Zambia elections: Hakainde Hichilema’s landslide victory was a herculean task

President-elect of Zambia Hakainde Hichilema. (Photo: Salim Dawood / AFP / Getty Images)

Victory for the tens of thousands of Zambians who got out to vote and protect the votes of others.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Hakainde Hichilema’s surprise landslide victory in last week’s Zambia elections has sent a powerful message across the continent that even well-entrenched incumbents can be unseated, against heavy odds – but that it takes an almost superhuman effort to do so.

Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND) won at his fifth attempt at the presidency, turning out young people especially in such large numbers that it became impossible for President Edgar Lungu, of the Patriotic Front (PF), to deny him victory. In the end the voter turnout was a record 70.9% – way above the 57.7% of the last vote in 2016. And Hichilema’s victory margin was more than one million.

It was just too big to rig. “Obasanjo always says the challenger has to win big. So that rigging doesn’t make a difference,” said Brenthurst Foundation director Greg Mills. He was referring to former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has himself sparred with dictators.

Or, put differently, “election rigging has a ceiling”, as Phillan Zamchiya, of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, (PLAAS), says. “This was not a perfectly free and fair election. It was heavily skewed in favour of Lungu and the Patriotic Front,” he said at a Sapes Trust webinar on the election this week.

Lungu did his best to assure victory in this, his third election, by hook or, if necessary, by crook. He heavily restricted Hichilema’s campaigning, including by preventing him from flying to the up-for-grabs Copperbelt and other possible swing provinces; PF youth cadres attacked UPND supporters; the government manipulated Covid-19 restrictions in its favour; it blocked the internet to try to stop the UPND from independently collating voting numbers; it abused state media; it restricted UPND freedom of assembly and of expression. Lungu also directed state financial support, including for farmers, exclusively to PF supporters, said Neo Simutanyi, of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Lusaka, at the Sapes  Trust webinar.

But intense UPND voter education, a huge turnout of mostly young polling agents and a robust Parallel Voter Tabulation (PVT) system of independently collating the vote – including bypassing the internet blackout by way of VPN (virtual private network) – in the end overcame the long odds, Zamchiya said.

Mills and Zamchiya also credit the “swift interventions” of some influential ex-presidents for blocking Lungu’s efforts to steal the vote, especially when he bizarrely claimed the elections were being rigged against him by UPND violence against PF supporters in some battleground provinces. As Mills said, it was a first for an African incumbent to cry foul in elections.

The external intervention may have been decisive at this critical moment, when Lungu “sent a Donald Trump signal”, as Zamchiya put it, referring to the former US president’s claim that his electoral defeat last November had been rigged.

Zamchiya said former Sierra Leone president Ernest Bai Koroma, head of the African Union election observer mission, former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, head of the Commonwealth election observer mission, and former Zambian president Rupiah Banda “quickly stepped in to facilitate a peaceful democratic transfer of power”. The US and UK had also played a role remotely.

This swift intervention had isolated others who tried to block the transition behind the scenes – like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – Zamchiya said, adding that this contained a message for Africa to rely on influential individuals, not cumbersome regional bodies like the Southern African Development Community (SADC), when they needed help.

Mills agreed that Koroma and Kikwete especially had played very important roles in keeping the democratic process on track, “which of course is supposed to be their role… There was the right amount of international pressure to ensure electoral institutions and the vote were protected.”

But what was more remarkable was how Zambians themselves guaranteed democracy by deploying tens of thousands of local observers and independently collating the vote, he added. Whereas, in the past, official electoral observer missions from the likes of the AU or SADC had usually set the tone – and almost invariably in favour of the incumbent – Mills said he sensed that in Zambia outside observers had taken their cue from the local observers.

This was a good sign for Africa. It sent the wrong message when foreigners took the lead in upholding democracy, he said. Hichilema’s victory set Zambia on track to graduate from a partly free to a free country in Freedom House’s rankings.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) may also have realised that it would be difficult to counter the results being posted by the PVT – though perhaps it was also encouraged by the likes of Koroma and Kikwete. The ECZ simply ignored Lungu’s claim that the election had been rigged against him in key areas, and went on to announce a landslide victory for Hichilema.

As Zamchiya said, the lesson for the continent here was “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men”.

Mills noted that it was true that in many ways Lungu lost the election through his mismanagement of the economy, which was in a parlous state and heavily in debt. And Lungu didn’t seem to have a plan except to offer more of the same.

“But one shouldn’t just say Lungu lost it. HH won it and he should be given credit for that. For younger people especially, HH was able to portray the alternative, the prospect of change, and drive up voter turnout, which was crucial.”

Simutanyi agreed that the economy was the major factor. The economy was “in free fall”, with “unsustainable” national debt now exceeding US$12-billion, a Eurobond debt default last year and unemployment high and rising, especially among young people.

But there were other factors in Lungu’s defeat, including deep divisions within his PF, many of them caused by the switch to the party of many Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) supporters, especially in the PF’s Eastern Province stronghold. This caused resentment among traditional PF supporters, who felt sidelined.

Lungu’s insistence on seeking a third term in office was also unpopular in the PF.  And his choice of Nkandu Luo as his running mate cost him many votes, especially among young people, who remembered that she had cut student support when she was minister of higher education, Simutanyi said.

In his first press conference since his victory this week, Hichilema – rather oddly referring to himself in the third person, by his nickname “HH” – struck all the right democratic notes, insisting that his administration would be a “servant and not a master of the people”. At one point he even said it would be a “slave” of the people. He also sounded the tone of reconciliation, emphasising that “I will be a president for all” and promising that Lungu and his party would suffer no consequences for voting against him. That seemed to include an assurance that he would not pursue Lungu for widely alleged corruption, though HH seemed to hedge his bets by saying that would be left to the legal system.

He also stressed his support for media freedom, saying that the media should be self-regulating, and forgave the national broadcaster – the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation – for its clear bias against the UPND by ignoring most of its activities. Hichilema went as far as encouraging the ZNBC to cover the opposition as much as it liked during his presidency.

The new president’s major challenge will clearly be how to turn around the plummeting economy, particularly by managing spiralling debt and mending relations with the mining industry, which have been very bad. The country relies heavily on copper, especially for its foreign earnings, so this is crucial.  

Lungu nationalised the Mopani and KCM copper mines and generally meddled in the mining industry, though mainly for the sake of “playing to the gallery” and not for the economic benefit of ordinary Zambians, Simutanyi observed.

It took state funds, which Zambia could not afford, to buy out those mines. Instead, the government should be encouraging private mining houses and attracting new investment with a fair deal so that mining profits and generates tax revenues to benefit ordinary Zambians, he said.

Others have called for the Zambian government to come clean with all the country’s creditors by being much more transparent about debt. Many Western creditors have complained over the past few years that Lungu’s administration concealed the extent and terms of its debt to China, which they suspected was given preferential treatment.  

Nevertheless, some Zambians clearly also fear that Hichilema, a liberal and a successful businessman, will swing the Zambian economy too far back in the opposite direction, towards “neoliberalism”, which is by far the dirtiest word in the vocabulary of many left-leaning progressive African commentators.

This view was implicit at HH’s press conference when a journalist asked him what he intended doing to prevent mining companies “siphoning off Zambia’s wealth”. Hichilema – who had strongly emphasised that his administration would be business-friendly – said he would give the mining houses a fair deal but also that they would have to pay their fair share in taxes.

What this meant in detail would only be revealed in his inaugural speech next week, he said. Likewise his approach to debt. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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