Did Zambians vote for HH or did they vote against Lungu?

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On 12 August 2021, millions of Zambians went to the polls to vote in a general election that ushered in a new party in government. The resounding victory that swept Hakainde Hichilema (aka HH) into office was a culmination of many failed attempts, as Hichilema had contested the position of the presidency on five previous occasions. What, then, worked this time around, and why were incumbent Edgar Lungu and his Patriotic Front (PF) beaten so badly? An analysis of the events that culminated in the victory of Hichilema invariably points to a vote of protest against the incumbent rather than an adherence to the president-elect’s vision for Zambia.

Lungu and the “more of the same” strategy

Michael Sata, the founder of the PF, died in office as the president in October 2014 after three years into his first term. After a divisive party campaign, Lungu managed to emerge as PF’s presidential candidate for the January 2015 by-election. His successful bid for the office of the presidency was built around a “humble” and modest personality that promised no grand plans except continuing the work of his widely beloved successor. This played a role in winning him sympathetic votes. The 2015 election was not a ringing endorsement for Lungu, despite riding on the wings of his predecessor; voter turnout was about 32%, and Lungu beat HH by a margin of less than 2%. In the 2016 general election, Lungu was reelected with a small margin of about 200,000 votes and a 56.45% turnout. The low voter turnout in both instances suggests that the Zambian people were not enthusiastic about either candidate. Lungu mainly relied on the confidence Zambians had in his predecessor and proposed little in terms of vision or a new direction for his country.

Abuse of power fuels popular resentment

It can be posited that Lungu was his own worst enemy. For instance, in 2017, HH was arrested and put in detention because he refused to give way to Lungu’s motorcade. He was subsequently charged with treason, but Lungu’s government shot itself in the foot when the state prosecutor, perhaps aware of the ridiculousness of the charges, declined to prosecute the case, which forced the authorities to release HH. As a result, the detention itself appeared as a mean-spirited action; it won HH more sympathy as the people of Zambia perceived it as an abuse of power by the government. In other words, HH’s stints in prisons worked against his tormentors.

The abuse of power from the ruling party cadres also played a significant role in the defeat of Lungu. Zambians were angered by how the police and city council workers appeared powerless in the face of PF cadres who had been allowed to invade and occupy public spaces such as markets and transport stations to demand extortionate fees from marketeers and those in the transport industry. The lack of police control over this contrasted with how swift the police seemed to act when they were called upon to arrest perceived government opponents, protesting youths, and preventing gatherings by the opposition. It is safe to assume that these factors fueled popular resentment against a government that was performing poorly on most economic indicators.

The shock of Zambia’s defaulting on its debts

Since 2016, Lungu’s stewardship has been characterised by a tanking economy, bad governance, runaway international debt, and other matters beyond the control of the government, such as droughts and the coronavirus pandemic. These factors combined to weaken the little popularity Lungu had, ultimately leading to the end of his reign as the president of Zambia.

When the PF government came to power in 2011, Zambia’s external debt was $1.9 billion USD. In ten years, it rose to more than 12 billion USD, with the IMF sceptical about extending any further loans to Zambia for fear that the country’s leadership might use the money to service its debt to China. To make matters worse, in November 2020,  Zambia became the first African country to default on foreign debt during the coronavirus pandemic. This ignominious distinction was a psychological shock that prompted voters to show up in big numbers to express their dissatisfaction with Lungu’s governance. Undoubtedly, these circumstances will become an epitaph of Lungu’s legacy.

The power of Youth Vote

There is however a silver lining to the predicaments faced by Zambians. For instance, the campaign to keep Lungu in power was also laced with indecorous tribal rhetoric, not directly by Lungu himself, but by acolytes such his running mate Nkandu Luo and Chishimba Kambwili, a political yoyo who, unfortunately, commands widespread attention. But with the current youth unemployment rates, the Zambian youth are no longer persuaded by old voting tactics such as tribal baiting. They want a government that delivers good returns, and, after Lungu’s disastrous and chaotic presidency, the youth decided to try something else. Almost a year before the recent election, I wrote a piece in which I celebrated an upside to Zambia’s dire situation, highlighting the activism of the youth and arguing that “Zambian youth have become increasingly vocal, with some of them seemingly courting arrest as they go undeterred in voicing what they justifiably resent in the current government.”

A seasoned politician, HH took advantage of the prevailing dissatisfaction and managed to win the support of Zambia’s voters, mostly the youth who form the bulk of the country’s electorate. Through his interactive usage of Twitter and Facebook, HH became a personable option for Zambians, in contrast to Lungu, who had become high-handed and generally anti-people. HH’s adoption of the moniker of “Bally” (meaning father) gave his campaign a casual appearance that is in tandem with a social media savvy voting bloc. The election could partly yet aptly be dubbed a social media success, a loud rejoinder to detractors who vilified HH’s United Party for National Development (UPND) as a “social media party.”

What’s next for Zambia?

It is noteworthy that after 1991, political parties in Zambia, apart from Fred M’membe’s Socialist Party, are usually breakaway movements from more established parties. Thus, they typically espouse the same ideologies, if at all, with marginal differences. The difference between HH and Lungu was not essentially ideological, and the two did not have any marked differences in vision.  Indeed, the fact that the UPND is urging Zambians to read the party manifesto is an indirect acknowledgement that the overwhelming support that the party enjoyed was not necessarily centred on people’s understanding of their vision. What seemed to work for HH was highlighting the blemishes of the PF administration while cultivating an image of a more decent politician. The recent election has created goodwill on the part of Zambians towards their government, and HH would do well to honour his campaign promises such as practising ‘clean’ governance, combatting debt, ending the violence of party cadres who have been a law unto themselves, and ending the allegations of tribal stereotyping that has dogged his political career. The lessons of 1991, 2011 and 2021, when incumbents were resoundingly defeated, should be a lesson that he has taken charge of a country of a demanding citizenry who will not hesitate to remove him from office should he fail to measure up to their expectations.





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