It has been 75 days since Hakainde Hichilema (popularly known as HH) was sworn in as the seventh president of the Republic of Zambia, in a ceremony attended by several African Presidents including Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Mokgweetsi Masisi (Botswana) and Lazarus Chakwera (Malawi). To honour his 15-year-long journey as an opposition leader who finally won on his sixth attempt, HH also extended the inauguration invitation to his fellow opposition leaders such as Zitto Kabwe (Tanzania) and Nelson Chamisa (Zimbabwe), whose Presidents were also in attendance. HH’s win has galvanised the youth around Africa, particularly those in Zimbabwe who hope for an end to ZANU-PF rule after 41 years. Zambia has turned (political) tables four times during the same period. HH has achieved pop star-like status on social media where he has 1.3m followers on Facebook and 400.1k followers on Twitter.
Since his election, HH has scored big wins on the domestic and international front that have given the Zambian people hope that the country will now command the respect not seen during the heyday of the Kenneth Kaunda (aka KK) era. The 2021 UPND manifesto laid out the key priorities as: lower the fiscal deficit; restore market confidence; bring stability to the economy; enable a speedy recovery in economic growth; and ensure debt management and sustainability. Some of the results kicked in soon after HH was declared the winner on 16 August 2021. Markets exhaled and confidence was instantly restored with the certainty that the country would be in better hands after the previous administration brought the economy to a halt. The Zambian Kwacha appreciated from a high of $1: K22.62 on 15 July 2021 to 15.91 on 1 September (Note: current rate is $1: K17.36).
The UPND government announced an ambitious budget on 29 October 2021 that will: give tax breaks to the mining sector; boost secondary school education by scrapping fees, build 120 secondary schools, and hire 30k teachers; decentralise and increase constituency budgets; and marginally increased the tax threshold. The emphasis on quality education is important as the curriculums are outdated. The projected economic growth rate for 2022 was a modest 3.5% which UPND has promised will eventually increase to 10%. The goal to reduce poverty by more than 60% within a decade is noble but unlikely to be met unless Zambia, which is a net importer and produces little, makes some radical changes to the economy.
The increased government spend will initially be met by borrowing which may cannabilise efforts to reduce fiscal debt. The first step to reducing fiscal debt was to remove the veil of secrecy on the size of Zambia’s debt. The Ministry of Finance revealed the full extent Zambia’s $27bn debt, listing each debtor and amounts, including a furniture company that was owed $306m – a sum more than the lending institutions. When the previous administration took over the debt was $3.5bn. Transparency will be key to holding the government accountable and it is hoped that this practice continues.
On the international front, HH made two significant foreign trips. In September 2021, he attended the UN General Assembly and met with US Vice President Kamala Harris. A meeting with US President Joe Biden was cancelled after the Zambian Vice President, Mutale Nalumango, denounced gay rights in parliament. The former US Ambassador to Zambia, Daniel Foote, was expelled in December 2019 after denouncing a 15-year sentence for a gay couple, whom ironically were released six months later. HH will need to apply delicate diplomacy to bring the Americans on side while respecting the Christian values of the Zambian people.
In November 2021, HH attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) where he briefly met UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other world leaders. Following COP26, he a £1bn Green Growth Compact, with £100m earmarked for the small and medium enterprises, which is one of the pillars of the UPND manifesto. He also used the time in the UK to meet Eurobond holders after Zambia defaulted in November 2020. More importantly, he met the Zambian diaspora to say “ndalumba” (thank you) for all the support.
The general sense among local and international observers is that HH steering the country in the right direction and will achieve more in his first 100 days than any other Zambian president. His track record as successful businessman and allegedly one of the wealthiest people in Zambia, his mental strength, and an ability to get things done mean he is committed to leaving a positive legacy. HH has no choice but to deliver and stop the trend of politicians doing nothing for the first 3-4 years in office. Zambians have shown that they have little tolerance for arrogant, incompetence leaders and can patiently wait until the next election in 2026 to (re)hire or fire.