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 in the August 12 general election was the highest since the 1991 ballot when Zambia held its first multiparty elections, with those below 40 years of age constituting more than half the electorate.
After the celebrations, street sweeper 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 new leader will see an end to growing authoritarianism in the country and to better 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 cleaner in the capital, two years ago.
“Whenever people came here to protest they would be quickly arrested, there was no peace. Everyone would be chased by the police even if you were working, it’s like we were being controlled by the police and there was no freedom for anyone. I hope it will be different 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 known as HH, will usher in an era of greater freedom and prosperity.
Lungu has rejected the result, saying the election was not free and fair and alleging electoral violence in three provinces which culminated in 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 entire 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.
As Zambia’s youth celebrates the new president-elect, a myriad of challenges awaits Hichilema.
Freedom under Hichilema?
Under Lungu, the Public Order Act – a legacy of British colonial rule decreed in 1955 – was frequently used 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 regulate 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 using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) each time he posts online on Ancient Ink, a weekly social commentary blog that receives up to 10,000 hits a day.
“As a blogger, I was targeted just for producing content because the cyber-laws control what someone says online. The Public Order Act restricts meetings in person, but the enforcement of cyber-laws makes it feel like the internet is invaded,” Ahmed said.
“I feel like there are eyes constantly watching me and the internet is no longer the safe space it was meant to be. I hope this will change now with Hichilema’s win,” he added.
A country of 9.4 million online users, Zambia’s access to the internet is ranked as “partly free” according to a Freedom House survey.
During voting in the presidential election, access became increasingly contested.
On election day, social media platform WhatsApp was reportedly blocked although, prior to the polls, the government had dismissed fears of an internet shutdown. During the campaign period, there were also reportedly internet outages in opposition strongholds in the south.
According to Linda Kasonde, the executive director of Chapter One Foundation which has taken the government to court over internet restriction and other human rights violations of the constitution, Lungu’s six years in power have seen an increase in authoritarian rule.
“We have this narrative of ‘one nation, one Zambia’, but we have seen that deteriorate under President Lungu with the poor record of human rights we have 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 have to heal those divisions and we need a government that 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 fix the moribund economy with surging inflation and growing youth unemployment.
Hichilema’s UPND party has been outspoken against Lungu’s profligacy.
Zambia was the first African country to default on debt repayment to the IMF and appeal for a relief package since the pandemic as the economy has slowed down due to COVID-19 and loans taken to build infrastructure.
Under the Patriotic Front’s leadership, Zambia took on loans from China to build the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric dam and a more modern Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, named after the nation’s late founding president whom many remember as a symbol of unity and peace.
The copper-rich Southern African nation is due to pay a $1.7bn instalment to service its debts and is in need of a loan to service more than $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 five 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 not to use the tools of the state to their advantage.
“It’s refreshing that we have someone new and something to look forward to in Hichilema, but with time, every leader always uses his power to his favour rather than to favour those who 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.