Main contenders Lungu and Hichilema trade insults while Zambians brace themselves for polling day

From left: President of Zambia Edgar Lungu. (Photo: EPA-EFE / HARISH TYAGI) | United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema. (Photo: EPA / STR)

Just over seven million voters are preparing to go to the polls in Zambia, where a lot is at stake for both of the main contenders.

Patriotic Front (PF) supporters appeared to be in early party mode on Tuesday afternoon, and they were the only ones visibly campaigning in Zambezi Road in the east of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Some wore green T-shirts portraying President Edgar Chagwa Lungu’s face – ECL for short.

Thursday’s election is expected to be a close race between the incumbent as well as his main challenger, Hakainde Hichilema from the United Party for National Development, who lost in 2016 with just more than 100,500 votes. 

Lungu this week declared that Friday would be a public holiday, in addition to voting day, which means that Zambians are not only preparing to make their crosses, but they’re also getting ready for a long weekend. 

On Tuesday, small groups of mostly young men hanging out on the side of Zambezi Road – one of the major bus routes in the city – cheered as the odd truck drove past with party supporters in it. From some of these vehicles, cloths printed with Lungu’s face printed on them were tossed down to supporters to be cut up and tied to the fence to serve as campaign posters.

On a corner opposite a small unofficial PF office, painted in green and adorned with Lungu’s face, sat a group of about eight young men, overlooking an unofficial minibus taxi stop. 

One wore a T-shirt with Lungu’s face on it, while another had a green flak jacket with “ECL” and “2021” printed on it.

They said they were waiting for lunch being cooked outside next to the PF office by three women wearing party kangas – a massive pot of nshima (pap) accompanied by small pieces of pan-fried meat. 

“It’s my first time that I’ll be voting for ECL,” 24-year-old Kenward Chansa said about Thursday’s elections, in which Zambians will be voting for president, as well as National Assembly and local government representatives. 

Chansa, who is not formally employed, did not qualify to vote in the elections five years ago because he didn’t have an identity card, but said he had been supporting Lungu all his life.

“He is the best president for us Zambians. He’s a man who has responsibility. He’s a man who knows what he stands for,” he said. 

Chansa added that Lungu looks after the vulnerable, and had put up health facilities for them. One of Lungu’s campaign points is the houses, roads, hospitals and schools that went up since he’d been in government in 2015 (his first term was only about a year long and followed an election called after the death of his predecessor, Michael Sata). 

Another man in the group with a more bulky build, and who would only give his name as Five-Four, agreed that infrastructural development under the PF government since 2011 was one of its biggest achievements. He said Lungu should be re-elected because continuity was a good thing.

“If Zambians elect a new government, that government will start first from fighting those people from the government that was in power,” he said. “So, I think, for me, continuing Edgar Lungu in office is the best choice.” 

Five-Four said he’s a businessman doing “street business”, and added that he wasn’t wearing party colours because “there’s a lot of demand for material”. He said: “For me to put on a shirt is not good for me because a lot of people come to us for materials so we just give it out.” 

While the men did not want to be specific about what jobs they were doing, one of the forms of street business conducted by PF party cadres in Lusaka is extracting money from bus owners to use certain bus stops. The practice has been depriving the city council of income, but has served as a form of fund-raising and job creation for the party faithful. Residents here say police turn a blind eye even though these activities are illegal.

A little further on, another group of men sat at the entrance to a luxury estate, just across the road from their homes in a high-density settlement. Led by two cadres wearing party T-shirts, the group got up to cheer as three luxury cars with high-ranking PF government leaders entered the gate of the high-end estate.

But once the convoy had passed, their stories were less cheerful. One asked for money – three times. Another, Moses Mawale (57), said he was unemployed and sat there waiting for piece work all day. 

“Where we are working, the money [is too little]. We are talking about 900 kwacha [R690], so when we are managing to pay our rent, 500 kwacha, we don’t have much left,” he said. “When you go in there to work,” he said, pointing to the luxury estate, “they give you 30 or 40 kwacha a day.” He said he had six children, and cannot afford food and school fees.  

Mawale, who was not wearing party colours, said things “have got to change”, but he appeared reluctant to say in front of the group of men whether he would vote for a change in government. 

The two frontrunners in the race, meanwhile, continued trading insults as election day drew closer. 

Lungu said during a doorstop interview as he arrived in the Copperbelt on Monday that Hichilema would have been killed if the election had been run in some other countries, something which Hichilema interpreted as an indirect death threat. 

“This is sad to hear especially that I don’t harbour such hatred for him that I would utter such words,” Hichilema tweeted. “I wish him well as he leaves office in a few days.” DM


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