Zambian incumbent President Hakainde Hichilema on Monday cracked down on the South African country’s outgoing “brutal regime” while promising “better democracy” in his debut speech to the nation, hours after winning the top job in a landslide.
Speaking shortly after his predecessor Edgar Lungu admitted defeat, the business magnate and veteran opposition leader said his camp had been subjected to a “brutal regime that is going out”.
“I will be president of all Zambians, of those who voted for me and of those who did not,” he promised.
After a campaign dominated by the country’s economic misery and damaged by sporadic violence, Hichilema received 2,810,757 votes against 1,814,201 for the incumbent Lungu in Thursday’s election, according to almost final results.
Lungu acknowledged defeat and said he congratulated “my brother … Hichilema on becoming the seventh Republican president.”
In a national television address, Lungu thanked the Zambians for “a great opportunity to be your president. I will forever cherish and appreciate the authority you invested in me.”
The Electoral Commission declared Hichilema president-elect in the early hours of Monday, drawing the curtain on Lungu’s nearly six-year rule.
Hichilema, 59, promised: “We will promote a better democracy … the rule of law, restore order, respect human rights, freedoms and freedoms.”
Hichilema wiped away the tears, saying that his victory was the “historic moment that millions of Zambians have been waiting for”.
Hundreds of followers had gathered on the gravel road leading up to Hichilema’s lavish residence in a leafy suburb of Lusaka, and they shouted “Bally, Bally” (slang for “father”) as he began to speak.
“It is with great honor, humility and gratitude that I stand before you today to say that change is here,” said Hichilema.
Recalling that he had been arrested 15 times, Hichilema said: “We are not going into the office to arrest those who arrested us.”
He added: “When we restore the rule of law, we will see more financial investment.”
It was Hichilema’s sixth bid for the top job and his third challenge to his bitter rival Lungu, 64, after losing to Lungu by a thin 100,000 voting margins in 2016.
‘My voice helped to swing’
Thousands of followers flocked to the streets of Lusaka, shouting and dancing, cheering and waving party flags.
The celebration continued into the morning.
In a hotel breakfast room early Monday, a waiter had changed his usual dark tie to a light red one.
“My voice helped to swing it,” he told AFP with a big smile and blinking eyes.
On Saturday, when the votes were counted, Lungu cried ugly, but his objections gained some traction.
International election observers have praised the polls’ transparent and peaceful organization, with a turnout of about 70.9 percent – a big jump from the 57.7 percent noted in the 2016 polls.
But they also criticized restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement during campaigns.
Security forces blocked Hichilema from acting in several areas, including the strategic Copperbelt province, citing violations of coronavirus measures and public order.
Lungu deployed the military after clashes before the election and strengthened the army’s presence in three provinces after two deaths were reported on election day.
Access to social media was limited in the capital Lusaka just as Hichilema cast his vote but was restored on Saturday following a court decision.
“Tribute to democratic ideals”
The United States congratulated Hichilema on a statement from the State Department praising the election as “a tribute to the democratic ideals on which the country was founded and an inspiration for the democratic aspirations of people around the world.”
Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi said the vote offered “important lessons for the region and the African continent at large”.
Observers viewed the election as a referendum on Lungu’s rule, in which living standards fell and deeper repression in the country increased by more than 17 million.
Despite occasional episodes of political violence, Zambia has gained a reputation for stability. Every transfer of power has been peaceful since the former British colony adopted its multi-party system in 1990.
“Zambians have lived up to being true democrats. It’s a different African story,” Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told AFP.
Hichilema’s main task to take on will be to tackle an economy struggling with high debt, inflation and unemployment.
Last year, the copper-rich South African nation became the first country on the continent not to pay its debts under the coronavirus.