In the past few days, Zambia’s president Hakainde Hichilema was in Europe as part of his “re-engagement” agenda where he had the opportunity to address the European Union’s (EU) Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Hichilema addressed the EU Parliament on 23 June 2022 after he accepted a "rare invitation" from the EU's Ursula von der Leyen, who is the President of the EU Commission, and Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament.
His was a spirited and well-executed excursion into the enviable den of the global north’s elite arbiters of the world's capitalist order to find solutions for Zambia’s entrenched economic troubles and inequities.
But as he continues to woo the West (and China too) by seeking favourable terms of financial assistance in the context of loans/credit facilities, it is now apparent that Zambia risks fully capitulating to the neocolonial whims of global superpowers, much to the detriment of Zambia's disempowered urban working class, unemployed, and peasantry.
This is compounded by the public opinion consensus that Hichilema reportedly assented to the establishment of an AFRICOM military base in Zambia, even though he expressly told the media that this was untrue.
AFRICOM – United States Africa Command – is an imperial, nefarious military program by the United States to maintain the superpower’s hegemonic influence in Africa under the pretext of “countering terrorism”. The unconfirmed reports about the stationing of such a base in Africa elicited a poignant conflation of populism, alarm, and despondency.
While in Brussels, Hichilema earnestly addressed the EU's Parliament about Zambia's "mature democracy", doing so with the usual erudition of "democratic" African leaders who worship neoliberalism.
What Did Hichilema Talk About In The European Union's Parliament?
His address was premised on Western liberal dictates of "the rule of law", "human rights", "development", "governance", and "freedom" - as he thanked the EU for standing with Zambia in "promoting human rights" during the country's electoral season and "smooth democratic transition to power" that brought him to Zambia's presidency.
He emphasized the [tired] tropes that dominate Africa's failure to achieve "good governance" and "democracy" during elections, highlighting Zambia's much-vaunted status as one of the beacons of democracy and stability in Africa.
Hichilema heaped praises on the EU's observer teams that were present in Zambia during the 2021 elections. Lamenting the woeful economic situation that prevailed (and continues to) in Zambia's political economy when he ascended to power, he stressed the indispensable salience of the "restoration of the rule of law".
He denounced Edgar Lungu's incorrigible corruption, state-sponsored community violence, abysmal governance, overall ineptitude, and lack of press freedom; reiterating that he is committed to upholding stability in the strongest terms possible. To him, he needs "partners" to achieve this - and, in his own words, the EU is Zambia's partner.
"Legislative reform" and "strengthening institutions" were subjects he also touched on, flowing from the celebrated success of Zambia's 2021 elections. Succinctly, he assured European lawmakers that Zambia is now a safe, stable, democratic, and investment-friendly economy.
Here is an economy ready to surge forward in the globalized discourse of "development" without neglecting its people - children and the youth, the public service, small business owners, farmers, and all and sundry. But it cannot do this without Europe's "joint investment".
He also mentioned "free education for children [coming] from disadvantaged families", emphasizing the importance of the youth's development.
Zambia's Neoliberal Trajectory of "Economic Transformation" Under Hichilema
As his address continued, it assumed a pronounced free-market diction, bringing to the fore his neoliberal belief that the ideology of free enterprise trickle-down economics is the foundation for Zambia's projected success he earlier mentioned.
"Reviving our economy will be the main marker of our government's performance...Our people come first. We are committed to becoming a more productive and industrious country...Zambia has the capacity to produce quality goods and services for the EU and other regional and global markets. We therefore seek favourable trade and investment with yourselves in Europe for mutual benefit...We look to you our partners to establish financial assistance packages."
"We are encouraged by the first-ever Zambia-EU Economic Forum, which we recently held in Lusaka...We as a country are open for business; Zambia is ready to transact with yourselves."
"We strive to deal with one of our challenges which is the issue of debt, which we inherited [from Lungu]. We are very grateful for the support that the EU has rendered to Zambia in unlocking our debt situation; and to that call, we are very pleased that on the 16th of June the first creditors meeting under the common framework took place and we want to congratulate France, a member of the EU, and the Republic of China that co-chaired the creditors meeting. We need the [EU] to continue supporting us on our debt crisis."
In Brussels, Hakainde Hichilema fully advocated for closer relations between Zambia and the EU - its "partner" - in order to achieve economic prosperity through industrialization, trade, agriculture, education, and the funding of Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs).
But as he flaunted his success, it is clear that Hichilema does not genuinely believe in the agency of Africa to establish organic foundations for self-sufficiency. He still advocates for African dependence on Europe, perpetuating the systemic and structural inequalities in global trade that were fuelled by colonial domination and maintained by neocolonial domination.
While his overall conception of creating a progressive break from Lungu's calamitous reign is a tad plausible on the surface, a deeper look reveals that he is not different from the previous bourgeois establishment.
His emphasis on "sustainable energy" and "sustainable agriculture" cannot go unnoticed, if sincere, genuine, and holistic. His condemnation of the conflicts in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado and Ukraine are indisputably commendable.
Nonetheless, insisting on foreign capital as the sole and ultimate solution for Zambia's (and Africa's) problems is a genuine ground for neocolonial concerns among Africans to flare up. His re-engagement agenda through diplomatic and state visits is designed for populist optics.
Assessing Hichilema's Presidency So Far
The tenure of Zambia’s president Hichilema has so far inspired mixed reactions not only in Zambia but throughout the rest of the continent.
On a global scale, what he desires is validation by the West that he is doing a good job; and the absence of such Western validation - deemed the legitimate 'international community' - means that certain investors/financiers/partners are not happy.
And he definitely resents such insecurity, where the West condemns his president, a situation wholly arising from deep-seated and ubiquitous inferiority complexes. He frenetically attempts to give his establishment a fashionable global placement by placating the interests of foreign powers.
In all honesty, Hakainde Hichilema strikes a seemingly appealing internationalist diplomatic aura (attested by his increased state visits to other African countries as well). This aura has transfigured him into an embodiment of a smooth democratic transition of power.
He presents himself as Africa's sole harbinger and personification of perfect democracy [in Western bourgeois liberal terms], on the assumption that democracy is a feat too cumbersome to achieve - and he conveniently
And when Hichilema posts perfectly curated images of his meetings and discussions with the elites of private foreign capital on Twitter, there is an attendant flurry of adoration. This is [expectedly] dashed with opposing comments that are premised on leftist and anti-capitalist grounds.
Africa Must Be Economically Independent and Self-Sustaining
The Zambian president's relentless mantra of “re-engagement” with the so-called “international community”, or, in his words, “the League of Nations” – both the West and the East – is portrayed as the panacea to Zambia’s ills. Yet it fortifies dependence to external neocolonial powers and financialized interests.
But beneath this faux-democratic veil lies a leader thoroughly ensconced in neoliberal ideologies which run counter to the total economic liberation of Zambia’s masses. What he and many other Africans believe in effectively impedes the continent's attainment of economic independence/self-sustenance.
Hichilema's European foray this past week lays this reality bare. His desperate push to be included in an exclusionary and extractive "international community" where free trade reigns supreme on unequal terms proves that his claims to democratic tenets are predicated on sheer populism, [individualistic] messianic tendencies, and neoliberal bourgeois capitalism.
And the reports about AFRICOM creating a base in Zambia do not bode well for Hichilema's moral standing in the long run.