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Lessons for President Hichilema – Can He Learn from Lungu’s Mistakes?

This post is part two of a two-part series on the Zambia 2021 elections. Click here to read part one. 

With his August 2021 electoral victory, Hakainda Hichilema is at the helm of power in Zambia, but can he learn from the mistakes committed by former President Lungu and the Patriotic Front (PF) government? Based on the lost opportunities of the last 10 years, Zambia is pinning its hopes on Hichilema, a successful businessman and commercial farmer, popularly known by his initials HH, or as Bally, by his fanatical, youthful supporters that turned out in their millions to deliver victory for him.

As HH begins his leadership of Zambia, let us first interrogate why Lungu before him failed and the lessons his rule offers to HH and other African leaders.

Firstly, I posit that in the minds of most Zambians, the opulent lifestyle displayed by Lungu, his family, aides, cabinet ministers, and senior civil servants, appeared to exceed their declared incomes and therefore pointed to unprecedented levels of corruption.

This was particularly worrisome to Zambians as the World Bank estimates that over 55 percent of the population live below the international poverty datum line of US$1.90 per day, while overall poverty levels stand at 54.4. Zambia is also one of the most unequal societies in the world with a Gini Coefficient of 57.1. To make matters worse, the PF was founded by former president Michael Sata on a pro-poor agenda and recruited its cadres, many of whom later rose to become powerful cabinet ministers and senior government officials, from among the poorest of society.

Ironically, Lungu has always positioned himself as the humble hustler although this flew in the face of available evidence. The newly acquired wealth by Lungu’s aides and officials in the absence of any justifiable source of income in the midst of punishing poverty was too much to stomach for ordinary Zambians battling to simply stay alive and make it to the next day.

Secondly, Lungu’s strategy to use ethnicity to fight Hichilema, a member of the Tonga ethnic group located in southern Zambia, caused consternation among Zambians and clearly backfired. In a country where founding father, Kenneth Kaunda, championed the mantra of a “One Zambia, One Nation,” as a strategy to fight and combat ethnicity and ethnic-based politics frequently used in other African nations, Lungu’s appeal to the tribe alienated him from the vast members of the population who live side by side and in harmony across ethnic groups.

The anti-ethnicity sentiment displayed by Zambians in these elections was so strong that incoming election results indicate an overwhelming rejection of Lungu and the PF party even in his native eastern region of Zambia. This rejection sets Zambia apart from other ethnically divided African nations whose rulers use tribalism to cling to power and privilege.

Thirdly, Lungu’s contempt for the rule of law, which saw his party cadres overpower state institutions such as the police, judiciary, and even the intelligence services, alarmed many Zambians. Onto Lungu’s PF cadres was bequeathed so much power that Zambia veered closer and closer to ungovernability, an unprecedented epoch since the country attained independence from Britain in 1964. The cadres had powers of arrest and torture, rendering state institutions impotent. The treatment of Hichilema and UPND officials and other political opponents at the hands of these cadres was degrading.

All this was enabled by Zambia’s colonial-era Public Order Act used by the British colonizers to rein in their native black subjects. That the Act still remains on Zambia’s Statutes 57 years since independence and 30 years since we re-entered pluralist politics, shows how far we are yet to go as a fully-fledged democratic nation. 

Meanwhile, Lungu’s aides, ministers, and senior civil servants were seen to be above the law and got away, in the minds of the Zambian people, with the most obvious of law-breaking cases.

Lungu treated with disdain frequent reports from the Zambia Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC), which produced voluminous accounts of high-level corruption and accumulation of state resources, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, by his aides. His failure to act was construed by the Zambian people as both his approval and endorsement for their behavior.

Fourthly, although Lungu and the PF government embarked on unprecedented levels of infrastructure development across the country, this came with a double-pronged cost to the nation.

In the first instance, allegations abound that several projects, mainly funded and managed by the Chinese government and Chinese companies, were hugely inflated. A senior Zambian roads engineer pointed out to me, as the election results trickled in, that the cost of road construction in Zambia stood at an average of US$1.5-million per kilometer against the regional average in southern Africa of between US$500,000.00 to US$700,000.00 per kilometer. If these figures are true, it simply implies that the balance of the funds could rightly be construed as having ended up in the pockets of corrupt government officials.

The litany of Lungu’s transgressions reads like a bad dream—from second-hand ambulances procured at allegedly inflated astronomical cost, to other controversial, alleged cost-inflated procurements, the list goes on and on. This is the level of perceived corruption that is believed to have flourished on Lungu’s watch, taking away much-needed resources in the health, education, and other social sectors. In the second instance, with immediate and long-term consequences, this seemingly reckless behavior added significantly to Zambia’s foreign debt woes. Zambia’s foreign debt levels have climbed to over US$12-billion, according to government figures, from under US$2-billion when the PF party first came to power in 2011. Much of this debt is contracted from China, and the figure could be much more given the secretive nature of Chinese loans. This has, in turn, hindered Zambia from accessing finance from Western donors and international financial institutions. A US$1.3-billion balance of payments loan from the IMF still hangs in the balance due to the factor of Lungu’s reckless borrowing.

Lastly, Lungu’s mishandling of Zambia’s lifeblood mining sector, which is the second-largest formal employer after the civil service with more than 80,000 employees and brings in 80 percent of foreign current earnings, contributes to more than 30 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is the biggest contributor to state revenue, was the final nail in the coffin. The sector has been destabilized to such an extent since Lungu came to power by policy contradictions, inconsistences, and outright mismanagement, that droves of foreign investors, including UK-listed Vedanta Mining Plc Limited and Swiss-listed Glencore, have fled the country while potential investors have reportedly put their plans to invest in Zambia on hold. All this, coming at a time when global copper-cobalt prices are at an all-time high. Lungu’s misguided policies have denied Zambia the much-needed monetary benefits from this surge in copper and cobalt prices and left hordes of miners unemployed as mining operations are either scaled back or shut down altogether. This is a cardinal sin in Zambia, a country dependent on mining for survival, and where no politician—from Kaunda to Lungu—has governed without the support of the mining community and the sector linkages that come along with it.

With Hichilema now firmly at the helm of Zambia, he must heed wise counsel and ensure that his new administration, which no doubt faces a daunting task of reviving a mismanaged and neglected economy, learns lessons from Lungu’s poor governance record. The economy has almost ground to a halt. Reining in runaway corruption and, most importantly, addressing and meeting the high expectations of an angry population will not be easy. Can HH chart Zambia on a different path that seeks economic development and a better life for Zambians? The message to Hichilema is clear—deliver or go the way of Lungu and others. Nonetheless, Hichilema’s victory will go a long way in cementing the reputation of Zambians as an African population resolved to take on state impunity and authoritarianism.

This post is part two of a two-part series on the Zambia 2021 elections. Click here to read part one. 

The writer Buchizya Mseteka is a Johannesburg-based political commentator and one of Africa’s most accomplished political analysts. He spent 15 years with global media company, Thomson Reuters, based in five African countries, while covering many others, as well as assignments in the United Kingdom and at the United Nations in New York.  Buchizya has consulted to companies on transactions across sub-Saharan Africa and is a co-founder of Leriba Ltd, a UK-based pan-African management consulting firm specialising in Africa’s Political Economy. Buchizya also appears as a moderator and facilitator at major events across the world.

About the Author

Buchizya Mseteka

Political Commentator, Johannesburg, South Africa
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