Despite his lack of significant domestic achievements and rising discontentment with his leadership in Zambia, President Hakainde Hichilema has a remarkably positive image abroad. There are two major reasons for this.

The first is that Hichilema, who came to power in August 2021, is benefiting from a favourable comparison to what came before him and to other African countries where political transitions have not gone well. In neighbouring Malawi, for instance, high hopes in pastor-turned-president Lazarus Chakwera quickly faded as he appointed family members to key positions while doing little to revive the economy. South Africans thought they had escaped the graft of the Zuma years until they learnt that anti-corruption crusader Cyril Ramaphosa had allegedly stuck half a million dollars in his sofa. In Zimbabwe and Tanzania, the demise of the much-maligned Mugabe and Magufuli has not led to notable political improvement or economic revival. The list of optimism turning to disappointment goes on, to Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and more.

Such is the deficit of competent leadership that many are desperate for a success story. Superficially, Hichilema fits the bill. He is relatively new, dresses smartly, and talks well. Moreover, his social media team is highly adept at painting rosy picture of Zambia under his leadership to the outside world. Without a greater understanding of the local context, many Africans measure Hichilema against their own leaders and like what they see.

The second reason behind Hichilema’s positive image abroad is that he positions himself to be flattered by the West. Like many African leaders, Zambia’s president craves approval from the Americans, Europeans, and white South Africans. Western countries have both praised and exploited this attitude to help them secure their strategic interests and counter China and Russia’s growing influence. As Jim Risch, a ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after meeting Hichilema, the Zambian leader “is working hard to curb China’s malign and predatory influence in Zambia as well as increase cooperation with the US”.

This “cooperation” has taken many forms. Hichilema moved swiftly to allow the US to establish an Africom-like military office in Lusaka, something his predecessors strongly opposed. His administration abolished all tourist visa fees for North American and European nationals. And the president cut extremely generous deals with mining multinationals such as First Quantum Minerals (FQM), a Canadian firm that invested in his election. Earlier this month, Zambia’s government relinquished its 20% shareholding stake in the FQM-run Kansanshi Mine in return for a paltry 3% royalty payment on revenue. As global demand for strategic metals such as cobalt, copper and uranium increases, Hichilema seems satisfied to exchange the country’s valuable minerals for grand invitations and kind words from the West. Opposition parties claim the government also plans to privatise remaining state parastatals such as the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation and Zambia Telecommunications company with UK and US firms in the running to take them over.

All this has contributed to Hichilema’s positive image in the West, whose governments and diplomats have also avoided criticising their malleable partner. When former president Edgar Lungu undermined democracy and human rights, he provoked vocal criticism. The same abuses under Hichilema have been met with silence.

A disappointment at home

The positive coverage Hichilema is receiving in Western circles contrasts sharply with growing criticism at home. Summing up many people’s frustrations earlier this year, the highly-regarded retired archbishop of Lusaka, Telesphore Mpundu, complained: “Everyone feels cheated by the [governing] UPND because nothing is happening…people cannot be waiting for donkey years for change to take place”.

Much of the disillusionment centres on the economy. Despite his election promises, Hichilema has failed to resolve the disastrous mismanagement of Konkola Copper Mine and Mopani, leaving tens of thousands of jobs under threat. At the same time, he has offered mining corporations huge tax cuts and other incentives with little obvious benefit for locals. The big concessions offered to FQM in return for developing a new mine and expanding production, for instance, will at most produce a few hundred jobs but lead to a few billion Kwacha in lost revenue.

In the agricultural sector, chaos has raised fears of potential food insecurity next year. In opposition, Hichilema promised to deliver subsidised fertiliser to farmers but, in office, has instead raised prices – benefiting friends of the governing party – and awarded distribution and supply chain contracts to companies that lack the capacity to meet demand.

Other broken promises are everywhere to see. Fuel and food costs have risen dramatically, worsening the cost-of-living crisis. Crippling six-hour daily power cuts have resumed despite Hichilema’s assurances only a few months ago that his administration had completely ended the energy crisis. After condemning the previous government’s appetite for borrowing, the government has added at least $2 billion to Zambia’s external debt in just a year. And shortages of drugs and other medical supplies in public hospitals are so acute that a parliamentary committee recently recommended the adoption of emergency measures to avert a likely catastrophe.

On democratic reform, Hichilema has disappointed too. After over a year in office, his administration is yet to repeal repressive legislation that undermines democracy nor enact any that promotes human rights and strengthens accountability. Not only that. More people have been arrested and sent to prison for breaking a dubious 1965 law against defamation of the president in Hichilema’s first year than were under six years of Lungu. This record did not stop the US from calling Zambia “a bright spot for democracy in Africa” at the recent US-Africa summit.

Hichilema has also undermined formal institutions, packing the civil service with ruling party loyalists and appointing allies to head the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), the judicial bodies that appoint and dismiss judges, and the National Assembly. His administration’s refusal to embark on judicial reforms, its constant arrests of opposition leaders on spurious charges, and its abuse of the ECZ to exclude opponents show how democratic institutions remain as susceptible to manipulation now as they were under Lungu.

Perhaps the most serious issue alienating the president from many Zambians is his failure to reflect adequate ethnic diversity in his appointments. The late Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s founding father, identified Hichilema’s potential to divide the country along ethnic-regional lines as the foremost threat to Zambia’s future. The current president is not the first to succumb to this temptation. Lungu marginalised figures from provinces that voted for his opponents and promoted those from areas of support. But while Hichilema promised to do things differently, he has merely inverted the old pattern. From the key ministries, security services, and the justice system, to the National Assembly, civil services and ECZ, the top positions are all held by individuals from regions that typically vote for Hichilema.

Major concerns have also emerged about Hichilema’s commitment to fighting corruption. To begin with, the president has refused to publish the value of his assets despite being elected a platform of accountability and transparency. Along with Lungu, he is the only major party nominee to fail to do so since the return to multiparty democracy in 1991. This is especially concerning as Zambian presidents have generally used state power to accumulate wealth. There is no evidence Hichilema has done so, but his reluctance to release his net worth is concerning given his extensive business interests. This makes it difficult to work out to what extent his economic policies are benefiting companies in which he has an interest.

At the same time, Hichilema has resisted passing a law on access to information (ATI) that would enhance government transparency and assist the media and civil society in fighting corruption. Such a law has been promised by successive governments who have then dragged their feet over the last three decades. Hichilema’s has now joined them. In over a year, his administration has not even got as far as producing a Draft Bill. This reluctance may arise from fears among political elites that such a law would make available information – especially on procurement and asset declarations – that would make corruption easier to observe.

Finally, Hichilema has ignored accusations of corruption in his own government. When opposition parties presented evidence of executive involvement in an inflated fertiliser contract awarded to one of the president’s business associates, for instance, Hichilema kept quiet. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which now sits under the president’s office, also looked away. When the Minister of Health Sylvia Masebo got embroiled in what appears to be a major corruption scandal, Hichilema and the ACC again said nothing.

Zambia’s first one-term president?

In Zambia, there is a growing perception that Hichilema is promoting ethnic discrimination, ignoring corruption, mismanaging an already poor economy, undermining democratic institutions, and serving as a stooge of foreign mining companies and Western countries. Already, many ordinary people have concluded that Hichilema is not the leader they thought he was. The government may have co-opted civil society members who spoke truth to power under Lungu, elicited the silence of the West, and scared ordinary people from speaking out for fear of arrest, but the people are becoming more critical.

Regrettably, however, Hichilema appears to pay more attention to the voice of a particular constituency in South Africa, Europe, and North America than those who elected him. This strategy may come back to haunt him. As former archbishop Mpundu warned, “a government that doesn’t listen to the people, sooner rather than later goes out…People are a sovereign element in the running of the country.”

Indeed, while Zambians may be poor at choosing good leaders, they are good at removing bad ones. It was arguably the calamity of Lungu that pushed people to breaking point and made Hichilema look like a better alternative. Despite basking in foreign approval, the current president risks becoming Zambia’s first to suffer electoral defeat after serving only one term unless he takes a long hard look at himself.