Hakainde Hichilema: Zambian accountant who trounced President Lungu

Hakainde Hichilema

Zambia’s opposition leader and businessman Hakainde Hichilema who was early August 16, 2021 declared president-elect after beating incumbent Edgar Lungu.

Photo credit: Patrick Meinhardt | AFP

In Lusaka,

When Zambia’s new President Hakainde Hichilema joined politics in 2006, he was largely viewed as an outsider, inexperienced and elitist. It is an image he seems to have shed off over the years, appearing more ordinary in dress and language.

He was often mocked by late president Michael Sata as an “under-five” and “calculator boy”, referring to his past experience in the corporate world where he rose to become CEO of an accounting firm.

Mr Hichilema’s firm was at the centre of the privatization drive in the 1990s during economic reforms from a socialist-oriented economy under Kenneth Kaunda to a liberal one that saw the government dispose of several state assets into private hands.

President-elect Hakainde Hichilema (centre) waves at supporters after a press briefing at his residence in Lusaka, on August 16, 2021.

Photo credit: AFP

He was said to have personally benefited, accumulating massive wealth from the transactions that he has expanded into various sectors and becoming one of the country’s richest men. He has invested in finance, ranching, property, healthcare and tourism.

He denies having taken advantage of the process.

The narrative was twisted by his opponents, who used it as an albatross in political head-butting.

Born 59 years ago in Monze district Southern Province, Mr Hichilema calls himself a “cow boy’ who grew up herding cattle, a mainstay in the area where dairy agriculture was common wealth.

He says he grew up in an ordinary setup, starting education in a village school. His efforts led him all the way to the University of Zambia, where he earned a degree in economics. He thereafter enjoyed a stellar career in the corporate world, but at some point got the urge to join politics.

By the age of 26, he was CEO of the Zambian branch of a large international accountancy firm, according to his party.

Supporters of Zambian President-elect for the opposition party United Party for National Development (UPND) Hakainde Hichilema gestures as they ride on a pickup truck in the streets of Lusaka on August 16, 2021.

Photo credit: AFP

So upon the death of United Party for National Development founder Anderson Mazoka, also a tycoon from his village in Monze, Mr Hichilema entered the fray to salvage what was left of the party he bankrolled.

Before this year’s presidential election that he won, he had contested and lost all polls held in the southern African country since 2006, though he was boosted each time by a greater share of the vote.

The opposition party seemed permanently lodged in third position, beaten by the Patriotic Front party formed much later in 2001, a situation that got him taunted as a “perpetual loser”.

In 2016, he unsuccessfully challenged the results of the presidential election, which he said was stolen from him after he narrowly lost by 100,000 votes.

But in this previous campaign, Mr Hichilema played into the widespread dissatisfaction with PF’s Edgar Lungu’s running of the economy, campaigning under the slogan “bally will fix it”.


Zambia's presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema and incumbent president Edgar Lungu.

Photo credit: File

While in the thick of things, Mr Hichilema often crossed paths with Mr Lungu, who had a barbed exchange with him, displaying bad blood between the two. In his recent political forays, he claimed he had been arrested 15 times since entering politics.

Most recently, after the 2016 election, he faced treason charges for allegedly failing to give way to a presidential motorcade in the west of the country. He spent 121 days in a maximum-security jail before the charges were dropped. His release was negotiated by the international community.

That incident seemed to have baptised him in fire, making him some sort of “political gladiator” as he simultaneously seemed more in command of opposition politics. His opponents still said he would not make it even as the ground shifted in his favour, often branding his party as a “tribal grouping” enjoying support from his home province in the south.

Lungu’s mismanagement of the economy

The court’s validation of Mr Lungu as eligible to contest the 2021 election after being sworn in twice (2014 and 2016) for what opposition parties saw as a “a third term” earned him enormous opposition from civil society, dividing the legal fraternity to which he belongs.


A newspaper vendor is seen carrying Monday's Zambian dailies in Lusaka, on August 16, 2021.

Photo credit: AFP

PF dislodged the MMD from power in the 2011 election on account of corruption. On assuming power, it embarked on a massive infrastructure drive that forced the regime to borrow, a move that sent the economy into a tailspin.

Commodity prices soared as did inflation. Ordinary people were heard saying, “Are we going to eat” infrastructure? Even as the face of the country modernised, the cost of living seemed to be the narrative entrenching itself in the minds of ordinary Zambians.

In his final campaign speech in the capital Lusaka, Mr Hichilema said his political drive came from “the wish to see a better life”.

“It hurts to see citizens go to bed without food in such a country with so much wealth,” he was quoted saying.

Critics of Mr Lungu said the narrowing of political freedoms was another reason his party lost power to UPND.

“We have made it after suffering oppression under this regime for a long 10 years,” said Kaunda Mwape shortly after Mr Hichilema was declared winner of the presidential vote.

Under his watch, Mr Lungu’s regime shut down a number of media houses critical of his regime.

One of the biggest private dailies, The Post, was closed on the pretext that it had failed to pay taxes. Some radio stations were closed while others were threatened with suspension or attacked by ruling party supporters for hosting opposition leaders.

The growing impunity of unruly and violent cadres seemed to have struck a raw nerve with voters, mostly the young.

Mr Lungu’s six-year rule was criticised for alleged human rights abuses, corruption, a failing economy and massive unemployment.

Mr Hichilema now faces the huge challenge of turning around Zambia’s economic fortunes.

The election was Mr Hichilema’s sixth attempt at the top job and the third time he had challenged the 64-year-old Mr Lungu.

In 2016, he narrowly lost to Mr Lungu by about 100,000 votes.

Mr Lungu faced the electorate amid growing resentment about the rising cost of living and crackdowns on dissent.

Mr Hichilema was backed by 10 opposition parties in the most recent election.

Observers have roundly praised the election as transparent and peaceful, despite the restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement during the campaigns.

Security forces often prevented Mr Hichilema from campaigning in several areas, citing breaches of coronavirus measures and a colonial law on public order.

UPND made inroads in PF’s strongholds of the Copper Belt, Lusaka and Northern Province.

In the Copper Belt region, though Mr Lungu’s government had taken over the mines, voters were not enthused.