Zambian leader Hichilema’s first 100 days: The good, the bad and the alarming

Hakainde Hichilema last week completed 100 days since he was inaugurated as president of Zambia. After a decade and half in opposition, the leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND) defeated the incumbent Edgar Lungu in elections on 12 August 2021. He took office 12 days later.

Hichilema’s successful election campaign was aided by his opponent’s unpopularity and a set of promises to change course. He vowed to tackle the erosion of democracy and human rights, address high unemployment especially among the youth, and rebuild an economy faltering under the weight of huge debt, government incompetence, corruption, and effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hichilema also pledged to reverse the breakdown of rule of law, the lack of diversity in public office, a politicised and ineffective civil service, rampant corruption, poor governmental communication with the public, and Zambia’s weakened voice in international affairs.

100 days into the new presidency, there are some hopeful signs of progress on some fronts as well as some highly alarming signs of broken promises on others.

Promising steps

Of promising steps towards progress, many of which are still on paper, five stand out.

First, Hichilema has developed a clear strategy aimed at fixing the economy and its debt crisis through better fiscal management and accountability. Meanwhile, the appointment of the well-regarded Situmbeko Musokotwane as Finance Minister, the internationally respected Denny Kalyalya as Governor of the Bank of Zambia and the experienced Felix Nkulukusa as Secretary to the Treasury strengthen the country’s ability to secure an IMF package. Such a bailout would help Zambia attract foreign direct investment, reassure ratings agencies, and re-negotiate debt payments.

The government’s 2022 budget is also positive and bold. It promises to recruit 30,000 new teachers and 11,200 healthcare staff, increase social expenditure, support small businesses, and invest more attention in agriculture. It also vows to decentralise resources, including by increasing the Constituency Development Fund from K1.6 million ($90,000) to K25.7 million ($1.4 million). And it abolishes school fees for state schools, making good on the UPND’s promise of free education.

Hichilema’s government continues to face several economic challenges, however. In mining, the government has formulated a better mechanism of collecting royalties, which had been a perennial source of conflict with extractives companies. But questions remain, stemming from the previous administration’s takeover of the Glencore-operated Mopani copper mines and its handling of the liquidation of the Vedanta-owned Konkola mines. It remains to be seen whether the new administration will return these mines to previous owners or seek new investors. There are also still question marks over how the government will finance its plans, especially after reducing taxes. It is betting on economic growth and improved revenues from copper, but Zambia’s economy is precarious and failure to reach a deal with the IMF or a fall in copper prices could lead to a dramatic collapse.

Second, Hichilema has greatly improved dialogue between the public and the presidency. Unlike Lungu, who governed through press aides and airport tarmac addresses, the new president regularly hosts press conferences and has appeared on a live phone-in radio show.

Third, Hichilema has presided over a relatively open democratic environment. He has shown greater commitment to civil liberties and stopped the culture of violent political cadres operating in markets and bus stations. It is still early days, but the climate of fear and lawlessness that characterised much of Lungu’s rule is slowly disappearing. One hopes that the arrest of a peacefully protesting Kasonde Mwenda, the leader of a small opposition party, for “conduct likely to cause breach of peace” in September is an isolated incident and not the start of a slippery slope.

Fourth, the new president has restated his commitment to the rule of law. Although he has walked back promises to repeal the repressive Cyber Security Act and the Public Order Act, long used by governments to curtail the activities of the opposition and civil society, Hichilema has maintained plans to review the constitution, enhance judicial independence, and improve the operations of the electoral commission. On corruption, his priority is to recover stolen funds, given that watchdog institutions lack capacity and the judiciary remains compromised.

Finally, the new president has attempted to reposition Zambia on the world stage. Hichilema is repairing the country’s frayed relationship with the West, while being careful to not disrupt ties with China. More significantly, he is strengthening regional ties – particularly with the DR Congo – through diplomatic visits and promoting greater trade and investment within the southern African region and Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement. Hichilema has also used his platform to support democracy in the region – he notably invited opposition figures from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Tanzania to his inauguration – and speak out against global debt injustice and vaccine inequality.

Alarming signs

Those are some of the positive signs from Hichilema’s first 100 days. The negative signs are, in many ways, much more significant and centre on the new president’s principles. In the election, the UPND tried to set itself apart from the corruption and lawlessness of Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF). Hichilema’s speeches were dominated by calls for a return to constitutionalism and good governance. It is on these fronts that the last 100 days have been the most concerning.

Here are some examples.

Pardoning corrupt former officials

Hichilema has shown a worrying contradiction in his approach to former officials accused of corruption.

On the one hand, he has said that it is up to agencies such as the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate suspects and potentially prosecute them. This is well and good; the judiciary and executive are separate arms of government.

On the other hand, however, Hichilema has said several times that if former officials return stolen money to the government, they should be given amnesty. It is not clear if this is an instruction or merely advice, but since the president appoints ACC officers – and his predecessor held great sway over the agency – we can assume it will be treated as a directive. This is unconstitutional in a variety of ways. As Hichilema pointed out, he has no legal power to instruct the ACC. The pardoning of officials who may have engaged in millions of dollars’ worth of grand corruption would be a betrayal of justice. And it would also violate the principle that all people are equal before the law.

Under Lungu, the government targeted its opponents with trumped up charges and tried to prosecute them without evidence. Hichilema appears ready to violate the same principle, albeit in the opposite direction; by saving people from prosecution despite clear evidence of wrongdoing.

It is additionally worrying that the new administration has not replaced officials in anti-corruption bodies. Under Lungu, these agencies were spineless and followed political instructions rather than following the constitution. Keeping these personnel in place does not inspire hope that these bodies can now act independently of the executive or hold those in power accountable.

Creating new public offices without following the law

Historically, State House has had five advisors to the president, responsible for press and public relations, economic affairs, political affairs, legal affairs, and policy and project implementation – each assisted by two deputies known as chief analysts. Instead of working through these existing offices, Hichilema has created a series of new advisory positions. These include State House Media Director, Special Assistant to the President for Public Policy, Special Assistant to the President for Policy Compliance, and State House Economic Advisor.

His motivations for doing this may be perfectly legitimate, but these actions have not been constitutional. The president is legally empowered to create new public offices, but only through the relevant commission or a specially designed statutory instrument, which has not been the case. It is also concerning that most of these appointments have not been announced and only a few have taken the oath of office publicly, as required by the constitution.

Weakening the civil service

In opposition, Hichilema vowed to depoliticise the civil service and fill it with qualified, competent, and experienced professionals. While he has yet to announce any reforms that would help achieve this, he has taken several steps that undermine the service.

First, the new president destabilised it through a nearly wholesale dismissal of permanent secretaries, the most senior officials tasked with advising ministers and implementing policies. It is unlikely all those sacked were incompetent, unqualified, or corrupt so their removal was likely due to their perceived political affiliation.

Second, Hichilema has appointed several individuals who lack civil service experience or even relevant qualifications. They appear to have been recruited due to their loyalty and are therefore more like Partisan Secretaries, who will last as long as their party is in power, than  Permanent Secretaries.

Third, Hichilema has centralised power by creating several new positions around the presidency in a move that demonstrates his lack of faith in the civil service and his desire to run government from State House. The creation of these parallel positions, many of which already exist in the civil service, undermines existing officials, leads to the duplication of functions, and is an inefficient use of public resources. Worse still, many of those appointed to this “mini civil service” lack the relevant qualifications for their roles.

Undermining the fight against corruption

When it became clear that Lungu had lost the elections this August, the incumbent had initially planned to challenge the results in the Constitutional Court, which was widely seen as biased in his favour. It was only after an unexpected closed-door meeting with Hichilema that he switched tack. In a short, televised address, a visibly subdued Lungu conceded and congratulated his soon-to-be successor.

Moments later, Hichilema delivered his own speech. He welcomed his election victory before addressing Lungu, saying “do not worry; you will be okay, sir”. He later tried to walk back these words, but this remark was widely seen as the public expression of the two men’s private political settlement; namely, that Lungu would drop his planned legal challenge in exchange for immunity after stepping down.

If this is the case, this deal would be deeply inappropriate. It would undermine the Director of Public Prosecutions and law enforcement agencies whose responsibility it is to decide who should be investigated and prosecuted. And it would bypass the National Assembly, the body with the power to remove a former president’s immunity in the face of clear evidence presented by the sitting president.

Failure to reflect diversity

One key criticism of Lungu’s rule was that he marginalised Zambians from Southern, Western and Northwestern provinces – regions that have historically voted for Hichilema. 26 of his 32 cabinet ministers, for instance, were either from the Chewa-speaking Eastern province or from one of three Bemba-speaking provinces. This preference was also seen clearly in the top leadership positions of the police, army, air force, national service, and office of the president.

Hichilema promised to do things differently if elected but has barely delivered. All five heads of Zambia’s security services as well as the top positions in the National Assembly and judiciary are held by people from the regions that have traditionally voted for him. His 27-person cabinet is relatively representative of Zambia’s ten provinces, but areas that have historically voted for PF are grossly underrepresented while 16 ministers come from ethnic groups that have typically formed the core of Hichilema’s base.

The new president’s record on other forms of inclusion is even worse. Even though the constitution calls for equal gender representation in public offices, just five cabinet ministers are women, which is half the figure under Lungu. To address electoral imbalances, the constitution allows the president to nominate eight persons to parliament, but Hichilema filled all the slots with men except one. Only one of Hichilema’s ten provincial ministers is female. He has further made no appointments of either youth, constitutionally defined as someone between the ages of 18 and 35, or persons with disabilities – a clear violation of the constitution.

Looking ahead

For someone elected on the promise to restore constitutionalism and the rule of law, Hichilema’s first 100 days provide little inspiration. Nonetheless, his political position seems secure, for now.

The new president remains popular, though his continued approval will depend on how he navigates the tough conditionalities that could come with an IMF deal. His central bank governor recently announced plans to remove subsidies on electricity, fertiliser, and fuel. If these moves are not carefully phased or strategically communicated, they could lead to urban discontent. This will especially be the case if a public sector wage freeze comes next and Hichilema’s administration is unable to provide employment for the many young people who voted for him.

Unless Hichilema incorporates more figures from underrepresented regions and women into his government, he also remains vulnerable to a political rival that could combine populist policies in urban centres with promises to rural areas that feel marginalised. This effective opposition, however, does not yet exist. The PF is in disarray while other opposition parties are mostly led by elitists without grassroots support or the language to connect with ordinary voters. – African Arguments

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa at the University of Cape Town and a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Zambia.