Humble, mother-loving and God-fearing? How Edgar Lungu won Zambia’s presidential election
In over-emphasising economics, analysts may have missed the importance of personality politics.
Despite overseeing clear economic decline since taking over as president in January 2015, Edgar Lungu officially won Zambia’s presidential election with 1, 860, 877 votes. The United Party for National Development’s (UNDP) leader Hakainde Hichilema, the challenger many analysts had predicted would capitalise on the country’s economic woes to emerge victorious (and who has disputed the results), managed 1 760, 347 votes.
So why did Lungu do better than many thought he would? And what did the commentators get wrong?
A humble mother-loving god-fearing man
It seems that one crucial weakness in much analysis of the election was that by focusing in on the political economy and other institutional or legalistic angles, the importance of personality was underestimated. Many arguments assumed that economic issues were paramount in voters’ minds and thus predicted a Hichilema victory. However, in doing so, commentators may have been imposing their own views on the electorate rather than examining how Zambian voters were actually making their decisions.
When asked why they support Lungu, many voters in Zambia say things like “I just love him” and “I love Lungu because he loves me too”. In his campaign, Lungu marketed himself around notions of humbleness, faith, and love of family and nation. He presented himself as a humble man who respects others as equals rather than a saviour with all the solutions to Zambia’s problems. This was in contrast to Hichilema, a wealthy British-trained economist, whose slogan was “HH will fix it” and who surrounded himself with rich businesspeople such as running mate Geoffrey Bwayla Mwamba (GBM).
Lungu presented himself as a “small boy”, who grew up in the Chimwemwe compound of Kitwe, now surrounded by big boys and in need of sympathy. He dressed casually; he danced with the people to his campaign song Dununa Reverse at rallies; and at a Catholic celebration on 6 August, he demonstrated humility by kneeling to greet the Bishops.
Lungu also marketed himself as a loving family man devoted to his wife, children and Mai Jere (his mother). For instance, one of his campaign videos showed Mai Jere selling tomatoes, with Lungu narrating: “She didn’t have much, but made sure she gave all to her family…she didn’t have much but she had love…My mother is just one of the millions of women with the same story in Zambia, it is mothers like her who continue to be the backbone of this nation”.
This story resonated with many Zambians from humble backgrounds, and this image of Lungu tactically contrasted him with GBM who faced allegations of domestic abuse and was seen by some gender activists as a symbol of oppressive patriarchy.
In a deeply religious country, Lungu also made efforts to present himself as a man of faith. In October 2015, many people laughed when the president called for national prayers to deal with the country’s economic problems. But in hindsight, this helped him appeal to a certain constituency. And this faith card frustrated Hichilema’s campaign, which tried to accuse Lungu of being blasphemous, a strategy that backfired.
Although Lungu did not present himself as an incredibly devout Christian, he was widely viewed as a God-fearing man. And many voters said they see Lungu as a sinner who loves his Jameson whiskey, but one who, like many in Zambia, repents every Sunday.
A man for all Zambians
Another key part of Lungu’s image was of being someone who loves his nation and all Zambians of all ethnicities equally. By contrast, it was clear from the start of campaigning that Hichilema is a Tonga. This worked to his favour amongst some voters who celebrated the candidate as one of their own, but worked against him amongst those who believed he was too ethnically conscious.
Lungu attempted to take advantage of this. For example, at a 7 August rally in Livingstone, Southern Province – Hichilema’s backyard – Lungu subtly attacked leadership based on ethnicity and appealed to Zambians to regard each other as equals. Moreover, he capitalised on stereotypes of Tongas as elitist and boastful by punctuating his rallies with the inclusive slogan “One Zambia, One Nation”.
Finally, in his campaign, Lungu presented himself as a man of deeds. He leveraged the benefits of incumbency and on his campaign billboards went beyond promises to articulate results, such as the number of roads, clinics, schools and social projects his Patriotic Front (PF) government had completed.
In almost every Province, Lungu commissioned something that he could point to in his campaign. For example, in Livingstone, Southern Province, he commissioned a 150-megawatt thermal plant in Maamba to feed into the national grid. And on 10 August 2016, the eve of the election, he commissioned the Copperbelt medical school. This commissioning of huge development projects was difficult for the opposition to counter as they could only make promises.
Lungu also utilised the slogan “Sonta epo abomba” (show us where your deeds are), whose genealogy was biblical passages such as “show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds”. Using the power of incumbency, Lungu also endeared himself to a significant number of traditional leaders by raising their salaries in June 2016.
Keeping his distance
Behind the persona offered to voters, many allege that Lungu is a ruthless and heartless political operator who preached peace by day and organised political violence at night. Whether or not this is the case, the president certainly tried hard to distance himself from this perception.
Both PF and UPND cadres perpetrated some gruesome violence in the run up to the election. But in response, Lungu consistently blamed Hichilema’s party, preached peace at every political rally, and even had the guts to suggest a vote for the PF was a vote for peace. Despite the violence being carried out by some of his supporters, Lungu was conscious of the need to sell himself as the best candidate to lead a peace-loving nation.
Another important issue in the campaign was the closing of The Post newspaper, which had been a fierce critic of the government. In many people’s eyes, this was a political move that confirmed Lungu as an intolerant and cruel leader. However, if the president was behind the closure, he made sure to make his move from behind the curtains. The official reason behind the closure was unpaid taxes, and in the absence of clear evidence of Lungu’s role or position in the decision, he was allowed a degree of distance from the controversy.
Whether the image Lungu sold to Zambia was phony or real – and to what extent actions such as the closure of The Post played a role in people’s perceptions – is a debate that will rage on. But what’s clear is that a significant part of the electorate seems to have bought into it when they voted on 11 August 2016. There have been allegations of rigging, and UPND has said they will be challenging the results, but so far, there has been relatively little evidence of fraud compared to the allegations that surrounded the election, though more clarity will likely emerge in the coming days. Nevertheless, irregularities in the imperfect process seem inadequate to fully explain why Lungu attracted more than a million new voters in the midst of an economic crisis.
Looking at the campaign and the reasons many voters gave, it seems that Zambians’ decisions were not just driven by economic needs as many analysts suggested they would be, but by a multiplicity of other factors – chief among them the personal image Lungu managed to cultivate and present to the country.
Dr Phillan Zamchiya is an independent researcher who holds a doctorate degree in international development from Oxford University.