Hichilema’s predecessor, Edgar Lungu, had consistently harassed and some would say persecuted Hichilema, casting him in the role of a perpetual loser who was destined never to win the presidency with five failed 5 previous efforts. At the same time, Lungu embarked upon an ambitious though a recklessly financed programme of both prestige and infrastructural projects, relying greatly on foreign liquidity, particularly from China, and also upon commercial borrowings by way of the issue of Eurobonds – upon which his administration defaulted.
Hichilema has seemingly managed to mitigate the leverage the Chinese had over the Zambian economy and has been strategic in developing independence in movement and in building a range of alliances to offset dependence on one power alone. In doing so, he has displayed regional leadership – demonstrating the merits of ‘positive neutrality’ in pursuing policies that run across global geopolitical divides for the benefit of the national interest.
Hichilema has ushered in a new style, that is not only distinct from his predecessor but also sets him apart from other regional leaders. He took a very lean delegation to Glasgow’s COP 26 climate conference, 31 October to 12 November 2021. This stood in marked contrast to the bloated Zimbabwean delegation that was very ineffective in its outreach. Hichilema’s track record through successive elections had been one of advocating green energy and he played this record well. His assiduous work and bridge-building brought discernible respect for the new man in Zambia.
At the Commonwealth summit in Kigali, 20-15 June 2022, Hichilema was again conspicuous by his serious demeanour; and he followed up his courting of the Commonwealth by facilitating an honour for its Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland, who became Headwoman of the Lundwe people of Bweengwa area in Monze on 7 August 2022.
But it was the UN vote against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on 2 March 2022, that saw Zambia break ranks with its neighbours Zimbabwe and South Africa, who had abstained from condemning the invasion. Zambia’s signing of the resolution alerted the United States that here, in the heart of Africa, was an unlooked-for but potentially valuable ally.
A US Office of Security Cooperation was established in Zambia at the end of April 2022, alarming both the Zimbabwean Government and South Africa’s Julius Malema. No tangible military cooperation seems thus far to have eventuated. However, it seems to have prompted China to take steps to have Zambia ‘onside’. It could not do so militarily, but as so much debt was owed to China it could do so economically.
Resetting the Chinese relationship
China saw the prospective pivotal nature of Zambia in the region and, apart from seeking to safeguard as much as possible of its investment there, also sought at least to equal any prospective US foreign policy impact on the country. Hichilema has been wise in courting this approach. In April 2022 a new Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Zambia was launched in Lusaka. And on 31 May 2022 President Xi’s conducted a personal phone call with President Hichilema, promising a sympathetic Chinese approach to Zambia’s debt.
An energetic but measured and experienced finance minister, Situmbeko Musokotwane, in the meantime had begun serious discussions with the IMF about a debt-relief package. It took some time for the Hichilema Government to ascertain the size of the debt built up by Lungu. It turned out to be some $31 billion, well over 115% of GDP. Some $17 billion was external debt, about a third of which was owed to China. The IMF, on conditions of suitable reforms, agreed to a credit facility, but upon the condition of Zambia reaching agreements with its creditors. Debt restructuring has made significant progress under the G20 ‘Common Framework’ – in which all creditors, including China as co-chair – had to express common agreement on the way forward. Many were reluctant but, clearly, if China could be persuaded to come to agreement others would be effectively towed in its wake. The process could set an important precedent not just for the region but for other heavily indebted emerging economies globally.
Hichilema’s assertive stance on China has been both grateful for its support and acknowledging its importance to Zambia, but has not shied away from being critical and questioning when needed.
The 2 August 2022 agreement between Zambia and Tanzania to refurbish the Tazara rail link, but to use standard gauge tracks for easier vehicle use, imputed some of the line’s failures to the original Chinese track design. But almost immediately afterwards on 10 August 2022, Hichilema was unveiling the memorial park for the Chinese workers who had died in the construction of Tazara. This was seen as symbolic and meaningful by the Chinese Ambassador. The agreement over Tazara with Tanzania spoke also to a regional emphasis in Zambia’s external relations and was pointed out in its photo opportunities for Hichilema with a female, Islamic president.
China was also given full credit at the opening of the Kafue Gorge Lower Power Station at an August ceremony (it will come on tap in November 2022). Although work began under a much earlier administration, Hichilema shepherded it through its final stages. The new facility will mean that Zambia continues to produce more than 80% of its energy through renewable hydro stations and reinforces Hichilema’s ‘green’ credentials.
Hichilema has prioritised economic diplomacy – seeking private sector investment and thus shifting the emphasis of Zambian foreign policy into the commercial realm. He refers to himself as the chief marketing officer. The scope of this strategy extends far beyond seeking investment from global financial centres, and there has been equal attention in regional cooperation on infrastructure and trade. For example, in May 2022 Zambia and DRC signed a cooperation agreement for the development of an electric battery value chain.
Regional cooperation was also at the heart of Hichelema’s speech at the 2022 Investing in African Mining Indaba speech. Zambia has been locked in a series of quarrels with international mining corporations such as Vedanta and Glencore, upon whom copper mining depended. Lungu’s efforts to ‘go it alone’ left much to be desired. Hichilema had bridges to rebuild and, as far as possible, relationships to recraft. A new approach to the sector has paid off with significant investment already committed, and new exploration underway.
In his first year as Zambian president, Hichilema’s external relations have brought benefits to the country, set a regional precedent, and made a positive mark in the world. The major challenge to maintaining this momentum will be sustaining popular electoral understanding and support once the realities of debt repayment and austerity have set in.