What links a military coup in the ‘wildest west’ of West Africa and the less media-glamorous landslide election victory in Zambia?
West Africa has turned back the regional political clock to the 1970s and 1980s, when every few months some junior officer with political ambitions would oust the sitting President. It was no coincidence then that Groupement des Forces Spéciales (GPS) commander Colonel Mamady Doumbouya justified his intervention in Guinea by quoting Ghana’s late Jerry John Rawlings, who intervened twice as a ‘military man’ before submitting to elections.
Doumbouya ousted Guinea’s President Alpha Condé on September 5, bringing to a humiliating end the rule of Guinea’s only President to have come to power through democratic multiparty elections since independence from France in 1958. Doumbouya dissolved the elected Assemblée Nationale, suspended the Constitution and sacked the entire government and all regional prefects but urged mining companies to keep producing and exporting bauxite, on which the economy relies for 90% of its exports.
Unlike West Africa’s newest leader, bedecked in trademark coup-leader red beret and wraparound sunglasses, Zambia’s newly elected President, Hakainde Hichilema, popularly known as HH, is a sober-suited former head of Coopers & Lybrand (PwC) turned business mogul and farmer. HH, presenting himself to the electorate for the sixth time, won an unchallengeable 59% of votes cast of an extraordinarily high turnout of 70%. Hichilema’s election victory and safe transition represent Zambia’s third peaceful shift of power from a ruling party to the opposition since independence in 1964. While Guinea’s self-proclaimed ‘transitional’ military leadership faces international opprobrium and at least 18 months of political upset, uncertainty and economic decline, Zambia looks set to relaunch its progress towards becoming an upper-middle-income country and a regional force for stability and social progress.
What links Guinea’s military coup and Zambia’s change of President through the ballot box is large numbers of media-savvy, connected and disgruntled youth. Guinea’s military intervention is not unpopular among the youth – yet. Condé, 83, had manipulated the constitution to be returned to power for an unpopular third term in October last year. The constitutional amendment provoked mass protests in which security forces killed several people, while ten people died in postelection violence. By contrast, local journalists in Zambia report that disgruntled youth, fed up with the incumbent President, Edgar Lungu, his thugs, rampant corruption and economic mismanagement, kept their views to themselves until election day. Despite Covid-19, a government Internet shutdown, and military and police harassment, they turned out in long quiet queues to vote. With strategic stealth and social media savvy, the youth, market traders and rural workers broke traditional regional political and ethnic loyalties to elect HH.
Having endured six terms to ponder Presidential priorities, Hichilema’s first actions were decisive and in keeping with the urgent tasks facing Zambia. With crucial debt crisis talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looming, his first move was to appoint Situmbeko Musokotwane, an experienced Finance Minister who held the position from 2008 to 2011 and understands the workings of the IMF. Using social media – which he had used so effectively to reach Zambia’s youth – Hichilema tasked a ‘CFO’ to his CEO: “1. Dismantle public debt 2. Enforce fiscal discipline 3. Rebuild the fiscus 4. Drive decentralisation 5. Stop financial leakage 6. Produce a progressive Budget 7. Engage creditors transparently 8. Foster economic development.”
Economic recovery will be a significant challenge. Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) bequeathed the nation annual inflation of 25% in July, a currency that had collapsed to record lows and, in November 2020, Zambia became Africa’s first pandemic-era country to default on servicing its eurobond debt. The PF’s arbitrary treatment of and hostile attitude to international mining companies resulted in stagnant production and a significant slowdown in mining investment in Africa’s second-largest copper-producing country.
By contrast, Hichilema and Musokotwane present a competent team to face the IMF, which has been waiting in the wings since the onset of the pandemic. One week in and the country’s currency and dollar bonds surged to become among the world’s best performers.
That said, Zambia’s debt is daunting, standing at a total of $27-billion, including $3-billion in eurobonds. Some $15-billion is described as “private and not guaranteed” – much of it believed to be owed to China or Chinese companies. With copper seen as an essential ingredient in the postpandemic green economy, Hichilema has a fair wind at his back – prices have shot up from $500/t in March 2020 to over $9 500/t this month. Newly appointed Mines Minister Paul Chanda Kabuswe has been mandated to double copper production from current projections of 900 000 t for 2021.
Concurrently, Hichilema has taken immediate steps to restore the rule of law. Lungu had compromised Zambia’s formerly apolitical police and military to shore up his political clique, using security forces to block Hichilema from campaigning in the lead-up to the elections. Many saw Lungu’s deployment of troops in the capital, Lusaka, and in Northern and Southern provinces ahead of the election as intimidatory. The new President’s second act was to fire Zambia’s top police commissioners and army, air force and national service commanders and replace them with a young, uncompromised team. Hichilema endured several months in prison in 2017 on charges of treason for overtaking Lungu’s motorcade and was appalled at the conditions he witnessed. True to his word, he ordered a newly appointed Inspector-General of Police to ‘decongest’ prisons and follow the basics of law and order. In a now familiar list on Twitter, he tasked the police to 1. Investigate before arrest; 2. Utilise police bonds; 3. Take suspects to court within the legal limit of 48 hours from arrest; 4. Use affordable forms of bail.
Last but not least, as Hichilema’s slim 17-member Cabinet took their oaths the new President warned that corruption would not be tolerated. His advisers have hinted that infrastructure deals with government will now be through international competitive bidding, ending China’s practice of direct debt-based infrastructure projects. Unsurprisingly, Hichilema’s first visit abroad will be to the US at the end of October to meet President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.