The disarray in the MMD, and the pressures facing PF in government, appear to have boosted the standing of UPND and consequently the stature of its leader, Hakainde Hichilema, as the major opposition leader. John Mukela went to visit him in his new Lusaka headquarters.
THE nondescript dusty road with no name has recently been tarred into respectability, sandwiched between Makishi Road westwards and Bwinjimfumu to the east.
Newly christened Provident Street, its transformation from peri-urban backwardness to chic city glitz now lends it an unmistakable cosmopolitan aura and on this particular day, a string of smart cars and four-wheel drives line most of its length.
The cars have momentarily been abandoned, and their owners nowhere in sight but somewhere within the vicinity of number 83A, Provident Street – the new address of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND).
A carnival atmosphere pervades the occasion, and after a short wait, the man everyone has been waiting for emerges to address the sizable crowd of supporters and the small corps of journalists. We’re here ostensibly to witness the defections to the UPND of several members of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) and the former ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD).
Shouts of “HH – Aleisa!” erupt, followed by the rejoinder, “Bashikulu Baleya! Ubufi Bwachilamo!” (“HH – is coming!…the old man is leaving! Too many lies!”)
At the back of my mind, I suspect that my interview with Hakainde Hichilema, the UPND leader, will most likely be thwarted by the throng of activity and while waiting in the main office lobby for the interview afterwards, I learn that I am not alone seeking an audience with HH.
Above the din of animated chatter, I overhear a woman explain to another woman – a UPND official, that waiting outside the main gate is a party of more defectors and they all wish to meet “the president.”
My suspicions that my interview is unlikely to occur are confirmed and so a new appointment is hastily re-scheduled for the next day.
As abruptly as the rain comes, so too does it depart and the following day, the last of the April rain descends and most of that day, it pours. When HH bursts into the UPND office foyer where I am seated waiting, he carries a folded umbrella, and is casually clad – slacks, woolen jacket, and we exchange greetings. Today the office is quiet, the crowd that had the day before swarmed long since departed.
The interview, I am informed, will be in his office. He leads the way and when I enter I am greeted by a small no-frills room, at one end, a small desk and beside it, two visitors’ chairs. Opposite, its back against the wall, slightly bigger and more comfortable is another chair. I make to sit on one of the two visitors’ chairs but Mr. Hichilema raises his arm and waves me to the bigger chair on the other side. I watch him take his place in the smaller chair. It’s a disarming gesture, and instantly, I feel welcome.
We briskly settle down and Ruth, Mr. Hichilema’s assistant is under strict orders to ensure we are undisturbed for our meeting, beginning shortly before noon and lasting just over a couple of hours, during which his rich baritone rises occasionally, and sometimes descends into a hushed whisper, but all the time animated.
It’s a frank no-holds-barred exchange in which I quiz, solicit explanations, motivations and in which we spar toe to toe, counter-punching now and then, parrying, weaving and I am in no doubt that he has mastered the hurly burly world of tactical political attack, necessary for any serious politician worth his salt.
But firstly, just who is this man, Hakainde Hichilema? What really drives him? And why does he think he has the answers to provide an alternative to the governing Patriotic Front?
“I come from an extended family structure,” he tells me. “Born in a village. Most Africans born in a village are born in an extended family, which means growing up in a large family, lots of kids, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, half-brothers, common chores. Where we are born is a circumstance of history. Nobody choses where they will be born and what will be their fate. You have no power to determine that.
“In our area, 42 kilometers west of Monze, cattle is the business. Cattle and cropping. Cattle is the business we knew from birth, and just to amplify that heritage, some people say we were born in a cattle kraal. So people shouldn’t get surprised that I am a rancher because that was my first activity.”
Despite that rural background, Hakainde was clearly bright, attending the village school, going on to secondary school in Kalomo, doing the mandatory national service stint, before finally landing a government bursary to read economics at the University of Zambia. The village boy had come far, but he wasn’t done yet. Later, he would pursue post-graduate studies, earning an MBA in finance and business strategy from the University of Birmingham.
The training would stand him in good stead, and before he had even graduated from UNZA, Coopers & Lybrand had already offered him a position as a young executive at their Lusaka office. The entrepreneurial spirit and enterprising skills garnered from his cattle herding days came to the fore.
“With my second salary in that first job, I bought a plot in Kalingalinga. My friends laughed. How can you buy a plot in Kalingalinga? But I had no shame. Today people are ashamed to build a house in a komboni (compound). What are you ashamed of? What else do you have? Nothing! So for me there was nothing to lose. I could only gain. So I bought a plot there. I could not afford a full time brick layer, so I got a part-time brick layer and we would build during the weekends. Bricklayer and myself. I would take off my tie as a young professional at Coopers & Lybrand and we built it up. But it was taking long and I didn’t want to take out a loan. I knew I couldn’t finish it so I took an entrepreneurial decision to sell the house, and bought a plot in Libala. Started building there. It got tough. I went to a local company and said to them, I have a structure. If you have an employee who can rent it you can complete the house and your employee can stay there rent-free for a year. I was just a young guy. They agreed. That’s how I got started. We have continued constructing since then. Commercial property. Rental property here and there. Some people say we have done very well but I really think we could do even better if we had an enabling environment, lower bank interest rates that could promote growth, then we could expand our portfolio.”
But what about the famous list of properties and businesses that was announced by President Michael Sata, and lingering questions of impropriety about the origins of Mr. Hichilema’s wealth? Was the list accurate? I ask.
“That was done to spite me,” Mr. Hichilema charges. “I will not get into that because I have taken the view that my rights as a citizen were infringed by the Head of State hiding behind Presidential immunity. It was against my freedoms, done to make me look bad in the eyes of Zambians. To look like a glutton. A greedy guy.”
He maintains that he comes from a culture that says you should privately give rather than privately receive, and that it is for that reason that he was initially uninterested in joining politics. But, I ask, how could he have no political interests or aspirations? Did he feel that politics was beneath his capacity?
He says to the contrary, because there is “a right time for everything. From early on I decided that my first responsibility was to my immediate family, my children and extended family and those who were associated with me in different ways.
“My view is first you secure your immediate family and then you look to the broader community beyond Monze and then the larger Zambian community. My perception is that public service is a service. Not to go into public service to earn a living. For me it means you must give rather than take from the community. So I did what I could to secure the family and at the same time continued to do charity work to assist the community. I am a community worker. I have channeled this community work through the area member of Parliament, irrespective of whatever political party they might represent, and we have had many able members of Parliament. We are currently constructing a health centre under the current area MP. But you have seen how we have MPs, Ministers, Presidents, in the forefront trying to secure government resources, trying to secure things for themselves denying the communities they are meant to be serving.”
But if public service was not high on his agenda, how was he convinced to lead the UPND? What changed?
“When late Anderson Mazoka passed on I never applied for this. I was head-hunted and for a while I resisted. I was only 42 years old and still had a lot of things to do, and had planned to retire at 47 and then go into charity work, digging boreholes, building dip tanks for the community, and developing our scholarship scheme. On average we have 23 to 25 children we keep in school from primary to university. We have done this for over 20 years, so I wanted to formalize this work into philanthropic work in an organized manner, setting up a foundation.
“After quite a lot of consultations, persuasion and discussions I agreed to contest. It was an election, not an appointment. I was not anointed as some people believe. Other candidates who were being talked about were Sakwiba Sikota, Patrick Chisanga, Mrs. Mazoka, Mr Sichinga and several others. I was not even in the picture at that time. I came much later. But when I was being talked to, among the people who persuaded me was Mrs Mazoka.”
I put it to him that having taken up the leadership, he has been defeated thrice – scoring approximately 25% in 2006, 19.7% in 2008 and finally in 2011, 18.17% of the republican presidential vote. Not a good record and not a hopeful start. Does he ever consider throwing in the towel? What lessons has he learnt?
He feels that he’s “unfortunate because my first election should really have been the 2011 election. Normally you would take five years as a build up to an election. I took over as UPND leader in July 2006 and in September we had elections. I had 45 days to contest. I was still settling down, organizing the party, looking at the selection of candidates and at the same time organizing campaign funds, the campaign programme – it was a baptism of fire.
“And then in 2008, just two years later, it was the first time we lost a sitting President in this country when President Mwanawasa died. In many respects Mr. Banda’s election was also to a large degree a sympathy vote, based on his campaign that he was an old man and he wanted to finish off what the late Levy had started. Losing a President was an experience never known in Zambia. So you see, in five years, I have contested three elections, when I should ordinarily really have only done one.”
Talking about the 2011 election, why did the UPND pact with the PF fail? Was it as we have been told, because of Mr. Hichilema’s hunger for power? That he had insisted on being offered the Presidency should the pact succeed in unseating the then governing MMD?
He dismisses those accusations and insists the pact failed because of lack of unity and a common economic and social programme.
“We were poles apart. We said before we look at candidates we should first look at our individual party manifestos so that we marry the two. How do we run our common monetary and fiscal policies, agriculture, education, mines, health – all these. But the PF’s view was No!…lets first agree the candidates, which party will take which ministerial positions, who will be the president. How can you decide on positions before you have agreed on the size of the cabinet? The size of the cabinet must go in line with the common manifesto and the economic policies, because UPND believes in a small cabinet, not a bloated cabinet. MMD was criticized for having a bloated cabinet. Are you surprised that today there are about 70 ministers and deputy ministers? How different are the PF from the MMD?
“We wanted to agree these things first but our friends refused to sit down. Once you have agreed on the policies then you can look at the administration to support your economic and social programme. I come from a school that believes that your business strategy must come first and then you find a structure that will help you implement your business and economic programme. Our friends believed first you must share the posts, allocate responsibilities, then that’s when you come to your business. I think that’s a recipe for disaster, for losses if you’re in business. Because how do you decide how many managers you will have before you see if you can generate enough revenue to support those managers? That was a fundamental crisis that happened in that pact.”
He says that before UPND can consider going into any future pact, it is non-negotiable that it must first satisfy the need for a shared vision to help the people that it wants to serve and not a shared vision “of how you gain as members of the party.
“A shared vision of how the vulnerable, how a double orphan with no parents but with grey matter in his or her head from Sikongo, Kalabo, Chama, Kabompo, Chipili, Mporokoso, can go to school and reach university. I don’t want to be in government for the taxpayer to build me a retirement home.”
What about the talk that Mr. Hakainde is a tribalist and his party, the UPND is essentially a tribal party anchored on tribal Tonga hegemony?
Mr. Hichilema laughs and dismisses that as propaganda and wishful thinking spearheaded by a hostile government media and points to the defections to his party from other political parties by members of those parties in all Zambia’s districts and provinces.
“I think you have heard that from the description in the state-controlled media. How they describe Hakainde and how they describe the UPND. A distortion of fact by a hostile media. I sometimes ask myself – is there another Hakainde out there? Is there another UPND out there? That description is far from the truth. I like to debate. But when people cannot debate with you they find other frivolous things to say about you. As a leader and as a party you must be prepared to get ridiculed.”
And does he take offence at being ridiculed?
“Initially you do. But I went in at the deep end and I have learnt that if they can’t ridicule you, ridicule the leader, who will they take out their frustrations against? Even in a family people say unpleasant things. What about in a political party? The first thing is that we must have common ground and interests to serve the people better. To bring out the value that the country has through its resources so that we can generate value for the weak, the sick. That’s a consolation.”
But what reach does the UPND have and on what does it base its hope that it is capable of unseating the governing PF?
He reveals that he is “extremely happy that Mr. Sata came into government and became President in 2011. Very happy. It’s God’s way because it has exposed the PF and we have been vindicated. People were hungry for change. Look at the PF’s economic and monetary policies – SI 33, SI 35, poor policies, destroying the kwacha, destroying the economy. You cannot close out foreign exchange in an import-led economy because you need the dollar.
“These are the consequences of not being serious about your economic and social programme because you are seeking public office to eat not to serve. You fire nurses when they ask for salary increases after you promised them more money. You re-instate them under pressure and ask them to re-apply and make them lose all their benefits. How will you win elections?
“You transfer a married teacher to Kalabo and the husband remains in Lusaka. Can a husband or wife manage to commute between Kalabo and here? Where is the humanity in that?
“When you start fighting chiefs, you start saying you Litunga you are wearing that admirals uniform because you claim your land was bigger and you gave the white man land and in return they gave you that admirals uniform and you call yourself a chief, you are not fighting Bo Lubosi, you are fighting the BRE, you are fighting the Lozi people and any other people who respect that chief.
“When you tell the chief in Eastern Province that I know what you do in your bedroom – there’s anger everywhere. There’s dissatisfaction. When you see people coming to join the UPND , why should they retain the PF in 2016?”
Article courtesy of Bulletin & Record Magazine. You can find it most Pick n Pay Shops and other chain stores