In August, Hakainde Hichilema was sworn in as the new president of Zambia after defeating the outgoing Edgar Lungu by almost one million votes in a bitterly contested election. Hichilema’s inauguration marks the third time that power has peacefully shifted to opposition parties in Zambia. He faces a number of competing priorities in his first months in office, including reviving the country’s ailing economy and democratic credentials.
After a decade of robust economic growth, including achieving middle-income status in 2011, the country experienced a steep economic decline under the ruling previous government, led by Lungu, which presided over a period of rising unemployment, colossal debt and massive inflation. Food prices skyrocketed with food inflation soaring to 31.6%, while the country’s currency was the worst-performing on the continent in 2020. After the government went on a borrowing spree to fund its infrastructure drive, Zambia became the first African country to default on its foreign debt repayments, imperilling its ability to access international financial markets. Zambia’s external debt is $12 billion, including an unknown amount of debt to China.
Shortly after taking office, Hichilema reaffirmed his campaign promise to cut the country’s unsustainable borrowing and mismanagement “Our focus over the next five years will be restoring macroeconomic stability … We will pay special attention to lowering the fiscal deficit, reducing public debt and restoring market confidence in our country,” Hichilema said.
A slide to authoritarianism
The country, long seen as a beacon of relative democratic stability in a region beset by conflict and political instability, experienced democratic backsliding and corruption in recent years under the previous ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF). Freedom of expression and media freedoms were heavily curtailed with journalists, media workers and lawyers routinely harassed. Attempts to further restrict the country’s democratic space occurred in 2020 when Zambia’s ruling party failed in its controversial bid for constitutional reforms that would have expanded Lungu’s powers. Bill 10, as it was called, would have extended the executive powers to appoint judges and ministers and allow changes to the electoral map. It would also have allowed the government to create several constituencies in its strongholds.
Corruption in the country also reached unprecedented levels under Lungu. In 2018, the Financial Intelligence Centre reported acts of corruption estimated at about $284 million. In 2018, the UK followed a number of European countries in suspending aid to Zambia following a report that alleged £3.5m in aid funds had gone missing. According to the report, funds were used instead to buy expensive vehicles. Additionally, it cites a report by Zambia’s auditor general suggesting officials in the Ministry of Education established shell companies to divert the aid money. After taking office, Hichilema described corruption in the country as being at “horrifying” levels.
Hichilema faces an uphill task in getting the country back on track. The first few days of his presidency were marked by sweeping changes and new appointments. He has set up a new team of economic advisers to review the country’s tax regime. He has also appointed a new cabinet and changed the country’s top military and police officials, following through on his promise to make the state’s security apparatus more accountable to citizens. In his five-year plan, Hichilema has pledged to bring the country out of debt and attain a growth rate of 10 per cent. The signs so far have been promising. Following a post-election euphoria, the country’s currency, Kwacha, surged against the US dollar after years of depreciation.
Regionally, Hichilema has sent a message of unity by reaching out to oppositional leaders across the continent. Breaking with tradition, Hichilema invited regional opposition leaders to his inauguration ceremony. According to Joseph Kalimbwe, spokesperson for the ruling United Party for National Development, “By inviting incumbent presidents and main opposition leaders from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, and other African countries, the UPND is sending a very strong message not just in Zambia but across Africa ‘we must do away with the politics of division based on opposing views’.”
Despite promises to bring about economic reforms and improve governance, many remain sceptical. According to Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy advisor at Development Reimagined, “while Hichilema could make significant progress on the latter by improving government efficiency, the former requires deep transformation and restructuring that he can’t execute neither does he have the zeal to. Here, I am talking about localising ownership of the economy, putting public investment into resource extraction as opposed to just collecting taxes, and the diversification of revenue sources.”
The country’s new finance minister, Situmbeko Musokotwane, has spoken of his intention to work with the IMF to try to solve Zambia’s economic problems. However, there’s ample evidence of how that has worked out in Africa in the past. Economic restructuring policies required by the IMF would likely prove unpopular with Zambians. “We will see excitement among investors in the initial stage who will flock to Zambia with enthusiasm given the IMF’s hand in the economy. Unless the privatisation of assets delivers enough jobs and prosperity for a threshold number of Zambians to weather the austerity storm, he [Hichilema] probably won’t match the expectations of most Zambians,” says Eguegu.