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I don’t need to be an autocrat, says Zambia’s new president

After rising from cattle boy to become one of the country’s richest men, Hakainde Hichilema uses his first international interview since taking power to tell Jane Flanagan how he will do things differently

Hakainde Hichilema amassed one million more votes than his predecessor Edgar Lungu in last month’s general election CHONA MWEMBA/EPA

Having been arrested 15 times since entering politics, once on a phoney treason charge that led to four months in prison, Zambia’s new president could be forgiven for feeling vengeful.

Instead, Hakainde Hichilema wants Zambia’s neighbours to join him in recognising his predecessor, Edgar Lungu, as an example of what holds Africa back.

Despite the incumbent party’s strong-arm tactics, including the first army deployment during a Zambian election, Hichilema, on his sixth attempt at the election for the top job, pulled off a landslide victory that was too big to steal.

Supporters of Hichilema ride along the streets of Lusaka after his election victory last month MARCO LONGARI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

“I told him [Lungu] afterwards, ‘I didn’t like the way you ran the country, you were heavy-handed and autocratic, but I don’t hate you and I will not do to you what you did to me and others,” Hichilema, 59, said of their exchange after Lungu surrendered power with a speed and grace few had predicted.

His most urgent task is tackling the economic crisis that has pushed Zambia to the brink, which could be worse than he feared. Digging into the mountain of debt that Lungu, 64, ran up “outside normal channels” with sleaze-ridden Chinese-built projects, estimates of $12 billion now look conservative.

“We had known for a long time that there was non-full disclosure. One of our jobs right now is to discover what the true debt is: both foreign and domestic debt,” the new president said.

In a video call to The Times from Lusaka, Hichilema’s first international media interview since winning power, he put his despotic neighbours on notice.

“I want to show Zambians and our friends elsewhere that we can run the country better without a heavy hand. Trouble somewhere is trouble everywhere and Africa does not need all the violence and the militarism that we see today.

“Not respecting our constitutions or our political competitors, and instead treating them like enemies, is blocking the way of progress.’’

Hichilema is one of Zambia’s richest men, but to appeal to the youth and women he believed could secure a win, his campaign stressed his lowly upbringing as a barefoot “cattle boy” whose “grit and determination” won him a scholarship to study economics at the University of Zambia, and later for an MBA in Britain.

He was running a large accountancy firm at the age of 26 and had amassed his fortune from finance, property, tourism and healthcare by his first campaign loss in 2006.

At that time, his educational and commercial pedigree were not in demand: Zambia was a democratic beacon with a healthy economy and achieving middle-income status by his next unsuccessful election in 2011 when Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) was voted in. The ruinous management of the economy, corruption and rights abuses that followed stoked fears that the country was on course to become “the next Zimbabwe”.

Under Edgar Lungu, who voted last month, Zambia’s public debt as a share of GDP rose from 66 to 113 percent PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

After six years of Lungu’s reckless and murky spending, which saw public debt as a share of GDP climb from 66 to 113 per cent, Hichilema’s time had finally come. Once derided by the late President Sata as “calculator boy” for his jargon-filled speeches, Zambians now wanted to hear about his cures for their poverty, high unemployment and the state’s brutal neglect.

“[He] had always had this reputation for being stingy with his fortune, but suddenly that’s what voters wanted,” Laura Miti, the head of a Zambian NGO focused on public accountability, said. “They had also seen him suffer with them, get arrested and harassed. He was now one of them.”

After five failed attempts at power, two of them against Lungu, 64, Hichilema was leaving nothing to chance ahead of last month’s general election.

“We needed to win big and mobilise like never before to protect our votes,” the practising Christian and married father-of-three said. “We should have been in government in 2016 but we didn’t guard our votes. It was a very big lesson.”

By-election day on August 12, clues that a fix or a dispute was planned merely hardened supporters of his United Party for National Development. The tweaking of the electoral roll in ruling party power bases, the menacing security forces and Lungu’s own Trumpesque early attack on the process as “not free or fair” proved futile against a record turnout of 70.9 per cent. Graduates dressed in their academic robes to protest poor job prospects for the under 35s who made up half of the seven million registered voters.

“They became fully responsible for their ballots beyond just casting them. They defended their votes by staying at the 13,000 polling stations to make sure they could not be stolen,” said Hichilema, who amassed one million more votes than Lungu.

Hichilema’s victory gave an immediate boost to the value of Zambia’s stricken kwacha currency PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

His decisive victory, and the PF leader’s swift concession, gave an immediate boost to the value of Zambia’s stricken kwacha currency, while foreign investors welcomed the appointment of Situmbeko Musokotwane, a respected economist, as his finance minister.

But fixing the economy will not bring immediate relief to millions of hungry Zambians who cannot afford school fees. Once the full extent of the country’s debt crisis is known, the finance team will agree on a bailout with the International Monetary Fund and restructure debts with a range of lenders, including the Export-Import Bank of China.

Fuel and farm subsidies that Lungu introduced to win favour will probably have to be scrapped to meet the IMF’s demand for reforms. But the new finance minister believes their sting could be soothed by rebuilding trust with Zambia’s mining industry, via lowered taxes and protected property rights, and doubling copper production. Prices for the metal have returned to levels not seen since the commodities boom a decade ago.

“You will be amazed how much foreign exchange this country is going to make,” Musokotwane said after his appointment.

Hichilema has, perhaps predictably, pledged to break with the PF era of corruption and nepotism. Even if his overdue victory has put him in debt to many, there will be no cabinet positions or contracts in return, he said. “I am repaying all debts by bringing better times to everyone in Zambia,” he added, citing this week’s sacking of the heads of the security forces and their deputies as an early favorite to his nation of 17 million.

There was a record turnout of 70.9 per cent in the election PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Last week’s inauguration marked the third peaceful shift of power to an opposition party in the country since its independence from Britain in 1964.

The overturning of last year’s rigged general election in Malawi by its most senior judges, only the second occasion ever recorded in Africa, helped challenge notions of entrenched power. As did Hichilema’s inclusive guest list to National Heroes Stadium in the capital, where Africa’s heads of government and state were compelled to stand with their invited political rivals as he was sworn in.

Some responded more graciously than others. President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe’s discomfort at the presence of the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, was evident; President Museveni of Uganda, 76, who is usually a stalwart for Africa’s set-piece events and won his sixth — and disputed — election victory in January, was a no-show.

Perhaps just as rattling for the despots in the stands was the crowd’s deafening booing of Lungu. It also put Hichilema on notice, according to Miti and her colleagues from the Alliance for Community Action, who were there.

“We don’t know what kind of president [he] will be, but Zambians will have the final say. We love him now, but he must know that our love is conditional,” she said.

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