AGENCIES | AFP | Lusaka – 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.
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.”
‘Grit and determination’
Hichilema, one of Zambia’s richest people, has worked hard to shed his image as an elitist who lacks the common touch.
“I’m just a cattle boy… it’s a childhood love,” he told AFP in an interview in May, describing himself as “an ordinary citizen, an ordinary African”.
In his debut address, the politician returned to the theme, recalling attending school “with no shoes”.
He added: “I got the opportunity… we want to expand those opportunities for all our children to better than what HH has become.”
Hichilema was born into a poor family in the southern district of Monze, but says his “grit and determination” at school won him a scholarship to the University of Zambia.
He graduated with a degree in economics and business administration before getting an MBA degree at Britain’s University of Birmingham.
At age 26, he was already CEO of the Zambian branch of a large international accountancy firm, according to his party.
He worked his way up to become one of the country’s wealthiest men, with business interests spanning finance, ranching, property, healthcare and tourism.
Critics had viewed him as a political outsider, an economic jargon-spouting corporate leader who was catapulted into politics following the 2006 death of Anderson Mazoka, former leader of the United Party for National Development, which Hichilema bankrolled at the time.
But recently, the man affectionately referred to as “Bally”, slang for dad, “has tried to blend with the ordinary (people) much more, swapping tailored business suits with casual fatigues or jeans,” according to Zambian analyst O’Brien Kaaba.
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Hichilema vowed to leave office peacefully after serving his term.
“I want to assure the people of Zambia in advance — when our time to leave comes we will graciously leave,” he said in his maiden speech.
A Christian from the Tonga ethnic group, Hichilema is married and has three children.