Who is Hichiléma?
The self-proclaimed “cattle boy” grew up tending to his family’s cattle, won a scholarship to study at university, and then pursued a successful career in business. He has headed the local units of multinational accounting firms Grant Thornton and Coopers & Lybrand and currently owns interests in some of the country’s largest ranches, beef suppliers and tourism businesses. Hichilema then turned to politics and became the leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND) in 2006. Yet his lack of political experience and aloof demeanor worked against him both within the party and among the public, and he failed in his first five attempts to win the presidency.
So how did he win this time?
A slow process of building alliances and developing his political acumen helped Hichilema transform the UPND from a southern regional party into a competitive player on the national stage. Following a particularly narrow loss for Hichilema in the 2016 presidential election, authorities arrested him on questionable charges of treason after his motorcade did not give way to that of Lungu . He was imprisoned for four months, but the experience made him look like a political martyr, which he put to good use in the 2021 election campaign. But many Zambians were already ready to support him after six years. from a Lungu government that had presided over slower economic growth, massive bribery schemes, defaults and growing authoritarianism. An attempt to amend the constitution to empower Lungu’s party and family has failed – but narrowly.
What are the biggest challenges facing the new president?
The country’s economy was already dragged down by low international prices for copper and other commodities when the government began to default on debts to foreign creditors last year. This changed the country’s currency from K8 / $ 1 when Lungu took office to K22.6 / $ 1 when he left. Combined with the fallout from the pandemic, the economy shrank 2.8% in 2020.
Hichilema must therefore now walk a tightrope between creating an economic plan that reassures creditors – by reducing “unnecessary spending” like popular subsidies for fertilizers and electricity – but does not strain the good. will of the voters who elected him. Unfortunately, his aloof attitude has come back to the fore and many Zambians lament their president’s lack of communication on the direction of the country. Many of its reforms will take time to bear fruit in the form of increased investment and business confidence that can improve living standards in the country. Yet Hichilema faces the challenge of high expectations. He was elected on a platform of change and Zambians are hoping for a quick turnaround in their economic situation.
What has he done so far?
Given his inexperience in government, Hichilema has mainly focused on understanding the scale of the problems he faces and dismantling the patronage networks set up by the former ruling Patriotic Front. Yet his appointment of respected economist Situmbeko Musokotwane as finance minister and the steps taken to unblock negotiations with the IMF on a loan program and with international creditors on a debt restructuring program have helped stabilize the currency of the country. He also took steps to improve relations with members of the business community who were alienated by the corruption and unpredictable policymaking of the Lungu years, including the companies that operate the country’s most important copper mines. .
What are the Zambians saying?
The new president’s efforts to appoint more women and representatives from different regions to important positions were welcomed following the preference given to people from the North and East under Lungu. But grumbling has already started over a perceived lack of progress on Hichilema’s two most important campaign pledges to revive the economy and end corruption.
Unlike the hyperactive style of the previous administration, the new president attempted to take a slower, more deliberative approach to governance and decision-making. Although the president remains popular, he should keep in mind that many of his supporters in the last election adopted him more because of their dissatisfaction with his predecessor. Zambia is a country known for its tightly fought democratic transitions – if Hichilema loses the country’s support, he could be at the forefront of that arrangement in 2026.
Connor vasey is Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.