Zambia’s veteran opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema is set to be sworn in as president later on Tuesday, raising the hopes of his counterparts in other African states that they too can overcome state repression and one day rise to power.
During a long political career that saw him fail in five previous bids to become president, Mr Hichilema was brutalised, tear-gassed and even detained for a traffic offence in 2017 that was deemed treasonous after his convoy failed to give way to the motorcade of outgoing President Edgar Lungu.
But in an extraordinary reversal of his fortunes, the man once declared an enemy of the state will be sworn in as Zambia’s seventh president after defeating Mr Lungu in their latest election duel on 12 August.
“It’s massively inspirational,” said Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu who survived an assassination attempt in 2017 after being shot 16 times by people he believes were state agents.
“Zambians have showed us it can be done, no matter what they put us through, no matter the odds,” he added.
Mr Lissu lost last year’s election to the late President John Magufuli, which he alleges was rigged.
Hakainde Hichilema, who takes the oath of office on Tuesday as president of Zambia, is a business tycoon who describes himself as just an ordinary “cattle boy”.
The veteran opposition politician made six bids for the presidency before finally landing the top job in a landslide.
On August 12, he garnered almost one million more votes than his predecessor and long-time rival, Edgar Lungu, to whom he had narrowly lost twice.
The last was in the 2016 election, in which Lungu scraped a victory with just 100,000 more votes.
This time around, the 59-year-old opposition leader tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with Lungu’s running of Zambia’s economy and what he called a “brutal regime.”
Hichilema is no stranger to controversy in the copper-rich southern African nation, having run afoul of the authorities on numerous occasions. He regularly mentions that he has been arrested 15 times since getting into politics.
After the 2016 election, he faced treason charges for allegedly failing to pull over to give way to the presidential motorcade.
Sigh of relief
He spent four months in a maximum-security jail before the charges were dropped, and has promised a “better democracy” under his rule.
“We are not going to arrest those who arrested us, because then we are no different from them,” Hichilema, popularly known as “HH”, said in his debut speech to the nation.
As president, he has inherited a troubled economy after years of Lungu’s spending spree in a country where more than half the population lived below the poverty line even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last year, Zambia became the first African nation to default on its debt in the coronavirus era.
“We have an enormous task ahead to revive our economy and deliver on your expectations,” Hichilema said in the same speech.
“The journey will be tough and challenging, there will be ups and downs, but I am certain that with hard work and commitment, we will succeed in building a better life for you.”