/ 18 December 2022

Why Zambia’s president is popular abroad but a disappointment at home

Hakainde Hichilema
Debt woes: President Hakainde Hichilema hopes for a deal.

Despite his lack of real domestic achievements and rising discontent with his leadership, President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia has a remarkably positive image abroad. 

There are two major reasons for this. The first is that Hichilema is benefiting from a dismal political climate in Africa and a favourable comparison to what came before him. 

Across the continent, political transitions have not gone well. In neighbouring Malawi, many had high hopes for the pastor-turned-President Lazarus Chakwera only to see him appoint family members to key political positions while doing little to revive the country’s economy beyond begging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans

South Africans thought they had escaped from the graft of the Jacob Zuma years until they learnt that anti-corruption crusader Cyril Ramaphosa had stuck half a million dollars in his sofa

The removal of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe brought no political improvement or economic revival. The death of President John Magufuli in Tanzania has not seen a rise in the people’s living standards nor resulted in any serious efforts to curb corruption by his successor, Samia Suhulu Hassan. 

Voted to power on a promise of ending local terrorism, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria has instead delivered greater insecurity and ethnic-religious divisions. 

A floundering economy beset by staggering debt, soaring inflation and high unemployment in Ghana has triggered popular protests, sent the country into the toxic arms of the IMF and left many longing for the return of John Mahama. 

In Kenya, where William Ruto’s child has created the ‘Office of the First Daughter’, the grand optimism that had followed his election is slowly turning into despair.  

Such is the deficit of competent and quality leadership across much of Africa today that ordinary people are desperate for a success story and yearning for a leader who has stature. Superficially, Hichilema seems to fit the bill. He is relatively new, dresses smartly and talks quite well. 

The capacity of his social media team to promote the president even when the reality is far from rosy and the absence of effective opposition to expose the emerging policy failures of his administration and popular discontent have created the impression that all is well. 

Deprived of greater understanding of the local context, discussed below, many Africans consequently measure Hichilema against what they are grappling with in their own countries. In other words, the strength of Zambia’s democracy and the state of its economy have barely improved under Hichilema, but the situation is so bad elsewhere that outsiders, peering in from a distance, look to Lusaka with uncritical admiration. 

If much of Africa is saturated with ineffective leaders, Hichilema is considered better because he occupies a spot a long way down this inglorious list.

The second reason behind Hichilema’s positive image abroad is that he positions himself to be flattered by the West, often at Zambia’s expense. One of the most concerning and longstanding weaknesses of many African leaders is their craving for approval by the United States and Europe. 

In Hichilema’s case, this repulsive obsession appears to be incurable. He has a particular weakness for praise — especially if it comes from white South Africans, Europeans and Americans, who consequently, do not have to work hard to make him feel that he is one of them. It is a psyche that Western countries have exploited to effortlessly recruit him as “a useful idiot” who can help them secure their strategic interests in security, energy and mining, and counter the growing influence of China and Russia in Zambia. 

The latter point is one that Jim Risch, a ranking member of the US senate foreign relations committee, was willing to state unambiguously after meeting Hichilema, whom he described as “a strong leader and bright spot for democracy in Africa … [who] is working hard to curb China’s malign and predatory influence in Zambia as well as increase cooperation with the US”. 

This exhibition of Hichilema as a willing dupe in the US’ ideological rivalry with the Eastern power only serves to hurt him in the eyes of Zambians and China as well as the countries aligned to it. 

In less than a year, Hichilema has taken several steps that have left him vulnerable to charges that he is a naïve and willing puppet of major Western powers. 

First, he swiftly moved to allow the US to establish an Africom-like military office in Lusaka, something that all his predecessors had strongly opposed. 

Second, his administration has abolished all visa fees for British, Canadians, Europeans and Americans arriving in Zambia as tourists. There is no chance that this move would be reciprocated. And it is telling that not a single African country was included on the list easing visa access. 

Third, Hichilema has cut extremely generous deals with mining multinationals that operate in Zambia. An example here is the recent decision by the government to relinquish its 20% shareholding stake in Kansanshi Mine, operated by a Canadian firm that had invested in Hichilema’s election, in return for a paltry 3% royalty payment on revenue. 

Competition for strategic metals such as cobalt and uranium — key to the production of electric car batteries — is increasing, while climate-related reconstruction plans in Europe and North America will need large amounts of copper. 

Like the ancestral African chiefs who gifted their subjects to Europeans and Arabs during the slave trade in exchange for mirrors and alcohol, Hichilema has shown that he is happy to accept invitations for pomp and kind words from the West in exchange for Zambia’s minerals. 

Opposition parties claim that the government plans to privatise the remaining state parastatals, such as the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation and Zambia Telecommunications company, among others, with British and US firms in the running. Yet, Western governments, diplomats and commentators were vocal in their criticism of attacks on democracy and human rights under his predecessor, Edgar Lungu. 

The same abuses have continued under Hichilema, but the benefits that his leadership provides to these extractive forces outside the continent appear to have bought their silence. This demonstrates how the West instrumentalises human rights and exploits local struggles for political change to advance their own interests. 

The incriminating applause and positive coverage that Hichilema is receiving in Western circles contrast sharply with the growing criticism of his leadership at home.

Everyone feels cheated by the [governing] UPND because nothing is happening”, complained the highly regarded retired archbishop of Lusaka, Telesphore Mpundu, who added that “people cannot be waiting for donkey years for change to take place”. 

Much of the disillusionment is centred on the state of the economy, delays to make structural changes that strengthen accountable, democratic governance, the threatened national unity and the seeming lack of commitment to fighting corruption in the government. 

The main reason behind Hichilema’s sagging domestic fortunes is the failure of his administration to revive the economy. Hichilema came to power promising to resolve the disastrous mismanagement by the previous government of Konkola Copper Mine and Mopani, two of the largest companies in Zambia. He has not done so. 

Tens of thousands of jobs in the politically important Copperbelt province remain threatened, with no prospects of resolution in sight. To this can be added the government’s willingness to offer mining multinationals huge tax cuts and other incentives. 

For instance, First Quantum Minerals has secured huge concessions in exchange for developing a new mine and expanding production. This would produce, at most, a few hundred jobs but would mean a few billion kwachas in lost revenue. The chaos in the agricultural sector has raised fears of potential food insecurity next year. 

In opposition, Hichilema promised to deliver large and subsidised quantities of fertiliser to farmers. In office, he has raised the price of fertiliser and, in a move aimed at benefiting friends of the governing party, disturbed the distribution and supply chains of agricultural inputs by awarding contracts to companies that lack the capacity to meet the demand. 

And instead of reducing fuel and food prices as pledged, these costs have seen a dramatic increase over the past 12 months, worsening the cost-of-living crisis that started under Lungu. Meanwhile, the resumption of crippling six-hour daily power cuts has disappointed Zambians who had been assured by Hichilema only a few months ago that his administration had completely ended the energy crisis that had badly affected production. 

After condemning the previous government’s appetite for borrowing, his administration has, in just a year, added at least $2 billion to Zambia’s external debt. Shortages of pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies in public hospitals are so acute that a parliamentary committee appointed by the government recently recommended the adoption of emergency measures to avert a likely catastrophe. 

Promises of wide-ranging democratic reform have not been fulfilled. After more than a year in office, Hichilema’s administration is yet to repeal repressive legislation that undermines democracy or enact any that promotes human rights and strengthens accountable governance. 

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 there were under six years of Lungu. 

This poor record and lack of leadership on institutional reform did not stop the US from heaping praise on Hichilema as “a bright spot for democracy in Africa” during last week’s US-Africa summit on democracy. This premature recognition will be of little comfort to those languishing in the country’s filthy jails for having insulted the president. The US human rights defender presides over a country where critical social media posts about his leadership can lead to jail with hard labour. 

Hichilema has also disappointed many Zambians by undermining formal institutions. As well as packing the civil service with ruling party functionaries and inexperienced loyalists, he has appointed allies to head the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), the judicial body that appoints and dismisses judges, as well as to the National Assembly.  

The refusal to embark on judicial reforms, the constant arrest of opposition leaders on spurious charges, and the abuse of the electoral commission to exclude political opponents from electoral competition show how democratic institutions remain as susceptible to manipulation now as they were under Lungu.  

But perhaps the most serious issue that risks alienating him from many Zambians is Hichilema’s failure to reflect adequate ethnic diversity in most appointments to public office. When asked before his death what he considered the foremost threat to Zambia’s future, founding president Kenneth Kaunda identified Hichilema’s potential to further divide the country on ethnic-region lines.  

One key criticism of Lungu’s rule was that he marginalised Zambians from southern, western and northwestern provinces, regions that have historically voted for Hichilema. Most of Lungu’s ministers, for instance, were either from the eastern province or from one of three Bemba-speaking provinces. 

This preference was also seen clearly in the top leadership positions of the police, army, air force, national service and office of the president. Hichilema promised to do things differently if elected, but has not delivered. 

While his cabinet is relatively representative of Zambia’s ten provinces, areas that historically voted for the Patriotic Front are grossly underrepresented while most ministers are from ethnic groups that have typically formed the core of Hichilema’s base. 

The key ministries — home affairs, defence, finance, justice, education, local government and many more — and leadership positions in the five security services, the entire leadership of the justice system, the post of speaker of the National Assembly and most permanent secretaries in the civil service are all held by people from the region that voted for Hichilema. 

Added to this are most of the appointments to the diplomatic service, boards, State House and the Electoral Commission of Zambia. There has been a near complete reversal 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 from the groups that were marginalised continues this trend and makes it more likely that the next election will be driven by ethnic, rather than policy, considerations. 

Major concerns have also emerged about Hichilema’s commitment to fighting corruption. The first is the lack of examples. Despite being elected on a platform of anti-corruption, accountability and transparency, Hichilema has so far failed to publish the value of his assets. Along with Lungu, he is the only major party nominee not to do so since the return to multiparty democracy in 1991. 

This is especially concerning as Zambian presidents have generally used state power to accumulate wealth. In less than 16 months in power, for instance, Lungu’s net worth grew from K10.9 million ($0.62million) in 2015 to K23.7 million ($1.34 million) when he ran for re-election in 2016. 

Lungu refused to reveal his net worth ahead of last year’s vote, perhaps because of fears that knowledge of his wealth would increase calls for his removal of immunity if he lost. Although there is no evidence that Hichilema has stolen public funds, his reluctance to release his net worth is concerning given his extensive business interests. 

As well as undermining the fight against corruption and the need for government transparency, it has added to suspicions 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.

Another major concern is Hichilema’s reluctance to pass a law on access to information (ATI) which would enhance transparency in government and assist the media and civil society to fight corruption. The ATI law has been promised by successive governments over the past three decades. It was originally promised in the manifesto of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy in 1991, and a Bill was brought before parliament. After a protracted debate, the proposed legislation was withdrawn “for consultation with other countries which had similar legislation”. 

Thirty years later, Zambians are still waiting for the results of this consultation. In 2011, the Patriotic Front also promised an ATI law and even produced a Draft Bill in 2012, but no Bill was put before parliament. 

One year in office should have been enough time to pass the ATI law, but Hichilema’s party has not even got as far as producing a Draft Bill. And so, his government joins a long list of administrations that have dragged their feet on the matter. 

The reluctance to introduce an ATI law arises from the fear by political elites that such a law may make available information held by the government — especially on procurement and asset declarations — that would make corruption easier to spot. As former US president Jimmy Carter once remarked, only crooks and corrupt political leaders would oppose the ATI bill.

The third concern is that Hichilema has ignored accusations of corruption in his government. When opposition parties presented evidence showing executive involvement in an inflated fertiliser contract awarded to one of the president’s business associates, for instance, Hichilema kept quiet. 

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which now sits under the president’s office, also looked away. When the minister of health, Sylvia Masebo, got embroiled in what appears to be a major corruption scandal, Hichilema kept quiet. The ACC also looked away. This is symptomatic of the new administration’s laissez-faire attitude towards corruption within its ranks. 

The growing perception that Hichilema is promoting ethnic-regional discrimination in public appointments, ignoring corruption, mismanaging an already poor economy, undermining democratic institutions and serving as a stooge of foreign mining companies and Western countries — an issue that unites Zambians across party lines — risks alienating him from voters. 

Already, many ordinary people are beginning to consider the idea that Hichilema may not be the leader they thought he was, or would become. As a result, they are increasingly adopting a more critical attitude towards his actions. 

Regrettably, however, he appears to pay more attention to the voice of a particular constituency in South Africa, Europe and the US than the people who elected him.

A government that doesn’t listen to the people, sooner rather than later goes out. People are a sovereign element in the running of the country,” Archbishop Mpundu warned in July. 

The co-optation into government bodies of several members of civil society who spoke truth to power under Lungu, the studied silence of Western actors and ordinary people’s real fear of arrest for criticising the president, has reduced possible sources of legitimate feedback on government performance. 

Zambians may be poor at choosing leaders, but they are very good at removing them from power.  Indeed, this is how Hichilema ended up as president. The calamity of his predecessor’s leadership pushed many people to breaking point and made anyone, however ill-equipped, look like a better alternative. 

If Hichilema does not take a long hard look at himself, there is a greater chance that he would become the first incumbent president to suffer electoral defeat after serving only one term. 

What largely determines the fate of presidents in Zambia is not the economy; it is the failure to manage the politics of perceptions. For instance, in spite of his impressive economic record, Rupiah Banda lost the 2011 election while Lungu rode the tide of economic decline to retain power in 2016. 

It was only in 2021 that Lungu was defeated after widespread consensus seemed to exist among voters that Lungu was either corrupt or tolerant of corruption and guilty of assaulting democracy, mismanaging the economy, fostering ethnic division and hurting the country by locking it into a dependency path with one major power bloc in an increasingly polarised world — key weaknesses that Hichilema is already mirroring early into his first term. 

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian historian and political commentator