growing criticism of Hichilema’s reliance on advisors from the Brenthurst Foundation. Some view its director Greg Mills as “the Gupta of Zambia” owing to his apparent influence on the president and direction of policy, especially in mining. Many fear the relationship will lead to the maintenance of colonial-style extraction of cheap materials to the West, rather than prioritising a nationally determined industrialisation agenda. 

Not a saviour but a welcome upgrade 

Hichilema has been presented by his supporters – sometimes by himself – as Zambia’s saviour. He is not. Over the last year, he has shown himself to be out of his depth on many key issues. He only appears positive in contrast to the disastrous Lungu, and as memories of the PF’s terrible record fade, the new president’s shortcomings may dawn on more people. This is especially the case as more severe challenges await. The next 12 months and beyond will reveal if Hichilema is a leader of the future, who solves or averts yet-to-emerge problems, or yesterday’s man, who can only address challenges created by those who came before him. 

Hichilema is not everything that Zambians want in a president, but he is a clear improvement on the incompetence and authoritarianism of his predecessor. Had Lungu won the election, the country would be in a different place, and government critics – including this author – would probably have ended up jailed, if not worse.  

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian historian and political commentator.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.