Lusaka, Zambia – As Zambia’s opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was proclaimed victor of the presidential elections on Sunday, the Zambian capital, Lusaka, erupted in celebrations that lasted late into the night as supporters sung, danced and waved his party’s flags.
Hichilema, 59, of the United Party for National Development (UPND) won by a landslide 2.8 million votes, trailed by incumbent Edgar Lungu’s 1.8 million ballots.
The turnout within the August 12 election was the very best since the 1991 ballot when Zambia held its first multiparty elections, with those below 40 years aged constituting quite half the electorate.
After the celebrations, street cleaner Joseph Phiri, 28, collected rubbish at the independence roundabout and scraped away tattered posters of Lungu from walls.
Like many younger Zambians, Phiri hopes the election of a replacement leader will see an end to growing authoritarianism within the country and to raised economic prospects.
Under Lungu, who came to power in 2015, the authorities were often criticised for the suppression of freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Phiri remembers the running battles between the police and protesters when he became a street sweeper within the capital, two years ago.
“Whenever people came here to protest they might be quickly arrested, there was no peace. Everyone would be chased by the police albeit you were working, it’s like we were being controlled by the police and there was no freedom for anyone. I hope it’ll vary now,” he told Al Jazeera.
As the sweeper cleared away the litter of an intense presidential campaign, droves of motorists whizzed past hooting and chanting “Forward! Forward!”, the slogan of the UPND.
Many of the red-clad supporters hope Hichilema, popularly referred to as HH, will inaugurate an era of greater freedom and prosperity.
Lungu has rejected the result, saying the election wasn’t free and fair and alleging electoral violence in three provinces which culminated within the alleged murder of a candidate for the ruling Patriotic Front.
Officials from the UPND dismissed Lungu’s statement as people “trying to throw out the whole election just to cling on to their jobs”.
International election observers said the polls were transparent and peacefully organised, but criticised restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement during the election campaign.
If Lungu wants to challenge the election results, he must lodge a complaint at the Constitutional Court within seven days.
Hichilema, a businessman who contested the presidency for the sixth time, promised democratic reforms, a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption, and economic reforms including debt management.
As Zambia’s youth celebrates the new president-elect, a myriad of challenges awaits Hichilema.
Freedom under Hichilema?
Under Lungu, the general public Order Act – a legacy of British colonial rule decreed in 1955 – was frequently wont to limit civic freedoms under the pretext of maintaining peace. In an act that further constricted the democratic space, the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, drafted into law earlier this year, was enacted to manage digital media and online activity.
Online bloggers and broadcasters were controlled by the cyber-legislation with several bloggers and media houses suspended on grounds of behaving in an “unprofessional manner”.
For Sailas Ahmed, 27, a blogger, the increasing digital surveillance has forced him to resort to employing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) whenever he posts online on Ancient Ink, a weekly social commentary blog that receives up to 10,000 hits each day .
“As a blogger, i used to be targeted only for producing content because the cyber-laws control what someone says online. the general public Order Act restricts meetings face to face , but the enforcement of cyber-laws makes it desire the web is invaded,” Ahmed said.
“I desire there are eyes constantly watching me and therefore the internet is not any longer the safe space it had been meant to be. I hope this may change now with Hichilema’s win,” he added.
A country of 9.4 million online users, Zambia’s access to the web is ranked as “partly free” consistent with a Freedom House survey.
During voting within the presidential election, access became increasingly contested.
On polling day , social media platform WhatsApp was reportedly blocked although, before the polls, the govt had dismissed fears of an online shutdown. During the campaign period, there have been also reportedly internet outages con strongholds within the south.
According to Linda Kasonde, the chief director of Chapter One Foundation which has taken the govt to court over internet restriction and other human rights violations of the constitution, Lungu’s six years in power have seen a rise in authoritarian rule.
“We have this narrative of ‘one nation, one Zambia’, but we’ve seen that deteriorate under President Lungu with the poor record of human rights we’ve seen through the crackdown on critics and opposition,” Kasonde said.
“He has been a divisive figure, he entrenched divisions along political lines and tribal lines and human rights so now we’ve to heal those divisions and that we need a government which will respect the rights of its citizens and be more accountable,” he added.
While the high turnout of largely younger voters may have prevented Lungu from holding another term in office, Zambia’s young electorate also expects Hichilema to deliver on his promises to repair the moribund economy with surging inflation and growing youth unemployment.
Hichilema’s UPND party has been outspoken against Lungu’s profligacy.
Zambia was the primary African country to default debt repayment to the IMF and appeal for a relief package since the pandemic because the economy has bogged down thanks to COVID-19 and loans taken to create infrastructure.
Under the Patriotic Front’s leadership, Zambia took on loans from China to create the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric dam and a more modern Kaunda International Airport, named after the nation’s late founding president whom many remember as a logo of unity and peace.
The copper-rich Southern African country is thanks to pay a $1.7bn instalment to service its debts and is in need of a loan to service quite $12bn in external debt.
According to an Afrobarometer Sustainable Development Goals scorecard for Zambia, released in July, “the country is experiencing worsening poverty, hunger, and economic and ethnic inequalities compared to 5 years ago”.
Despite his optimism in Hichilema, Sebastian Mwila, 27, a youth advocate and campaign assistant for a Patriotic Front councillor expressed scepticism at any leader’s ability to not use the tools of the state to their advantage.
“It’s refreshing that we’ve someone new and something to seem forward to in Hichilema, but with time, every leader always uses his power to his favour instead of to favour those that are outside of power and citizens who criticise,” he said.
As businesses open up after the pandemic and life slowly resumes after polls, the challenge of restoring Zambia’s human rights record and economy lies ahead.