Nelson Chamisa

Chamisa lacks connection with the youth, says Chan . . . no parallels can be drawn between Zambian experience and Zim

ZAMBIA’S United Party of National Development led by business magnate Hakainde Hichilema cruised to a landslide victory in the country’s harmonised elections held on August 12. 

Hichilema trounced outgoing president Edgar Lungu after polling over 2,8 million votes against 1,8 million of the incumbent.

Hichelema will be sworn in as Zambia’s seventh president on Tuesday.

His victory saw Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa claiming that the winds of change were blowing across southern Africa and they would win the fast-approaching  2023 harmonised elections.

Besides the change of guard in Zambia, Malawi held elections last year where then president Peter Mutharika was defeated by Lazarus Chakwera.

The Daily News on Sunday Chief Writer Mugove Tafirenyika last week had a chat with professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Stephen Chan, on the implications of the Zambia elections outcome on Zimbabwe and the opposition ahead of the 2023 polls.

Below are excerpts of the interview.

Q: Do you think Zimbabwe youth will play any role in deciding the 2023 elections as was the case in Zambia?

A: Young Zimbabweans will only be attracted to someone who both speaks their language and understands their concerns — to the extent of enunciating policies that, above all, will bring them employment.

This would desirably be in the creation of start-up incentives, particularly in the electronic and online sectors — which no one in Zanu PF seems at all to understand.

The youth vote was critical in Zambia, especially in the cities. Increasingly highly educated, but also increasingly without employment prospects, they looked to someone with a plan, but who could also speak their language.

Hichilema’s use of slang and casual language was a master stroke. 

His nickname, which he himself propagated, ‘Bally’, means ‘Daddy’. Basically, his message was ‘Dad’s got your back’.

Q: In your view, can Chamisa capitalise on his youthful age to pull a Hichilema in Zimbabwe come 2023?

A: Chamisa doesn’t have that casual connection with the young and, as I have said time after time, he has big generalised visions, but has yet to advance what is recognisable as a series of detailed plans.

He has never, as far as I know, flown to Washington to be seen in discussions with International Monetary Fund officials.

In the last Zimbabwean election, he literally borrowed much of Hichilema’s policies — one or two almost word for word — whether or not they applied directly to Zimbabwe.

Q: What other factors contributed to the victory of the opposition in Zambia?

A: Hichilema was able to present himself as someone who was born a peasant, but who rose to become a highly educated, technocratic and successful businessman. 

That rags to riches narrative meant he was never able to be depicted only as a rich oligarchic personality.

He also learned to speak the language of the youth, with a discernibly improving capacity in social media — which is precisely why the Zambian government shut down Facebook in the build up to polling day.

Q: In terms of policy strategy, what was it that made Hichilema popular with the electorate?

A: Above all, Hichilema outlined detailed and technocratic plans as to how to lead Zambia along the path of recovery, economically. 

Here, all of Lungu’s expensive infrastructure projects backfired on him as everyone knew they were built on loans, and everyone asked what good new clinics were without doctors and medicines, and why a new airport was needed when there was negligible international air traffic.

Hichilema appeared to suggest he could negotiate with the IMF, whereas Lungu appeared simply to be brushing off the imminent hard negotiations with the IMF.

Basically, Hichilema capitalised on national discontent — everyone felt in the same leaking boat — and transcended ethnic divisions and former party loyalties in a masterly campaign in which he was also restrained in trading abuse with Lungu.

He portrayed himself as the nation’s technocratic statesman, and as the person who could bridge both tribal and age divisions.

Q: Can parallels be drawn between Chamisa and Hichilema?

A: I do not think there are any parallels that can be drawn between the recent Zambian experience and any future Zimbabwean experience. 

There was certainly the normal solidarity between leaders of opposition parties, between Hichilema and Chamisa, but the two are very different people operating under different conditions.

So, if Chamisa wants to emulate Hichilema, he can borrow Hichilema’s strategists.

Q: Do you envisage a situation where if President Emmerson Mnangagwa loses to the opposition, he graciously concedes defeat and allows for a peaceful transition?

A: Zambia had the example of Kenneth Kaunda in 1991, graciously and with utmost dignity conceding electoral defeat. No one wants to be seen as less than that, to be the president who couldn’t do that. Such an example does not exist in Zimbabwean modern history.

Q: Do you think that Hichilema and Chamisa’s friendship will impact on relations with his counterpart Mnangagwa?

A: Hichilema’s friendship with Chamisa will not at all get in the way of relations between Hichilema and Mnangagwa.

A head of State must talk to a head of State in a certain way, and the two countries depend on each other in a huge raft of sectors. Friendships will not get in the way of state business.

Q: Will this friendship help the MDC Alliance in its diplomatic manoeuvres, particularly in the West and Sadc region?

A: We do not yet know whom Hichilema will appoint as Foreign minister. Zimbabwe’s recently appointed Foreign minister (Frederick Shava) had Chinese experience.

If Hichilema’s is someone versed in the politics and diplomacy of Western capitals, there will be a marked contrast there.

In regional terms, Hichilema is well regarded in Pretoria, Chamisa far less so. 

Being a successful businessman will also give him a point of commonality with South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Q: What sets Hichilema’s party apart from the MDC that has seen the former succeed while the latter has been struggling to dislodge the ruling party from power for over two decades now? Is it about the personal egos in the local opposition politics or there is more to that?

A: In terms of nature and structure of opposition parties, Hichilema has always had loyalty. The UPND has not suffered from splits like the MDC. And Hichilema has always put forward a technocratic vision. It’s a future vision, not one fighting past battles — no matter how hard Lungu has been on him in the past. 

Even people who disagree with him, and who in fact regard themselves as his political enemies, agree he has character.