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Zambia: Hichilema’s invitation to regional oppositionists conveys message of change

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Monday, 30 August 2021 15:55

Zambia's newly elected President Hakainde Hichilema waves to the crowd during the Inauguration ceremony at Heroes Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.(AP Photo)

At the inauguration of Zambia’s new president Hakainde Hichilema (HH), a handful of Zimbabwe’s opposition members were present: Nelson Chamisa (MDC Alliance leader); his vice president Tendai Biti and Mmusi Maimane (former Democratic Alliance leader). Tanzania’s Zitto Kabwe (leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency) was also present as Zambia turned the page on Edgar Lungu's government.

Hichilema, 59, a millionaire and a Seventh Day Adventist church member, had to invite opposition party leaders to witness the inauguration after his landslide victory.

After five attempts at the presidency, Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UNDP) finally won the election, securing 2.8 million votes against Lungu’s Patriotic Front that garnered 1.8 million votes.

The August polls had over 70% voter turnout, making it the highest participation rate since the 1991 polls when Zambia held its first multiparty elections. Those below the age of 40 constituted over 50% of the electorate.

In 2018, the Lungu administration deported Zimbabwe’s Tendai Biti from Zambia for defying a court order; he had crossed the border to seek asylum. Biti was among eight opposition party leaders wanted for inciting public violence after there was a delay in the announcement of the July 2018 election results. Six people who took part in the protests on the streets of Harare were shot dead by the military.

Biti tells The Africa Report that after attending HH’s inauguration, he and the other opposition leaders had a closed-door meeting with him. “Change is coming. Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa are not immune. HH has been in opposition politics for 20 years. He had to invite his sister political parties. We had closed meetings with him,” Biti said without divulging what they discussed.

Call for inclusivity and unity across Africa

At the inauguration, the UNDP wanted to send a “very strong message” of inclusiveness and unity across Africa, Joseph Kalimbwe, the party spokesperson said in a tweet. To accomplish this, UNDP extended an invitation to both opposition leaders and incumbent presidents from the SADC region.

“I think President Hichilema is making a statement – a good statement – on the need for inclusivity in our politics. Belonging to different political parties or holding different political views should not undermine anyone’s access to opportunities,” Vusumuzi Sifile, a development professional based in Lusaka, Zambia tells The Africa Report.

Through this symbolic gesture, HH is demonstrating that regional solidarity amongst opposition and ruling parties is key for unity and national cohesion, says Admire Mare, a deputy head in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology.

“He is also showing us the elections are not zero-sum games where contestation must lead to enmity but rather coming together and tolerating our political differences. He will be remembered for forging politics of inclusivity and nurturing a culture of regional solidarity. He is also sending a message that says, ‘I see you, my erstwhile compatriots, in the opposition trenches and I will not leave [you] in this journey even though now I am in […] State House’.”

This lesson of tolerance is one that many believe HH demonstrated through his first official event. “As a long-time opposition leader HH has a lot of solidarit[y] with opposition political parties and at the same time, he must relate with current ruling parties. He had no option but to invite all of them,” says Wellington Gadzikwa, a Harare-based political analyst. “It is a big lesson for other countries like Zimbabwe; that political tolerance is important.”

Is the wind of change blowing within the SADC region?

SADC was heavily dominated by political parties that participated in the liberation struggle against their former colonial powers. However, since attaining independence, many of the region’s leaders have been ruling with an iron fist to suppress opposition parties; but that trend might be changing, with notable examples:

  • Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the opposition Malawi Congress Party, won the country’s historic presidential election rerun – after the nullification of the 2019 polls – ousting Peter Mutharika.
  • Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of DRC’s biggest opposition party – Union for Democracy and Social Progress – won the 2019 elections that put an end to Joseph Kabila’s government. His win saw the country’s first opposition party leader take power since DRC gained independence in 1960.

South Africa’s African National Congress and Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF, both of which have been in power since gaining independence in 1994 and 1980 respectively, are starting to feel pressure from opposition parties.

Sifile says a wind of change is blowing across the SADC region. “Of course, there are lessons for other opposition parties, including the MDC Alliance in Zimbabwe, on the need for intense voter education. A good chunk of the people who voted in Zambia were first-time voters; youths who were robustly mobilised through social media, door to door campaigns and other platforms for engagement,” he says.

Sifile says the opposition in countries like Zimbabwe must encourage citizens, especially young people, to register to vote and actually cast their ballot on election day.

… Zambia’s new president appears to be setting the tone for the country and the southern African region.

Mare, however, says it is still too early to talk about the democratic dividends of this gesture but certainly, HH has shown that inclusivity, accommodation and extending an olive branch to all is how to put one’s best foot forward. Such change across the SADC region will take time, despite recent examples.

“Most SADC States are under the control of liberation movements, which believe [they] brought democracy through [their] liberation struggles. It is still a long way to go for one to talk about the wind of change. In any case, Zambia has undergone numerous transitions to be considered an appropriate signal,” says Gadzikwa.

In fact, it would be presumptive at this point to think that a wind of political change is indeed blowing over southern Africa, warns Alex Mwamba Ng’oma, a political analyst at the University of Zambia. This is because the political change that has just occurred in Zambia was not change for the sake of change. Rather it was a protest against a malfunctioning economy. The local currency had depreciated to a point where Zambia, an import-dependant country, saw the price of food stuffs skyrocket.

“The inflation rate was stuck in double digits. Unemployment, especially among the youth, was very high. Corruption had become a new normal. And the cadre of political party members became a power unto itself, terrorising citizens left, right and center. Who could stomach all this nonsense? No one. Hence the protest by voting [Lungu out].”

Small steps, big leap

It may have just been an inauguration, but already Zambia’s new president appears to be setting the tone for the country and the southern African region; and by replacing the country’s top military commanders and the head of the police, Hichilema is seeking to be more accountable to citizens.

This move is a page turner in Zambia’s recent history books, and perhaps one that will soon be borrowed by regional oppositionists.

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