Hakainde Hichilema and the future of African leadership

On 16 August 2021, opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema shocked the world by becoming the seventh president-elect of Zambia in a landslide victory over incumbent President Edgar Lungu. This is an exciting opportunity for change in Zambia and has raised hopes that it may usher in a wave of new leadership across Africa.

HH’s ride to victory

Hichilema – or ‘HH’, as he is widely known – rose from humble beginnings as a self-described ‘cattle-boy’ to become a self-made successful businessman with interests in finance, property, ranching, healthcare and tourism. HH secured a victory by publicising his business background as a guarantee that he had the skills, experience, and know-how to transform Zambia’s beleaguered economy. His campaign was also tech-savvy, appealing particularly to young voters on social media, using everyday language to demonstrate that he was one of them and not just part of the business elite.

HH’s success indicates that a strong economy and a genuine meritocracy are becoming key issues for many African voters – especially youth.

His resilience and persistence also proved an asset. HH bid for the presidency six times prior to his victory and experienced regular persecution, including a stint in prison. In this campaign, his core economic argument persuaded voters because they wanted a leader they could trust on the basis of experience and merit, not slogans, to transform the country’s trajectory. 

Zambia – Africa’s second largest copper producer – saw its economy stagnate when copper prices collapsed around 2011 and languished for a decade. The pandemic did no favours to a weak economy, but the principal cause of distress was the previous government’s negligence to implement a stable business and regulatory environment. This was felt acutely in the mining sector, resulting in an inexcusable failure to capture the full potential of what many experts believe to be a new copper “supercycle”. 

This failure is compounded by the country’s crippling debt crisis. Sovereign external debt is believed to be around 12 billion USD. In November 2020, Zambia became Africa’s first country during the pandemic to default on its international debts after failing to keep up with payments to bondholders. To add to their woes, inflation has dramatically increased and the Kwacha lost half its value during the last five years.

Lungu’s Patriotic Front came to power in 2011 on a campaign promise of “less taxes, more money in people’s pockets and more jobs”. This did not transpire – particularly for young people – and Lungu’s administration was fraught with allegations of corruption, as well as rumours around Chinese financing of his campaign. HH is a different kind of leader, whose strong platform and ability connect with younger voters led to an overwhelming victory in this month’s elections that speaks to Zambians’ desire for change.

The next countries to watch

Stories like those of Zambia’s economic woes are sadly not uncommon in Africa, and the disastrous economic and health effects of the pandemic have worsened already dire situations in many countries across the continent. There are however several opposition leaders that have clear similarities with HH and can take on his mantle of disrupting the status quo.

Liberia: Alexander B. Cummings

The experience, skill and background of Alexander B. Cummings – also known by his initials ABC – are very similar to that of HH. Coming from humble beginnings in Liberia, Cummings was educated in Monrovia before moving to study business in the US. After a stint in finance back in Liberia, he rose to become head of Coca-Cola Africa and the chief administrative officer of the multinational firm globally.

Cummings has since entered Liberian politics on a campaign promise of change from the administration of former footballer George Weah, which has left Liberia – a country with abundant natural resources and a hospitable climate for agriculture – one of the poorest countries in Africa. Weah is widely held responsible for allowing corruption to become endemic in Liberia, while rumours of Russian funding of his 2017 campaign persist.

Much like HH, Cummings has grown resilient from setbacks. Despite losing to Weah a disputed 2017 presidential election, Cummings is a top contender to compete with the incumbent ahead of the upcoming 2023 presidential election. Cummings’s policy platform, focusing on reviving the economy, improving education and empowering women, resolutely capitalises on his business success and draws on a wealth of local philanthropic activities. While it is still early in the race, voters in 2023 might view Cummings as the leader the country needs to revive Liberia from crisis and put it on the path to prosperity.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Martin Fayulu

Martin Fayulu also offers a strong economic argument to DRC voters based on his proven success as a former executive at ExxonMobil, where he worked from 1984 to 2003. 

Fayulu faced serious setbacks as an opposition leader in the DRC when Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the December 2018 election, despite election observers claiming that Fayulu had won the vote. Fayulu fought on a platform against corruption after incumbent president Joseph Kabila extended his rule and relied on his business experience to appeal to voters as an outsider. Resilient like HH, Fayulu has continued to remain active in politics since the election and could see a swell of support for his economic renewal platform.

HH’s victory is rightly viewed as an exciting opportunity for change in Zambia, and it may just be the beginning of a wave of change across Africa. A new generation of leaders are – whether Cummings, Fayulu, or others – bringing hope that better governance, accountability, and renewed economic growth post-pandemic will follow. 

Simon Wolfe
Simon Wolfe
Simon Wolfe is a London-based international lawyer and founder of Marlow Strategy. He is on Twitter at @SimonWolfe