By: Emma Gatten
For decades Zambia has enjoyed a reputation as one of southern Africa’s most stable nations.
But now the leading opposition candidate in next month’s presidential election has delivered a stark warning about the danger posed by growing political repression.
There is a real risk, says Hakainde Hichilema, that the government’s tough line will lead to violence of the kind that has engulfed other countries in the region, including nearby Burundi.
Mr Hichilema, 53, a wealthy businessman who heads the opposition United Party for National Development, says he has been arrested for political reasons on 14 occasions since 2011.
“The world thinks of Zambia as a peaceful country. But the writing’s on the wall,” he told The Independent.
“Freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of speech, are taken away.”
Outsiders have failed to spot what is really happening, he said.
“The world is saying Zambia is doing okay because the Democratic Republic of Congo is worse, because Burundi is worse,” he said.
“Until there is sufficient blood – that’s when you pay attention.”
Democracy must be respected, he added, to avoid scenarios like that in Burundi, where violence has broken out after the president extended his stay in power by winning a third term in office, contrary to the constitution.
That election was condemned by Western observers for harassment of the opposition.
Last month, the United Nations expressed concern over political violence in Zambia, after members of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party reportedly attacked Mr Hichilema during a rally in the Copperbelt region.
“Zambia is peaceful. At what price? How long will it remain this way?” Mr Hichilema added.
“If thugs roam with guns and attack opposition members, one day the opposition members will protect themselves. The issue is how much violence does the world want to see before it acts?”
Mr Hichilema – widely known as HH – has stood for, and lost, the presidency four times in Zambia, a country of 16 million with widespread poverty and one of the world’s lowest life expectancy rates.
The country has seen regular elections since the end of its single-party socialism in 1991.
In January this year, Mr Hichilema was beaten by PF leader Edgar Lungu in an interim election after the death of the previous president.
With just 1.66 percent difference in the votes cast between the two candidates, Mr Hichilema has suggested the vote may have been rigged.
Supporters of his own UPND party faced widespread violence throughout the campaign, he said.
He hopes votes will swing back in his direction in next month’s election.
He believes the electorate is fed up with economic mismanagement which he says has contributed to surging inflation rates.
“Prices change while you are in the queue,” he said.
“The price of bread has doubled in the last 10 months.”
Zambia, which became independent in 1964, has been considered a success story for the past 10 years.
It became Africa’s biggest copper producer following the privatisation of the industry in the late 1990s, drawing in vast investment from China.
But amid falling copper prices and China’s own economic slowdown, the World Bank last month said Zambia faces its toughest economic challenge in a decade.
“The voter now will tell you that they want somebody different, somebody who will fix the economy,” said Mr Hichilema.
“I think at some point people cut through lies and false hopes.”
Mr Hichilema believes he can be that somebody.
Born to a rural family, he didn’t set foot in a city until he attended the University of Zambia in the capital of Lusaka in the 1980s.
After he graduated, he had his first taste of business success, buying a plot of land in a nearby shanty town on which to build a property.
“My classmates were laughing at me, they were saying ‘How can you buy a house in the [shanty] compound?’“ he said.
“My response was, ‘But you have no house. I have something at least’.”
He later sold the plot, half-finished, at a profit of 200 percent.
“Simple as that. Crude, basic. That was the beginning of my property portfolio.”
He went on to study at the University of Birmingham, and has served as CEO of both Coopers and Lybrand and Grant Thornton in Zambia.
He wants to cut the red tape that he says stifles growth in Zambia, attract investment into industries other than copper and drastically cut government spending.
He is also keen to cut the number of cabinet ministers.
Despite being a perennial presidential candidate, Mr Hichilema rejects career politics and wants an end to the era of populist politics.
“What is charisma if it doesn’t create job opportunities? What is charisma if the cost of food is beyond the majority of people? We want to bring business ethics, values, and principles into public office,” he said.