HH: “Zambians want change…We don’t count how many times we run”
An interview with Zambia’s opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema on why Zambians should vote for him at a sixth time of asking.
When Zambians go to the polls on 12 August, they’ll effectively have a choice between two men for president. One is Edgar Lungu of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF). In office since 2015, the 64-year-old incumbent has been accused of overseeing a dramatic authoritarian slide, an economic collapse, and high-level corruption.
The other is Hakainde Hichilema (widely known as “HH”) of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND). The 59-year-old wealthy businessman has already run in – and lost – five presidential elections, losing by a razor thin margin in both 2016 and the presidential by-election in 2015.
African Arguments spoke to Hichilema over zoom about what’s at stake in Zambia’s elections and what will be different about 2021. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your manifesto, like your rival’s, is full of nice-sounding promises. What would the number one priority of a Hichilema presidency be?
The defining drive for us is to reunite the country. Its current divisions are seen in many ways, including access to public sector jobs, which is extremely selective and discriminatory.
The second reason we’re seeking public office is to fundamentally reconstruct the country to revitalise the economy, which has been completely destroyed. This guy inherited an economy growing at 6%, but it’s probably less than 1% if not negative this year. We need investment, which will require an attractive and consistent environment. With the reconstruction of the economy, we can support the reconstruction of the social fabric of our country to ensure we can create jobs, business opportunities, support in the health sector, education, and social support to the weak, the sick children, the orphans, the disadvantaged communities.
A huge factor holding back the economy is Zambia estimated external debt of $12 billion. How would you deal with the debt crisis in concrete terms?
This government inherited a debt portfolio of under $4 billion in 2011. It now has close to $14 billion of external debt plus domestic debt, which is equally crippling. Resources that ought to go into investment and job creation, health and education, end up meeting debt service obligations. This government has already defaulted on a $42.5 million eurobond repayment in November 2020. It has been discussing with the IMF for a long, long time yet they have not concluded a programme. This puts this country in a very difficult situation with a high cost of living and inflation of 22.7%. Our currency is one of the worst performing currencies on the African continent. And it’s getting worse. Confidence levels are very low in our economy.
We want to focus on restructuring the debt. That starts with us putting a moratorium on borrowing. Secondly, we will stop access to credit facilities for consumption. Revenues will be focused on investment expenditure and productive sectors that will more inclined to create jobs. This is not possible currently because this government has no credibility. We will bring the credibility to the table and cut this government’s extravagancy.
You spoke of unity. In the last election, the vote was very regionally divided. President Lungu got a lot of votes in the north and east. Your support was concentrated in the south and west. How would you overcome these regional differences?
If there’s anything we’ve addressed effectively from the last elections, it’s this. We have put in place a party constitutional amendment that fosters national unity. At the UPND decision table, we have, by design, members from all ten provinces. Our leaders represent the face of the country, but without us compromising competence. The same is true of gender, young people and people with disabilities. The Vice President of our party comes from the northern region, while we come from the southern part of the country. We also brought in alliance partners, other political parties that are largely dominant in the northeast. The focus now is to really create opportunities for people to end hunger, provide jobs and health services, and tackle corruption. This is where the election will be won. We are comfortable that a free and fair elections would deliver a resounding victory for the union.
How do you rate your chances compared to the last election? You lost by just 10,000 votes in 2016, but since then, Lungu has had five years to tighten his grip and ensure he can manage the electoral process.
In a free, fair and credible election, he has no chance. People will be looking at how the economy has collapsed, the job losses, declining health services sector, how difficult it has become to survive and just put food on the table. Before, people weren’t sure whether he was capable or not. Now they know. He has failed. Our job is much easier.
However, he’s limited our freedoms. He sent a scare message to the police not to allow us to assemble because of COVID-19, but today he had a big rally in Lusaka. We want to let the regional and international community know of the deteriorating democratic conditions in our country.
So if the playing field is not level again, how will your electoral strategy differ from the last election when your polling agents weren’t able to provide the necessary proof of fraud?
The substance of our petition was never heard. We had the evidence. But going forwards now, the environment is already polluted. Many times, I’m not allowed to fly out of Lusaka yet there are no restrictions on others. If they were confident of winning, why would they place restrictions on the UPND? Coupled with that, we had a flawed voter registration that appears to favour my colleague in so-called PF strongholds. But the good news is there is nothing we can call a PF stronghold anymore. Zambians are singing the song of change across the country, even in the northeast corridor.
What would have to happen for you to boycott the election to avoid being seen to legitimise what you consider a flawed process?
Boycotting is never an answer even though levels of corruption are so high. For example, we bring in fertiliser at $1,100 per ton when the true cost is $450 per ton. What does all this difference constitute? Corruption. Part of this money goes to funding party cadres – let’s call them thugs – to brutalise political opponents and harass women in the markets.
You criticise party cadres, but many would say you cannot tackle this issue when a very senior figure in your own party is the well-known cadre mobiliser William Banda.
Well, look, if there’s a party that is good at reforming citizens, it’s ours. When citizens drift from other parties and join the UPND, within a short period of time, you can see their improved behaviour.
We are victims of violence. So many of our members have been killed at the hands of PF cadres. I’ve been detained 15 times. And none of those times have I been found guilty. We need to reform the criminal justice system so the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is restored. We will not allow citizens to be arrested before an investigation is done. When somebody is arrested, they will be taken to court within the legal 48 hours and they’ll be given bail conditions. This will decongest the criminal justice system and filthy prison cells. As a regular customer in those hotel apartments called police cells, I can tell you they have no ventilation or proper lighting. You are put in a very, very small space with 100-plus detainees. And the following morning you wake up and one or two of your colleagues are dead. I’m alive because God wanted me alive.
You are now running for the sixth presidential election, having led your party for 15 years. Some would see you as a brave and determined man. Others might see someone who, like may maligned presidents, simply refuses to hand over power and opportunity to the next generation.
I should really just be going into my second or third election except that, since I came into limelight, we’ve had two presidents die in office. But that being what it is, the constitutional provisions are very clear that you are restricted to go beyond two terms of public office and my colleague is pushing for a third term, which is unacceptable. What drives us is the suffering of the people. I don’t think anyone who feels affected by the welfare of other people will stay at home and enjoy themselves is nothing to enjoy. When you have poverty around you it’s really humiliating and dehumanising. That’s what drives us. We don’t count how many times we run. This election is not us against them, but the people of Zambia against the PF.