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Zambia President-elect Faces Massive Economic Hurdles

Zambian President elect Hakainde Hichilema addresses a press conference at his residence in Lusaka, Aug. 16, 2021.
Zambian President elect Hakainde Hichilema addresses a press conference at his residence in Lusaka, Aug. 16, 2021.

Zambia's newly elected President Hakainde Hichilema says he plans to unveil a set of economic policies aimed at solving the mineral-rich country's deep economic problems after he takes office next week.

Hichilema, one of Zambia's most successful businessmen and the leader of the opposition United Party for National Development, made the announcement in a news briefing Tuesday at his home in the Kanyama district in the capital, Lusaka.

The six-time presidential candidate on Monday was declared the winner of the presidential poll, ending incumbent President Edgar Lungu's six-year rule.

Hichilema won in a landslide, garnering 2.8 million votes — past the threshold of the more than 50% needed to win the poll. Lungu, who came in second, garnered 1.8 million votes.

Lungu conceded the election on Monday, saying he would work toward a peaceful transition of power. Days earlier, he had said the election was not free and fair, citing irregularities and violence targeting his representatives at some polling stations.

Hichilema says that after he is sworn in, he wants to focus on jump-starting the economy, tackling external debt, taming inflation, creating jobs for young people and inspiring the confidence of international investors.

"Once we restore the rule of law and order, it's an ingredient to economic development,” he said. “Once we restore the rule of law, you will see more investments. You will see more economic activity. We will start from there."

As one of the world's most indebted countries, Zambia faces massive economic challenges after it defaulted on its sovereign debt late last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the impact.

An African Development Bank report shows the economy fell into a deep recession because of the global coronavirus pandemic, contracting nearly 5%. It also warned the government to stop accumulating external debt and curb sharply rising public spending to attain debt sustainability.

Chibamba Kanyama, a prominent Zambian economist, said the president-elect will have to contend with a myriad of challenges, including "crushing debt,” as he tries to jump-start the slumping economy.

"We call both the domestic debt and external debt the elephant in the room,” he said. “At the moment, this is a big problem because our debt-to-GDP ratio is in fact now over 100%.”

High levels of unemployment in the southern Africa country also pose a significant problem. Zambia's unemployment rate is expected to top 15% this year, according to a Trading Economics database.

Zambia is Africa's second-largest producer of copper. But the mineral-rich country has struggled as the price of copper, the country's main export, fell amid the crippling impact of its debts.

Neighboring African nations are closely watching the transition and hope for better diplomatic and economic relations, analysts said.

African affairs analyst Nicole Beardsworth, who monitored the polls in Lusaka for South Africa's Wits University, said South Africa has taken a special interest in the Zambian election.

“My understanding is that the previous president was quite difficult to work with." Beardsworth said. "The incoming president is said to be a very personable man, a businessman, an economist.

"He's going to have his own set of economic interests, and I think for South Africa, it may be a real opportunity to reengage in the (Zambian) economy, to increase South African business interests, to increase South African trade," she said.