BSR: Opportunities and Risks of the HH/Zambia Moment


This BSR is based on a lecture I delivered this week entitled “Seven Opportunities and Risks of the HH/Zambia Moment”. Although this is not the first time that Zambia has had a peaceful transfer of power, there are several reasons why it has generated interest and to some extent, excitement in the region and beyond. In this paper, I outline the 7 great opportunities that the Hakainde Hichilema Moment represents. For balance, because it is never one-way traffic, I also highlight the risks that might prevent the realization of those opportunities.

Democratic opportunity

The first is the democratic opportunity. The Zambian election and the success of the opposition party come at a moment in history when democracy has been facing significant threats. Democracy has faced threats before from forces like Nazism and Stalinism. During the Cold War, the idea of liberal democracy competed with the communist perspective represented by the Soviet Union. The last decade of the 20th century following the fall of the Soviet Union and the first decade of the 21st century saw a rise in liberal democracy across the world.

However, in recent years, political scientists have talked about democratic backsliding, a phenomenon that encapsulates a severe pushback against liberal democracy especially from populist forces. Populist demagogues have taken centre stage in countries ranging from Venezuela to Hungary and there have been increasing attacks on the idea of liberal democracy. In many African countries, where the roots of liberal democracy are still thin, citizens have become frustrated with elections. Although many states hold regular elections, most of the time they are neither free nor fair. The playing field is almost always tilted in favour of the ruling party, which makes it nearly futile for opposition parties.

The pattern is familiar: the period before an election is characterized by opposition’s calls for electoral reforms and the ruling party’s resistance to such calls; the election is held with the opposition having serious reservations; when the outcome favoring the ruling party is announced, the opposition cries foul, arguing that the election was not free and fair. The resulting government’s legitimacy is thrown in doubt. The cycle is repeated at the next election. This vicious cycle has led many to question the relevance of democracy and whether elections are worth the costs that society incurs when holding them. This has caused despondency among citizens leading to low rates of voter registration.

The HH Moment has given a significant boost to the idea of democracy and the process of elections. It says that despite the odds, it is still possible for the opposition to succeed. In this regard, the Zambian election is a reminder of the election 4 years ago of the Gambian opposition which defeated long-serving dictator Yahya Jammeh when it was least expected to happen. The HH Moment has restored some faith where many people were doubting the efficacy of elections. If the people are determined and they exercise their political rights to vote and choose their leaders, they can achieve their goals. It is easy to look at what President Hichilema achieved and think it was a simple affair. It was not. Several obstacles were placed in his way by his rival President Edgar Lungu, but he managed to overcome them.  

Naturally, other opposition parties struggling for democracy across the region will look to Zambia and hope to emulate it. For such organizations, the issue is not simply that President Hichilema and the UPND succeeded but how they did it given that there were significant barriers against them. It was a combination of both positive and negative factors. The positive will be what Hichilema and the UPND did to win the hearts and minds of Zambians. The negative is what Lungu and his PF government failed to do in power causing a huge reservoir of disgruntlement. As Zambian experts have pointed out, the vote was as much for Hichilema and the UPND for their promises as it was against Lungu and the PF government for their failures

Also, deserving mention is the role of institutions in Zambia. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in How Democracies Die, every democratic system has institutions that act as political referees. To be effective, they must be fair and impartial in the execution of their duty. This means they must be independent. There were doubts over the independence of Zambian institutions before the election but in the end, they delivered their mandate. They did not stand in the way of the will of the people. Rather, they facilitated it even as the incumbent was trying to resist the outcome. A court decision outlawing a government ban on social media was a significant signal.

But what appears to have swayed institutions was the high voter turnout and the margin of victory for Hichilema. With over a million votes ahead of the incumbent, it would have been utterly preposterous for any institution to stand in the way of the will of the people. This again underscores the need for citizens to register to vote and to participate in the election process in large numbers.

Another key factor is the precedent of peaceful transfer of power. With two previous peaceful transfers of power, it can be said that Zambia now has a norm of peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. In this regard, the precedent set by the founding leader, Kenneth Kaunda is significant. He set the tone when he graciously handed over power to his opposition rival in 1991 after losing the historic election. President Rupiah Banda followed suit in 2011 when he lost to Michael Sata. One might say Zambian politicians have habituated to the idea of a change of government through the electoral process, something that other countries are still struggling to achieve.

Finally, the democratic opportunity is significant because Zambia was going down a path of authoritarianism before this election. There were concerns that Lungu and PF were restricting political space and democratic rights and freedoms. The election, therefore, presents an opportunity to put a halt to authoritarian regression and to promote democratic consolidation.

Human Rights Opportunity

A second opportunity that is closely connected to the first is the opportunity to promote and consolidate human rights and the rule of law. This is because as already mentioned, there were serious concerns that under Lungu’s government, human rights and the rule of law were under threat. Furthermore, just like liberal democracy, the liberal notions of human rights have come under attack in various parts of the world. This backlash against human rights has threatened to derail the advancement of fundamental rights and freedoms which had gathered pace in the last few decades. President Hichilema has an important opportunity to fulfill the promise to promote and defend human rights. The challenge is not merely to correct the failings of his predecessor, but also to expand the scope of human rights and freedoms for all citizens.

Economic Opportunity

The third is the economic opportunity presented by the election. It is not a secret that the Zambian economy is in the dire straits. Just 15 years ago, it got debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries scheme. However, it is now in arrears and has already defaulted on its loan obligations The lack of jobs has throttled young people’s ambitions and dreams. These economic failings created a significant reservoir of unhappiness which translated into votes against the Lungu administration. This means there is a huge number of expectations among Zambians, especially the young people.

The economy is at the centre of everything. The government might succeed in other areas but if it does not address the economy, then trouble will not be far away from it. The new leader will have to draw from his significant experience in business to take a robust approach to the challenges that his country’s economy is facing. If he can set Zambia on the path to economic reform and revival, he will win the hearts of more Zambians and boost trust in opposition parties across the continent that is also promising better economic performance. As with the democratic and human rights opportunities, success with the economic opportunity will have an important effect on the region. Likewise, failure will dampen spirits. 

Generational Opportunity

The HH Moment is also a great opportunity for a new generation of young leaders. In the nearly 50 years since independence, Zambia has had three crucial turning points by generation. The first generation was that of the founding fathers – the leaders who led the charge against colonialism and won. Their big task was nation-building after independence which Kaunda led well and avoided ethnic divisions that have plagued other countries. Like his peer, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, they built nations that avoided ethnic schisms. However, this generation also consolidated power and shut down political plurality for decades, believing in the notion of the one-party state. 

The second generation is the one that challenged the first, and the idea of the one-party state overcoming it in 1991 when multi=party democracy was introduced in the aftermath of the Cold War. This generation was supposed to build on the success of democracy and consolidate a more democratic culture. It failed to live up to expectations. However, a culture of multi-party-political contestation and peaceful transfer of power was built during the period, drawing on the Kaunda precedent. The HH Moment represents an opportunity for the third generation of leadership in the democratic moment. It has an important duty to correct what the second generation failed to do. Many others in different countries are looking at how they will perform. A great performance will be a powerful inspiration to young people in other countries.

Solidarity Opportunity

The sixth opportunity is on the solidarity front among democrats in the region. Hichilema has been an opposition leader for a long time. He understands the perils of being in opposition in an African setting. He faced the brutality of despotic politics. He developed bonds of cordiality with other opposition leaders in the region and he understands their struggles more than other leaders in the region. His gesture to invite opposition leaders to his inauguration is a nod to his old comrades in opposition that he recognizes them; that although he has crossed the river, he has not left them behind. This is a critical gesture of solidarity.

It is also his way of promoting a new kind of politics in the region where ruling parties and opposition parties should not regard each other as enemies but that there should be mutual respect and toleration. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that liberal democracy requires “soft guardrails” to help it along. These “soft guardrails of democracy” are the norms or unwritten rules of political life which include the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. Hichilema chose his inauguration to provide leadership in this area of developing the soft guardrails of democracy. Without saying a direct word, by inviting opposition leaders he communicated a simple message that opposition leaders are to be tolerated; they are not enemies, and they must be treated with respect.

On the domestic front, he has done well so far to treat his immediate predecessor with respect despite the trouble that he faced when he was in opposition. He will do well to avoid any appearance of vindictiveness. One of the barriers to a peaceful transfer of power is incumbents thinking that they will be punished after they lose power. If he can show leadership at home, he will have the greater moral authority to export his ideas and values to struggling democracies around him. The inclusive way he handled his inauguration shows that he is prepared to break with tradition. It is refreshing to see a leader who does not resort to the business-as-usual mode as justification for continuing with old and exclusionary practices.   

On the regional bloc, HH and Chakwera have a great opportunity to develop a new and robust narrative of SADC which is becoming moribund because it remains stuck in old politics. This regional front is a great opportunity for reform beyond Zambia. They can make a mark just like the Frontline States leadership left an indelible mark in the fight against colonialism. The liberation struggles against colonialism were anchored in solidarity among like-minded leaders and people who recognized that a shift in one country was not enough (Nkrumah rhetoric on the importance of independence for Africa as a whole).

Governance Opportunity

Hichilema has an opportunity to press the reset button on how nations are governed. Zambia is his platform to demonstrate this important mission. This requires strengthening institutions to promote efficiency and equity. Authoritarian rulers like to personalize institutions; to build them in their image so that they serve them as opposed to serving the citizens. As a democrat, Hichilema has an opportunity to demonstrate that institutions can be independent and still deliver their agenda. Professionalism is key. State institutions must be allowed to be professional; to transform a governance culture that is independent of corruption, nepotism, and ineptitude. It must be a governance culture that promotes values of tolerance and respect; that politics is not war but a means to effectively govern a state.


Habituation – Internal

The major risk is the new government will fail to seize the moment to consolidate democracy and will instead continue with the consolidation of authoritarianism that was already underway from the previous administration. This happens because of a phenomenon that psychologists call habituation. Habituation occurs when a person gets accustomed to things that they might have found unacceptable in initial experiences. The new leadership which steps into old structures of power and its repressive machinery might become accustomed to those ways. Abnormal things gradually became normal.

Habituation is a real risk because it has happened before in Zambia and other countries. When President Chiluba took over from President Kaunda, there was great hope and promise but the MMD administration soon habituated to the old structures of power and became repressive, corrupt, and intolerant. The PF government that has just been voted out also arrived with lots of promise and hope, but it also eventually habituated to the old ways and became corrupt, inefficient, and repressive. Hichilema has the challenge of breaking with the past and doing things differently. The main test will come when a political party in power begins to feel and see threats that were not apparent when they were in opposition. The risk is that at that point they might discover that what they despised becomes handy. This is when continuity trumps change.

Habituation – External

While the first risk is habituation to internal power structures, there is also a similar risk at the regional level. The risk that the new government might end up habituating to the regional political dynamics of the SADC and AU, two institutions that need reform in how they handle democratic challenges. The biggest impediments are the entrenched protocols, traditions, and values in those institutions which bind and frustrate any attempts at reform. The new leaders are expected to conform to them and sooner or later they might find themselves imprisoned by them. They might even become convenient. This habituation might impede the realization of opportunities for solidarity.

In addition, while it was easy to grow bonds of solidarity with opposition parties when they were in opposition trenches, Hichilema has crossed the river and will now be operating at the level of head of state with his duty to the Zambian state not just his political party. They will adopt the mentality and approach of a ruling party, and this might create a distance from old comrades that are still in opposition. These changes might affect the old bonds of solidarity in opposition which might not hold. The major test in this regard is how the Hichilema administration will respond to and engage its opposition. The way it handled the invitations to his inauguration showed a refreshing level of maturity which, if implemented on the domestic scene could help to build a new kind of politics that is based on mutual respect and toleration.

Economic Risk

As already noted, the greatest test is how the new government handles the economy. Its success or failure will have a significant impact on the realization of the opportunities that have been discussed. The government might fail due to incompetence. It might just fail to turn around the economy. But the cause might be beyond them. It could be because of a natural disaster (an Act of God/Vis Major as it is known in legal parlance). Lady Fortuna might just not smile upon the new government.

They might find that for all their will and desire to change things, there are huge contractual relationships that the state cannot wriggle out of easily leaving them with no option but to compromise. These barriers might slow down and delay the process. Compromises might cause frustration and disgruntlement among the population. This usually leads to protests and the government might have to resort to coercive machinery of the state. This will be seen as suppression of freedoms and the re-emergence of repression. This will have a domino effect on the small democratic gains and human rights achievements that might have been achieved. Ultimately, much of the progress will depend on the economy.

Global Geopolitical Dynamics

No nation is an island in the field of global governance. There is no way of knowing how the world will turn out in the post-pandemic age. The best-laid intentions and plans might be upset by events that are beyond HH and Zambia’s control. The tussle between the West and the East (add to that the Middle East) is something that Hichilema and Zambia will have to contend with. The role of foreign interests might lead to changes in direction that might not have been anticipated during life in opposition. 


Many people in countries that are fighting for democracy look to Zambia under Hichilema for inspiration. Here is a former opposition leader who experienced some of the worst treatment while fighting for power. Now he is in power. He has got there through a democratic process. It is a huge credit to the idea of multi-party democracy at a time when the idea has suffered serious challenges. Hichilema’s success is a boon for electoral democracy. He won against the odds. He is receiving praise from some unlikely sources. Had he lost, they would have been majoring on his alleged weaknesses. Some are using his success to disparage opposition leaders in other countries like Zimbabwe even as they doubted him when he was vying for power. 

But this adulation is not surprising: as the adage goes, success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. There is no gainsaying that Zambia is a different country, with a different history and circumstances. But the fact that democrats in Africa are looking to it for inspiration is because democrats elsewhere know that it was not easy for Hichilema. It’s natural for them to be inspired. Hichilema has great opportunities which if he grabs them could inspire even more.

Yet, indeed, there are also risks, which have been highlighted in this article. This cautionary tale is because this is not the first time that we have been here. The hope, and it’s a hope, is that the Hichilema administration has learned from predecessors and recognizes the burden that it carries which goes beyond Zambian borders. It’s a heavy load, but one that can be carried successfully.