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Zambia: “Lungu was autocratic, people died unnecessarily” – Hichilema

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Monday, 20 December 2021 10:10

Zambia President Hakainde Hichilema
Zambia's President Hakainde Hichilema (rights reserved)

The President of Zambia talks with The Africa Report about his vision for a new Zambia, from the protection of fundamental rights to creating a green-energy powerhouse. A deep dive into the thinking and modus operandi behind the new power in Lusaka.

A former CEO at two international accounting firms and the second-biggest cattle rancher in Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema is not everyone’s idea of a revolutionary. Invariably wearing a suit and speaking the language of double-entry bookkeeping and tax benchmarking fluently, Hichilema can seem more at home in the boardroom than on the campaign trail.

But he has also been a political prisoner and tortured in a Lusaka jail for leading an opposition party. Now he promises a new start for Zambia after six years of state capture and economic freefall.

In winning this year’s presidential election in August on the sixth attempt, Hichilema suffered more than his share of campaign bruises as he set down a marker for opposition movements in the region. With strategy, unity and determination, he insists it is possible to defeat an incumbent party.

The tasks that Hichilema has set himself – freeing up the political system at the national and local level, cutting a deal with the creditors after last year’s default, and rebuilding the education and public health services – are gargantuan enough to qualify as revolutionary in an economy that was brought to the brink under President Edgar Lungu’s government.

Taking over in August, Hichilema’s team inherited an accounting crime scene, with billions stolen from the state coffers through a multitude of scams, he tells The Africa Report: “The systems were broken […] huge debts, runaway public expenditures, taxpayers’ resources stolen by a very small group of individuals. It was highly politicised and corrupt.”

After the electoral commission announced that Hichilema had won 60% of the votes in the 12 August elections to Lungu’s 38%, a tense few days followed with many people uncertain whether the incumbent was going to accept defeat. Thousands of armed police and army irregulars had been called into service to defend Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) regime.

Behind the scenes, the elders swung into action. Rupiah Banda, a former president of Zambia, and Jakaya Kikwete, a former president of Tanzania, brokered a meeting between Hichilema and Lungu. Banda, who offered his house for the rendezvous, worked hard to persuade Lungu not to challenge the result and stir up his loyalists running the security services.

A small matter of billions of dollars

For the contenders, who had a long history of enmity, it was an awkward encounter, as Hichilema recalls: “My message to him was to say that I didn’t like the way he ran the country – he was heavy-handed; he was autocratic, and people died unnecessarily […]” Banging the drum, he continued his message to Lungu “[…] and that we will run the country differently, the opposite of how he ran it.”

When Hichilema turned to the subject of criminal responsibility, he touched a nerve with his predecessor: “I made it very clear to him that we will have zero tolerance in the fight against corruption. We will not pursue individuals because they worked with him, but because they committed a crime.”

That led to the sensitive matter of Lungu’s direct or indirect responsibility for presiding over a government that illicitly diverted billions of dollars of public resources into private pockets. Many of these cases are now in the hands of forensic investigators. So could former president Lungu find himself in court?

“If the crimes were committed when he was in office, I think he is covered by immunity. Unless the immunity were lifted. […] That’s the way it works,” says Hichilema. In Zambia, like some other jurisdictions, a president can claim immunity from prosecution for any actions they took while in office. A new president can call on parliament to vote to lift the immunity. That is what happened in 2008, when then president Levy Mwanawasa asked parliament to lift the immunity of former president Frederick Chiluba to face charges amounting to grand corruption.

Hichilema’s team would not be drawn on whether Lungu is the subject of police investigations. But, given the scope of the probes, it is clear that many of the former president’s business allies are in the frame.

For example, Valden Findlay, widely described as Lungu’s ‘best friend’, was his frequent companion, without an official role, on foreign trips. The Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC) froze his bank accounts in the wake of the election results. Also, just days after the change in government, the DEC announced it was investigating former foreign minister Joseph Malanji and former health minister Chitalu Chilufya for ‘suspected financial crimes and money laundering’.

Investigators at the DEC want to know how Malanji had raised the $1.4m in cash to buy a helicopter in March. They were determined to start working immediately after the elections, not waiting for orders from the top.

Brutal anti-opposition tactics

Under the Lungu administration, officers at the DEC and the Anti-Corruption Commission complained they had been blocked or sidetracked on investigations. But Hichilema insists there will be no partisan witch hunts against Lungu and his allies in the PF.

“[There was] an effort to take me out, but I survived. But some of our people didn’t, and the killers are known,” says Hichilema. “So the law has taken its course. […] That will be distinguished from vengeance, from retribution.”

That could break the pattern. As opposition leader, Hichilema was arrested and detained 20 times under Lungu’s government. In the most notorious case, police charged Hichilema with treason for failing to pull off the road when then president Lungu’s convoy was approaching in April 2017.

To enforce the warrant, a strike force of armed officers raided Hichilema’s compound in Lusaka. After taking his family into an armoured strongroom, Hichilema thwarted the police attempt to arrest him. Several of the officers beat up his staff, stole valuables and vandalised much of the property.

After Hichilema presented himself at the police station on the following day, he was held for four months without trial, during which time he says he was beaten and tortured. Most startling was the arrival in Hichilema’s cell of a man dressed as a priest carrying a bible. “I could see that he had something concealed in the Bible. […] It turned out to be a hypodermic needle.” It was the first of several attempts to kill him, he says.

Subsequently, Hichilema identified the man with the needle and secured an order for the state to produce the man in court. But the state failed to comply, and officials are still trying to find the man.

It took mediation attempts by Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, and Patricia Scotland, secretary general of the Commonwealth, to free Hichilema. Against the backdrop of growing political violence, grand corruption and accusations of election rigging, the jailing of an opposition leader looked like the next step into social breakdown for Zambia.

Kaunda’s legacy of negotiation

Under growing international pressure, Lungu pulled back from the brink. He offered a political dialogue to the opposition, which bought him time but achieved little positive change. Key figures in the prosecution service, the judiciary and the electoral commission were under the control of the ruling PF.

“The environment was autocratic, heavy-handed and a lot of people were put in jail for crimes they did not commit,” reiterates Hichilema, outlining how his United Party for National Development would have to adapt its election tactics. “You change, you have to work around this oppressive environment and find ways of campaigning, obviously underground, keeping your eyes on the ball.”

By electing a president and party committed to the restoration of democratic rights, freedom of speech and the separation of powers, Zambians are running against international trends favouring authoritarianism and weakening independent institutions. Part of that is the legacy of independence-era president Kenneth Kaunda, who died in June. Through his adept shuffling of party figures and managing the claims of the country’s 70 ethnic groups, Kaunda established a political culture of bargaining and negotiation.

Sadly, Kaunda’s graceful exit from the stage after election defeat in 1991 was not reciprocated by his successor, Chiluba, who tried to prosecute Kaunda for failing to return a library book and then tried to strip him of his citizenship. Yet, Zambia stood out as the most politically tolerant country in the region until the anti-apartheid campaigners, among whom Kaunda was prominent, triumphed in South Africa in 1994.

No need to resort to violence

Kaunda endorsed Hichilema before he died, despite their differences: Kaunda had little interest in business or economics, whereas for Hichilema these are central to reviving Zambia. They both agreed on a Gandhiesque doctrine of humanism and solving political disputes peacefully.

“There are lessons for our colleagues around the world – those who believe in the rule of law, in democracy,” says Hichilema. “You can still achieve a lot. You don’t need to resort to violent means, to armed struggle, because that destroys a country fundamentally.”

For Zambia, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a country riven by factional fighting and resource looting for three decades – that is more than a rhetorical point. In late November, Hichilema led a delegation to meet President Félix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa and find ways to boost mutual trade and investment, as well as to decongest the borders.

The two men hit it off; both are long-time opposition leaders who finally made it to the presidential palace, albeit by different routes. Both want to shake off the shadow of their predecessors. Their countries are Africa’s powerhouse producers of copper and cobalt: two vital minerals for the emerging green economy. The DRC produces around 70% of the world’s cobalt. Hichilema’s visit coincided with a trade conference promoting the DRC’s role in the production of batteries for electric cars – a market forecast to exceed $50bn by 2025.

“That shift from petrol to electric cars means a pull on our metal prices. We’re conscious of it. We want to maximise value from that opportunity. […] We’ll use these revenues to build our economy and support more green energy, solar, wind and others,” Hichilema says.

Landlocked gains

That is triggering a rethink about Zambia’s landlocked geography, says Hichilema. “Zambia is a strategically located country, and we’re working to make it the hub of production, of value-addition and logistics.”

To make that a reality, Hichilema plans to build standard-gauge railways through Zambia linking South Africa with the DRC and Tanzania. He also wants to keep the Congo-Zambia borders open 24 hours a day and end the lengthy delays for exports en route for shipment via Durban. “We want to see joint investments in our region. We must improve business-to-business relationships among ourselves […] sending a signal that we have confidence in our own economies,” he says.

Much of that confidence, Hichilema argues, will come from better governance, on which, along with the economy, his new administration is focusing its initial efforts. “It was a leadership problem […] a politicised leadership, chief executives of ministries, permanent secretaries, they were all shepherded into party political cadres. We have a different vision.”

Under Lungu’s presidency, the cadres of the ruling PF took over vast swathes of the economy – markets, bus stations and fertiliser and seeds distribution in the farming areas. That generated revenue for party workers, reinforcing the party’s grip on communities and voters. That system hit a crisis when the treasury, sunk by debt and political mismanagement, struggled to pay its bills this year. Already angered by public waste, people saw living standards fall further as the security forces hit out at protesters and opposition parties.

Within days of his election victory, Hichilema sacked the security chiefs. “There was a need for key changes. How would you ask the same inspector general of police [to continue] whose police were brutalising citizens? How do you expect them to say: ‘Now citizens have freedoms. They have fundamental rights in the constitution.’ But they were bribed not to protect citizens.”

Copper production is expanded to boom with the new power revolution (rights reserved)

After making the security changes, Hichilema named his economic team, tasked with the heaviest lifting in the administration. He started with two policy veterans. Denny Kalyalya returned as governor of the central bank a year after he clashed with Lungu in a falling out that panicked the markets. A former group director of the World Bank, Kalyalya has come back with a guarantee that the bank will be politically independent. His first target was to bring down inflation, which was running at its highest level for two decades. On 24 November, the central bank raised interest rates by half a point to 9%; the following day, the bank announced that the inflation rate had fallen to its lowest level so far this year.

The other returnee is finance minister Situmbeko Musokotwane, who had held the portfolio under Rupiah Banda’s presidency (2008-2011). Taking a similar view to Kalyalya and Hichilema, Musokotwane says the government’s accounts do not add up, arguing that the economy needs radical surgery to raise more tax and cut state prolifigacy. That starting point has to be negotiations to restructure the country’s $13bn foreign debt.

The other two key economic ministers are Chipoka Mulenga at trade and industry, tasked with building regional commercial ties, and Paul Kabuswe at the mines ministry. Kabuswe’s is a post requiring close coordination with finance and trade in order to haul in enough investment to hit the government’s ambitious copper production targets.

In State House, President Hichilema’s key staffers and advisers include principal private secretary Bradford Machila, who was also a former minister under Banda’s presidency; economic affairs and development adviser Jito Kayumba, who has extensive business experience as a partner in Kukula Capital and as a director of several major companies; and head of public policy Chipokota Mwanawasa, a lawyer who has worked on political campaigns and is seen as another rising star.

Quadrupling copper production

Next stop is the judicial system – the investigative and the prosecutorial agencies. These institutions are more complex, as some senior functionaries have their tenure guaranteed by the constitution. But, after years of political constraints, many officials in the investigative agencies are eager to press on with probes that have been stalled or side-tracked. Timing is key. A recent probe into the management of the sale of some state-owned mining assets found they had been diverted to a private company that was trying to transfer the proceeds to a bank in Mauritius.

Unravelling these opaque mining details is critical to the government’s economic plans, says Hichilema. He wants to quadruple copper production over the next 10 years.

The global price of copper – billed as the ‘new oil’ for decarbonising economies – topped $10,000 per tonne in June and is forecast to hit $20,000 per tonne within a decade. With its copper riches, second only to the DRC’s in Africa, Zambia is in a race to gear up production in mines held back by years of underinvestment and politically charged legal disputes.

Konkola Copper Mines, one of the country’s biggest producers, is at the centre of a battle between conglomerate Vedanta Resources, which owns the majority stake, and the government, which holds 20%. Lungu’s government triggered a courtroom fight with Vedanta after it announced it wanted to break Konkola into two entities: the mine and the smelter. Vedanta opposes that, arguing that selling the company as a single unit would raise more in the market. It seems the Lungu government thought it would win votes by taking a nationalist stance on the asset, trying to wrest it from Vedanta’s control. Some suggest a more venal motive, with some favoured political jobbers positioning their companies as beneficiaries of the transaction.

State vs market: an early test

These tangled interests are now for Hichilema’s government to resolve. “These are important signs for any investors,” he says. “We’re having meetings around Konkola Copper Mines and other mining house issues that haven’t been addressed for the past 10-15 years.”

Konkola will test Hichilema’s political agility. His commercial instincts may tell him to settle with Vedanta and cut the government’s losses, then bring in new investment to ramp up production as fast as possible.

But a bad deal with Vedanta would be politically risky. The company is unpopular with local people, who accuse it of profiteering and despoiling the environment. On visiting the Konkola site in November, mines minister Kabuswe told journalists: “We must never, ever, bring politics into the private sector.”

It is a sentiment with which President Hichilema would agree. He has done the opposite. As one of Zambia’s corporate titans, he has brought the private sector into politics.

It was Hichilema’s strategic patience, competing in presidential elections six times, that earned him his political spurs. But his policy stance and his governing style is rooted in corporate culture. That’s new territory for Zambia, indeed for most of Africa. If Hichilema’s business nous and his technocratic team can refloat the economy and sail it upstream with the proceeds of a booming copper economy, his political problems could matter less.

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