The cattle herder who became president

The cattle herder who became president

HH in traditional war dance at the Lwindi Ceremony in Monze



Herding cattle is not an easy undertaking.

Sometimes, a herdsman can leave a village carrying nothing to eat except mealie-meal, anticipating that the rest of the food would be found in the bush.

The herdsman then spends up to three months in the bush, surviving on small wild animals and fruits, and, at times, making fire using wet grass during the rainy season.

Quick thinking is one of the traits that develop in herdsmen as they take their cattle for grazing.

Sometimes, one can spend the whole day without eating and simply survive on sucking milk from the udder of a lactating cow.

“When you are a small boy, you are taught to look after small cattle. If you lose one animal, you don’t go back home. You sleep in the bush. So, you become accountable from the word go,” says Clayson Hamasaka, the head of media in the United Party for National Development (UPND).

Some of the places where cattle are taken for grazing are also home for wild animals like lions, buffaloes and elephants.

The herdsman, therefore, learns how to protect himself and the cattle from these beasts.

Hamasaka’s UPND, has just been elected Zambia’s new ruling party, with its leader, Hakainde Hichilema, becoming Zambia’s seventh president since the country attained political independence from Britain in 1964.

Hichilema learnt how to herd cattle as a young village boy in Namwala, Southern Province, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It is perhaps the experience he went through, while herding cattle, that gave him the resilience that would later manifest in his adult life, eventually leading to his becoming Zambia’s president after five failed attempts.

“As a herdsman, you learn to be alert, accountable and tough,” adds Hamasaka, a long-time confidant of Hichilema’s.

It is, therefore, indisputable that without being a tough man, Hichilema would not have managed to hold the UPND together for 15 years as an opposition political party until it formed government after the August 12, 2021 general elections.

UPND founding president Anderson Mazoka had led the party for eight years, from 1998 to the time of his death in 2006.

As a new entrant to politics, when he was elected new UPND president in 2006, it could not be foreseen, that, 15 years later, Hichilema would still be leading the party in opposition.

Life in the opposition is extremely challenging and can be a financial drain on both a political party and individual members.

It is of little wonder that many political parties have come and gone after just one general election while some have dissolved themselves to begin supporting ruling parties.

Some opposition presidents have even disbanded their parties to join the ruling parties which have rewarded them with government positions.

Financial gain at the expense of ideological considerations has often been the case.

During the 15 years that the UPND was in opposition, many of Hichilema’s colleagues- some of them very close and personal friends- abandoned him to either form their own political parties or join the immediate past ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF) or the one before it, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy.

Literally, they auctioned their parties to the highest bidder for financial considerations.

Before Mutale Nalumango was chosen as the UPND vice-president in February 2021, four people had had a go at the position under Hichilema’s leadership.

Francis Simenda, Richard Kapita, Canissius Banda and Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba had all later abandoned the UPND and joined or re-joined the PF.

Over all these years, Hichilema became a victim of so much slander, peddled by his political opponents, that it is undeniable to say he is the most vilified opposition leader in the history of Zambian politics.

The calumny ranged from accusations that he had sold state-owned Zambian mines when he was engaged as a consultant during Zambia’s privatization programme, to selling a Lima Bank house to himself in Kabulonga residential area and taking advantage of a poor family to buy a farm from them.

None of these accusations ever ended up in a court of law with Hichilema as an accused.

There were also other aspersions thrown at him that he was a supporter of gay rights, a Satanist, a free mason and a tribalist.

None of this propaganda ever stuck on him.

With the toughness of a herdsman, he kept forging ahead.

The toxic slander aside, Hichilema has been the most arrested opposition leader in Zambia since independence nearly 57 years ago.

Not even during the colonial days did Kenneth Kaunda, who would later become Zambia’s first president, suffer as many arrests as Hichilema endured over the last 10 years of the PF regime’s reign.

Arrested 15 times over a 10-year-period!

Any other person without the tough-tested spirit of a herdsman could have chosen the comfort zone and given up on politics to avoid the political arrests.

These arrests were capped by the infamous trumped-up charge of treason which saw Hichilema being confined to prison for 127 days from April 11, 2017 until he was released on a nolle proseqeui on August 16, 2017.

The brutal arrest on the night of April 11, 2017 and the events that followed could have easily broken Hichilema’s spirit and marked the end of his political career.

But did it?

The Zambia Police, under the command of Inspector-General of Police Kakoma Kanganja, forcibly gained entry to Hichilema’s New Kasama residence, damaging property in the process and teargasing his family before the UPND leader emerged from a bunker the following morning.

About the bunker, it was as if he had known that a brutal regime would one day seek to eliminate him.

After his formal arrest at Woodlands Police Station in Lusaka, Hichilema was thrown into solitary confinement for eight days in a filthy cell littered with faecal matter.

During those eight days, he was denied visitation, physically tortured and kept without food.

Little did the torturers realise that Hichilema had, in his days of herding cattle, learnt to go for long hours without food.

Hamasaka recalls a time when he, Hichilema, and his other aides, spent nearly the whole day walking round one of his farms carrying only a bottle of water.

“That man is strong. I know him very well. One day we were going round one of his farms. We had left our vehicles very far.

All of us were tired and complaining of hunger but he was still strong, just drinking water,” says Hamasaka.

This was the strength of character that would help Hichilema withstand the ordeal of his politically-motivated incarceration.

The time Hichilema later spent at the Mukobeko Maximum Correctional Facility in Kabwe, together with condemned prisoners who had committed heinous crimes, could have compelled him to reflect and negotiate with his political rival, President Edgar Lungu, for a conditional release from prison.

More so that the charge of treason he was facing carried a maximum sentence of death by hanging.

But, true of a herdsman, Hichilema did not give up.

After being released from prison on August 16, 2017, he was still ready to give the elusive Zambian presidency another try in the 2021 general elections; his sixth attempt.

Previously, five of Zambia’s presidents- Kaunda, Frederick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa, Rupiah Banda and Lungu- had won elections at the first attempt.

Zambia’s fifth president Michael Sata finally made it in 2011 after three defeats- in 2001, 2006 and 2008.

But, after five previous defeats, Hichilema was not about to throw in the towel.

It was not like Hichilema’s life began and ended with politics.

Holder of a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Zambia and an MBA in Finance and Business Strategy from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Hichilema had risen to the pinnacle of business and emerged as one of Zambia’s richest people.

He was comfortable enough to pursue life away from politics.

But Hichilema’s undying passion to serve the Zambian people kept burning.

At long last, on the fourth anniversary of his release from prison, on August 16, 2021, Hichilema would emerge victorious in the August 12 presidential election, defeating his two-time conqueror Lungu.

That was a culmination of Hichilema’s never-say-die spirit that he learnt as a herder of cattle.

What about the accountability side?

Hamasaka again recalls another experience at one of Hichilema’s farms:

“We went to one of the paddocks at the farm. The paddock had more than one hundred young bulls. Just by instinct, he said, ‘two or three of my animals are not here’. But the workers responded that the bulls were all there. When we counted, for real, five were missing.”

The keen eye of accountability Hichilema had learnt in childhood would still be with him even in his adult life.

Herding cattle for long days and, sometimes, months, requires discipline, patience and a deep understanding of animal behaviour.

That was the discipline and patience that would prove critical in Hichilema’s political life as he waited for 15 years in his quest to lead the UPND to victory.

In the process, as the August 12 election neared, he endured some humiliating experiences such as the revocation of his flying permits at the last minute and being blocked by the Zambia police from entering some districts for campaigning.

More than any other event before, what gave the Zambian people and the rest of the world a real-time test of Hichilema’s leadership skills, endurance, discipline and patience was the day the Zambia Police blocked him from entering Chipata after arriving at Chipata Airport from Mfuwe on July 29, 2021.

For close to two hours, Hichilema and his entourage patiently waited by a loosely-locked gate that led to the airport exit.

They could have easily removed the lock and gone past the gate.

But Hichilema waited until the arrival of Eastern Province Commissioner of Police Geza Lungu with whom he authoritatively but patiently negotiated for a passage into Chipata.

If he could successfully communicate with animals, what more with fellow human beings?

This is the man the Zambian people now have as their seventh president.

Toughened by life as a herder of cattle.

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