Ahead of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, President Hichilema discusses Zambia-U.S. relations, security concerns in sub-Saharan Africa, and Zambia’s role in the region.
GAVIN: Thank you. (Inaudible.)
HICHILEMA: Thank you.
GAVIN: We’re so happy to have you
GAVIN: Well, welcome, everyone. So pleased to welcome you all today to the Council on Foreign Relations meeting with President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia. I am Michelle Gavin. I’m the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies here at the Council, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. And we’re joined today by Council members both live here in Washington and virtually, online from various locations.
So, of course, you all have the president’s bio in your materials. I will just very briefly summarize. After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Zambia, he went on to earn an MBA from the University of Birmingham and had a tremendously successful career in the corporate world, as an entrepreneur, an investor, philanthropist.
But for those who aren’t deeply familiar with Zambia, or the president, do not imagine he is some kind of newcomer to politics. He has led the United Party for National Development since 2006, stood numerous times as a candidate for the presidency. In 2017, his predecessor had him arrested, charged with treason and imprisoned—a charge that was dropped after significant domestic and international criticism over its lack of substance and obvious political motivation. So, he has been in the arena for many years, and has assumed real personal risk.
And for those of us worried about rising authoritarianism, and democratic decline, Zambia’s 2021 elections were a rare good-news story, a situation in spite—in which despite the deck being heavily stacked in favor of the incumbent, voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to express their will for a change.
But the challenges for—before any Zambian administration are significant. Zambia’s government must simultaneously try to meet the demands of its citizens hopeful for more opportunity, better service delivery, and the demands of its creditors. The country’s staggering debt burden—nearly $15 billion of external debt—is so great that the country defaulted on its payments in 2020. The negative impact of COVID-19 on the country’s health and economy has now been compounded by the global economic and supply chain consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And as ever, Zambia is in a complicated neighborhood.
So now over a year after assuming office, you’ve been able to make progress on important parts of your agenda. And so perhaps we could just start—pardon me—by talking about what you’ve accomplished thus far in terms of service delivery, economic stabilization, the IMF deal, and what the path forward is with Zambia’s creditors that can get the country on a better footing to provide the government some fiscal space in which to operate, because it’s awfully hard to respond to popular demands in an era of austerity. So please, Mr. President, over to you.
HICHILEMA: Thank you very much, madam. And I’m very delighted to be here among such esteemed members of this august house, extremely, extremely happy that we’re able to make it—or just, we just came in this morning, in fact, a couple of hours. So, thank you very much.
I think your question is extremely important, and I wish to start from the premise of saying that Zambia has eight plus one neighbors, centrally located southern part of Africa. I know I’m in America, so I have to explain some of these things.
But the important thing is that Zambia is part of key regional groups: the Southern African Development Community on our part, southern tip of Africa; COMESA trading bloc, which is very important for our quest to enhance trade and investment in our country, on our continent. And I think it’s also important that from the outset we state that we were elected on a platform of change. Meaning what? To deliver better lives for our people.
How were we to do it? There’s only one way which we know. You may know many other ways, but we know one critical way. That is to get an economy going, economy which is functioning, an economy which is expanding, an economy which obviously in the process will be able to offer opportunities for our people—education for the young, jobs for school leavers, business opportunities for others. That’s the path we’ve chosen as a new government.
Was that possible to get straight into that after elections? Mission Impossible—unless we did certain things. The critical things we thought we will do first, first steps, was to stabilize the country in many ways so we could have a chance to have a bite at the cherry. So, our key thrust post-elections, very difficult elections, as you have rightly said, Moderator, to buttress the situation, then it was extremely difficult even to a democratic space to campaign, even though it was a campaign period towards an election. Extremely difficult. Basically, by and large, I could say, I needed a passport to go to one region, or more or so, in my own country, particularly myself. The reason is obvious: because we were the challengers. We were the ones that could basically replace the government that was in place. But with all of that, it meant that the country was going through extremely difficult lack of democratic space situation. It was going through very, very difficult macro environment.
So, our first step, if you like, was to stabilize the country, restore the rule of law, law and order, very important; then, alongside that, tend to what we define as driving the crazy macro situation down. Inflation was running at 24 percent. Exchange rate market was very well volatile. The debt, which you talked about, was unsustainable, leading to the default situation before the elections. So that was our major thrust.
And in one year, first year, we took a decision that the first year will be to just get control of the country. So, we were able to run inflation, pull it down in one year to 9.7 percent from 24 percent. We were able to bring stability in the foreign exchange markets. Our kwacha is reasonably stable now against its competitive currencies. We’re pulling down interest rates from regions of 30 percent-plus, hmm—30 percent plus down. We’re now hovering around 15 (percent), thereabout, in one year.
Then we had to rein in the debt position—first domestic debt, just to clamp down on public expenditure extravagance, which was excessive. And we’re working very hard to bring that under control. Quite popular to colleagues that were doing business, the entrepreneurs. Amongst those entrepreneurs, some were supplying air—meaning suppling nothing—and build huge quantities of money. So we decided to audit suspicious domestic debt and only pay those that we thought were clean straight.
That doesn’t mean we are anti-business. Absolutely not. I come from business myself. But I knew that there was something wrong. We knew there was something wrong. How could we acquire so much debt, especially in the last five years? In the quantums that everybody now knows, most those who care about Africa and Zambia, debt went up. From my basic training, if you require so much liability, there must be a compensating asset somewhere to balance your balance sheet. There was none. The economy went down to minus 2.8 percent as we were coming into office, but the debt was going up. Certainly, you don’t have to be trained in that area to tell you that there’s something wrong here. So we knew there was something wrong here. So, reining on domestic debt creditors, isolate those that basically didn’t supply anything, but got to build the government, largely because of corruption, collusion in the process, very, very difficult situation.
Corruption in the absence of collusion from government—Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice—to basically illegalize transactions that didn’t deliver goods and services can be difficult. So, we had to rein in there. So the anti-corruption crusade for us is very important, a key component of reining in our domestic debt. So, we are moving on there.
And then ensuring that going forward, we do not acquire new domestic debt, we do not continue with extravagance, as it were, depleting, bleeding the treasury. Envelope was very small, completely shut when we took office. Then the external debt, which you talked about, reining in on that, and quickly when we came in, to bring back credibility, we had to enter into what we called debt sustainability initiatives with our partners. And we managed to do that within a few months in office. Of course, we knew these are the steps we had planned long ahead. And I wish to share that it’s very important for those seeking public office that when you are in opposition, you must know exactly what you do when you get into office and get on with the job immediately you’re elected into office. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult. So, we achieved that stabilize that situation, at least, and then moved on to negotiate with the IMF. And in six, seven months, we manage to conclude the transaction ideal, which our predecessors couldn’t do for ten years. I think that’s important for us.
Now, we have moved on to having agreed the principle on the debt restructuring. Very embarrassing situation. We’re not pleased about that. We’re now moving to the content stage of restructuring the debt. Very, very important. And I won’t go into details what that means, but really to make it manageable, affordable, and to raise revenues. That, as you may know, most of that borrowing went for consumption expenditure, not revenue generation, not growth, not job creating.
So basically, your question is a bit loaded. That’s what we have to do. Now, with a macro stability, which I’ve explained, our duty now—we’ve been in office fifteen months—our duty now is to turn on the growth side, to focus on what Zambians elected us in office to do: to grow the economy. Investment, huge opportunities, we will always say about Africa, about Zambia.
But our agenda is to realize those opportunities. We’re tired—sick and tired of talking about opportunities. And to that extent, one of our critical areas is to clean up the operating environment, to work on pushing down the cost of doing business. We’ve declared 2023 is the year for us as a government to unlock rigidities in the economy, to work on constants to business growth, to investments, reinvestments, for those that are already invested in the country, and for people seated in this room, and for others who are listening to this conversation.
So critically, this is my rough, if you like, initial answer to your question. And so we believe that lots of opportunities that needs to be exploited, and we believe we’re clear what needs to be done. But we can never be so short and so self-confident. And that’s why we come out to engage with others to share their stories of what Asia did. We all know what Asia was able to do in the last twenty, twenty-five years. We are students of that progress, how our colleagues managed to move rapidly. We’re learning. We’d like to learn more. We’d like to interact with a lot of people.
I have a couple of issues that I want to share with you, if time allows, and if the direction of your question allows us to do that. Thank you,
GAVIN: Of course. Thank you so much, Mr. President. It’s a perfect segue, as you know, you know, learning from the example of Asian economies. Let’s talk a little bit about China. Zambia has had a long and close, sometimes politically complex relationship with China, and China has been a very important trade and investment partner to Zambia.
GAVIN: But there’s also the fact that non-disclosure agreements that often accompany Chinese financing have made transparency difficult sometimes, not just for Zambia to achieve but for other partners. And this fact was underscored by your administration’s admission shortly after assuming office that Zambia’s actual debt to Chinese creditors had been underestimated by about 50 percent. This is an unpleasant surprise, I’m sure, upon assuming office. So, as you seek to establish a more accountable style of government for the Zambian people, how is that affecting your engagement with Beijing?
HICHILEMA: I think first and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that China is the single largest creditor in that category of foreign creditors to Zambia. And with that recognition, it’s important to understand how the debt was acquired. By and large, it was infrastructure development related. Does Zambia need infrastructure development? Yes. Absolutely, yes. I think the issue was maybe not for China, but for us, as borrowers in Zambia, to structure, to mix the debt that we got, yes, with infrastructure. The question is of which infrastructure. That’s not a choice for China. That should have been our choice as Zambia, our priorities. And if we got our priorities right, we would have first struck a balance on how to utilize the full ticket, the term, the cost barrier, whatever you want to call it, and really which infrastructure to go for. So mainly, it went into roads.
For us now, in our quest to develop the infrastructure for the new government, roads are important, but which roads? Which other infrastructure areas? Energy. Energy could have been extremely important. And that will be driving going forward. Largely green energy—Zambia has already supplied, oh, working on 90 percent of our energy, electricity to be to be specific, as green hydro. There are lots of opportunities to increase that given out how hydrological conditions as a country were 30 to 35 percent, some will argue 40 percent of freshwater rivers in SADC are in our country.
Now, honestly, if we put that money, if it was asking government will it put most of that money, a good portion of that in electricity for our domestic needs, growth projection needs, but also to support the deficit to supply the countries next door to us, Southern African region, South Africa, the rest, because we’re already interconnected. Very important. So, it means production, produce hydro, produce solar, which we’re moving to, support our own economic needs and the rest. Ready money. So that’s a more important application of debt than should have gone in this area and would have been supported by revenue streams. That would have not created the debt crisis that we have now.
So what else? Interconnector into Congo, which needs electricity. Electricity, East Africa interconnector, which are our priorities now. It didn’t happen then.
So I’m belaboring the point that we do need as we needed that investment. But where do you apply these investments is important.
So I think the issue now is that does China understand that? We believe they do because we have engaged and we continue to engage. And we’ve now been able to say for roads, because our balance sheet can’t carry debt as it was acquired at the time—the nature, the manner, the application—now we have moved to a combination of what we can support financially—our total balance sheet and otherwise—but also through public-private partnership, which really is off balance sheets, national balance sheets. Very important. So we are very delighted to say that China understands that, certainly from the conversations we have had, and from the decisions that we have made let—(audio break)—one of them is being done by Chinese firm together with Zambian firms in a JV but on a public-private partnership basis.
Another thing recognizes the difficulties that we are in. But it’s also our parties where our government—our (partner in ?) government is a way of doing things to be able to look at the options available. Even if we weren’t in this debt crisis, we would have gone for this model together with others that are less stressful but more focused on the revenue.
So then back to the issue—now we are saying to China, we are saying to the U.S., we are saying to Europe, we’re saying to Japan, we’re saying to anyone else—on our continent, other African countries, we can work together in many, many other areas that will help us achieve our—(audio break)—economic growth more based on investments, private sector participation. We’ll put a platform which we are working on to make sure that the private sector and us in government are working together under the shared understanding, common understanding, by and large, of what we need to do together to this situation.
And you will be pleased to know that, although Africa—although the outlook is that growth will be difficult this year, but we are expecting to grow as a country after first year—one year in office to close to 3 percent GDP growth from -2.8 (percent). Effectively, if you add the numbers, we’ve done more than—would have done more than 3 percent growth in an environment where inflation in other countries is in a runaway position, where basically interests are much, much higher; where public expenditure is a problem. We are dealing with those issues.
And I think China understands—China, also, like any other lender, is also influenced by what the host government, the borrower government wants to do, and makes its case. It’s the same for any other lender.
You—(laughs)—don’t go to the market to say, I want source funding. What is it for? You must be clear what you want funding for. And I think this is the message we are delivering to our own citizens and to the rest of us in Africa, that we need to be clear what we want for our own economies, for our own businesses to grow and sustain those businesses, cleaning up the operating environment, making sure that our markets are reasonably attractive, they are consistent, they are predictable—because this has been a challenge on our continent.
HICHILEMA: Thank you.
GAVIN: Oh, thank you so much.
And so just shifting gears a little bit, you’ve devoted a great deal of attention to trying to get the Zambian economy out of intensive care, right, and on this road to recovery.
HICHILEMA: (Laughs.) Yes.
GAVIN: Maybe speak to us a little bit more about the health of Zambia’s democracy. So I know that you are joining President Biden as one of the five co-hosts of the 2023 Summit on Democracy. Are there structural or legal reforms that you are pursuing to ensure the ability of Zambians to express their views freely, to ensure that that ability I suppose doesn’t depend on the goodwill and moral compass of the leaders of the moment, right, but rather the laws of the land? And you mentioned this insidious effect of corruption.
Will you speak a little bit more about your approach to combating it? What has been working? What’s more challenging—because we all have to learn from each other? And do you think the Zambian people are seeing the kind of accountability in high places that can restore popular trust that the rules apply to everyone?
HICHILEMA: Well, first and foremost, the reforms that we are engaged in, as I said, have to touch on why Zambians elected us into office. I think I did say that at the beginning.
HICHILEMA: And the issues were paid particular attention to to allow us to deliver this. But amongst the issues that we have to deal with is just what you’ve touched on: governance—to make sure that we provide the basic freedoms for our people, and we know—and we believe that economic success we are seeking for is positively related to freedoms, enterprise, private property—respect for private property.
Earlier I talked about rule of law—very important—the fight against corruption. It’s just inevitable to do that; it’s not really a choice for any decent government. It’s inevitable to do that.
But we can’t just talk about it. (Laughs.) We need institutional strengthening. And hence the issues of governance, corruption, institutions of government so that they can outlast us, because in Zambia we have a problem, that—(audio break)—I don’t think they are different, that sometimes you have start-stop processes.
There was a time when the leadership in Zambia were growing at 6 percent GDP then. That leadership went, immediately replaced by another, which sunk us. Now the question for us is that all these efforts we are making, they are not for us; they are for the people, they are for the country.
How do we ensure that the day we are not in office we don’t walk backwards? Institutional strengthening, good governance, democracy—democracy. I am a product of democracy—we’re a product of democracy. There is almost a mission impossible without a democratic—reasonable democratic situation for us to take public office. It was like written on all the walls that we’re not allowed to take office—for whatever reason; that’s not for today’s conversation. That we were able to do that and never got into the temptation of extremism—to apply extremist ideas, views, in order to take public office.
We were patient—very patient. Why were we patient? Because we knew that over time people make a decision to vote for what they think is right. They did. So it’s our duty to ensure that, for us—and the rest of others on the continent where you have a bit more military coups coming through, heavy-handedness coming through—not good for development.
So I think this is partially why we are here: to be part of the meetings with President Biden, with others, ourselves as African leaders, to discuss how we can support each other, how we can learn from each other is very important.
But also, at a broader level, we need to care about the issue of inclusive and sustainable development. There are issues of what Africa can do for itself—for ourselves as Africans, as governments, given our huge resource in governments. We can do many things to support ourselves.
But there are things that sometimes are holding us back. Amongst those are issues we hope to discuss during our meetings here. Why hasn’t Africa part of the global—why is Africa not part of the global governance? I think we will raise this issue with President Biden and others. Why is Africa, with 1.4 billion people, not represented at the Security Council? This debate has been going on for forty years. Really—1.4 billion people have no voice in the Security Council? Not right.
I think we are agreed on these issues as Africans. We believe Africa must have a seat at the table with G-20. We think so, and rightly so. It should be G-21, at least.
I can go back to other, you know, platforms—multilateral platforms: World Bank, IMF. Probably we—which is about maybe around 20 percent or less—in fact, 4 percent maybe; number is escaping me now—of shareholding in the IMF Bank.
When you look at it, who needs development funding more? It’s us. We’re the remaining frontier. Yes, we may not be bringing much to the table, but we actually bring a market and opportunities at the table, which this financing needs. Is it not correct that we should have a better voice in the overall governance?
So our own country governance is very important—African governance. I’ll be the first one to say to you, we don’t like the emergence—re-emergence of extremism on our continent, but we need to address the issues that are causing extremism in our continence. Governance—back to governance.
HICHILEMA: It’s important.
HICHILEMA: The ticket around development, opportunity—very important. Why are our young people called the boat people today? Why are they crossing the Mediterranean, looking for better opportunities, losing young lives, losing talent potentially—search for opportunity.
But you need to know that it is not only—the only—it’s not the—the destination our young people go to is not only Europe. No. Within Africa—I’m sad to tell this house that last week—in fact, a couple days, we lost twenty-seven lives, Africans, unfortunately, on our soil, loaded in a truck from the Horn of Africa. How they move into other countries through to Zambia, and they suffocated, and they were dumped in the farms around Lusaka—very, very humiliating.
So it’s not—the trips are not just north of Africa. The trips are also within Africa, and we as a country that prides itself of freedoms—despite the situation I described before elections—we’re still in an island of freedom within our region. I’m sure you’re aware of it.
HICHILEMA: And this human trafficking is an issue now, and therefore we need international cooperation, international intelligence, international—I may call it technology. It’s nothing like international technology, but technology so we can, alongside forestalling the reasons why people might react in this way—I know your own issues in the States here.
HICHILEMA: But in our case, it’s really largely based on two things: economic issues, challenges, but also, I think things that may be not too nice, in our own countries.
It doesn’t matter for what reason. We must address these issues, and that’s why the global governance is important, global cooperation is important. Working together in this global community is crucial. Conversations like these are crucial because instability anywhere has potential to destabilize other places. We’ve seen that in Ukraine-Russia war, making our work difficult to manage macros, the cost of—driven the costs, inflation driven by food prices—embarrassingly so for a continent that can produce its own food and feed the rest of the world—fuel prices. Unfortunate. So food, fuel, fertilizer.
So I think we—you know, we’re here to work and to bring Africa’s issues, story, correctly, properly in the context of the changes in the global community. Climate change—we all know; no need to talk about it. We all know. So, but COVID-19, we all know. No need—we don’t need to spend too much time.
But it’s this time, these issues that we’ll like to discuss, amongst ourselves as Africans, but also with the global partners, and I think it’s very important, the couple of things that we could cover around, you know, how we could work together better.
But I thought when you asked the issue of corruption, governance, you know, stability, institutional strengthening, we must also touch on really the feelings of Africa on how we work with each other, with the West, of course, and others.
HICHILEMA: Thank you.
GAVIN: These values don’t just make sense at the national level, and thinking about the international architecture, I think that makes perfect sense in that context.
I know that, you know, you mentioned extremism. I know that Zambia is a—contributed troops to the SADC effort in Mozambique.
HICHILEMA: Indeed, yes.
GAVIN: So these are issues that you and your government have real, as we would say, skin in the game on.
GAVIN: And I appreciate that response.
So now I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. Just a quick reminder that this meeting is in fact on the record, so if you had planned to be indiscreet, rethink your plan. This is being recorded, and the video of the event will be posted on the CFR website.
So we’ll take our first question from here in the room, and this is the first hand I saw, so please.
GAVIN: Please be sure you identify yourself, and please, let’s be concise. It is so rare to have an opportunity to ask a head of state a question, so let’s try and give that opportunity to as many as possible.
Q: Great, thanks. I’m Jake Cusack, managing partner of CrossBoundary, an emerging market investment firm. We have ten offices in Africa.
Thanks for your time, Mr. President. I’m curious for your thoughts—you mentioned briefly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its effect on the region. Zambia obviously blessed with great agricultural resources still has high stocks, so I’m just curious—if you would talk a little bit about the role you can play in this food security crisis and what more could be done.
GAVIN: Please, Mr. President.
HICHILEMA: Yes, I think the roles that we can play in the context I think must be seen—you know, contextually must be seen that the roles Zambia and Africa could play—I think I touched already on the issue around Africa’s good agronomic conditions especially—no, it was hydrological. Now it’s agronomic conditions for Zambia to grow food for ourselves. Likely Zambia is self-sufficient in food, but that’s not the case with some of our neighbors.
But we have the conditions that can actually—given the trigger of Ukraine-Russia war, the shortages of wheat, the high cost of fertilizers, and obviously the fuel issues I’ve already talked about. But the role we can play for us, first, is to ask for peace, to get that war to come to an end as quickly as possible. We have not hidden that view. We have expressed that view.
Remember, we, Zambia, are part of SADC—Southern African Development Community’s committee, and we call it the Troika, on defense—on politics, defense, security. So it’s very important that we all push through the U.N., and any other means to end the war in Ukraine—war between Russia and Ukraine.
The distortions are clear, the migration, the loss of lives, everything is—there’s no need to talk about it. We all know.
So I think now is not to talk about who started it; it’s to talk about ending the war. It’s number one.
Number two: clearly, that plus the COVID-19 disruptions tells a story that we need to grow—I’m returning to the issue of opportunities—flip side of that. Some of our neighbors depend on wheat from Ukraine or Russia. Wheat—we should supply ourselves with enough wheat.
Thirdly, we need to partner with yourselves and others—technology, capital, irrigation. With climate change, grains are a little bit unreliable; patents, floods. This month, the next month, partial droughts or food drought. Irrigation is important, so investment in that area.
But the key here around that of exploiting our potential as Zambia and as Africa is that we should not only be thinking of supporting or working with Zambia and Africa to produce food for Zambia and Africa; it’s to—also for us to contribute to the looming global food insecurity as a net producer, contributor to that.
So I think it’s in fulfillment of Zambia and Africa’s needs to respond to that war, but also we didn’t have to wait for the war. It was the natural thing to do. More importantly, the global food shortage is something we must address. While we are here we will be having conversations around this issue as to how we can now raise more resources—affordable resources. It is something that requires a bit more time.
Why should Africa be paying more for every dollar it accesses? Why? It’s a good question. Let’s de-risk Africa. I’m liberally extending the answer to his question. Let’s work to de-risk Africa. The risk premium we put on Africa you can say partially is based on Africa’s own political instability. True. But what about the other parts? As we work on reducing instability on our continent—as I said earlier on, to address issues that cause instability, extremism; political space, but also just a question of development—let’s work together to make capital affordable when it comes to Africa. It’s in self-interest even to you from the West. Honestly. The quantums of capital that come to Africa isn’t enough. Very small in comparative terms. The need is higher. We can do better addressing different challenges.
But the other matter which no one wants to talk about—I’m abusing his question to extend to something I wanted to say.
GAVIN: We’re all here to hear from you. (Laughs.)
HICHILEMA: Exactly. We ignore the fact that actually, if you consider the case of illicit financial frauds from outside Africa and billions into the First World, it leaves Africa through corruption, different things, not paying a fair price for African goods; and then enters the West, is cleaned up, then returns to Africa at a premium, which continues to make Africa look unattractive for investment. I think we have to address that. And I do believe that gainful conversations are now necessary than ever before—now, not tomorrow.
A weak Africa financially, small economy, doesn’t work for anyone. What returns do you get here? Not much. But if we cleaned up these issues, there’s a yawning opportunity for more hydro investments, whose returns are clear, obvious. Solar. We have the sun. Some countries don’t have it. Let’s have the capital. Let’s have the technology. Hydro is—green hydro. So I can go on.
But really, I extended my answer to your question—I apologize for that—because I wanted to make that point. Thank you.
GAVIN: No. This issue of perception of risk I think is a really important one and I’m glad you raise it.
Let’s take another question from here in the room. At the back there, that woman—
Q: Thank you. My name is Margaret Crotty. I’m the CEO of JSI.
And you’ve been so supportive, Mr. President, of our work with John Snow Health. And you didn’t mention in your achievements the incredible public health achievements that you’ve made. For example, I think 80 percent of your population is now vaccinated against COVID. And what can we learn from that? And what does that say about your overall agenda?
And thank you again for being so supportive of us.
HICHILEMA: (Laughs.) That’s a good question.
HICHILEMA: I’m serious. First, the health status of our people is one of the critical areas for any country, especially countries in our situation, with their higher population being younger. By the way, Africa must not be seen as a problem all the time. We are part of the solution. Remember, the young population if it were skilled and healthier will not just help the Zambian economy, African economy, but where economies whose population is aging. I think we can look at Africa in that context as well. But health is very important.
The lesson around your question of health, what we were able to do, Moderator, is that when we took office, the COVID-19 vaccination rate was 3 percent. Let’s call it under 5 percent. One year down the road—hang on—so 3 percent. The target of the government then was 35 percent. Science tells us that that’s not enough. That’s below what is called herd immunity. So the first things we did was to provide leadership. If you like, that’s one answer, one wedge to your answer: leadership. The lesson is leadership. To focus on getting certain things done requires leadership. So we provided the leadership, one, to change the target to 75 percent, 70, 75 percent. Science tells us that’s the herd immunity. Then to roll out vaccinations, we were challenged with vaccines but we worked our way.
And thank you to the U.N. Thank you to COVAX. Thank you to many other efforts. But that COVAX, many other efforts were available to other countries. They didn’t take those opportunities up; we took the opportunities up. And the presidency provided leadership. We appointed a COVID adviser in state house, office of the presidency, and took the vaccines to people, looked at the myths around issues, religion, traditions. There were many, many things that were said. And I see some stories around here that those who took vaccinations are just dropping dead elsewhere. I don’t know if you have seen that stuff going on. I think we have to provide leadership in a case of a crisis like that. So we then changed the target. We went out to the communities, worked with traditional leaders, worked with church leaders, worked with civil society, and all and sundry, and twelve months down the road we’re moving towards—from 3 percent vaccination rate to 80 percent.
HICHILEMA: I think much higher than a number of countries in the First World because we cannot talk of an economic reconstruction agenda when productivity was wiped out by and large, almost, by COVID-19. So we had to address that issue. So we continue working on that score.
So I think the answer to your question is really leadership, focal areas, and getting everybody involved as much as possible. Thank you.
GAVIN: It’s a really interesting example, too, of public trust, right, which has been in short supply in many societies during this pandemic.
So we find ourselves with just about two minutes left, and we have to keep the president on time. Does anyone have a very brief question that they would like to ask, one that can be answered quickly? Right here. First taker. (Laughs.)
Q: Hi. I’m Catherine Kelly from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
What do you think the future holds for democracy in Zambia?
GAVIN: Ooh, that’s not a brief one. (Laughs.)
Q: What do you think the future holds for democracy in Zambia?
HICHILEMA: (Laughs.) I just missed the question because someone was laughing.
GAVIN: What you think the future holds for democracy in Zambia. Recognizing we must keep you on time, perhaps maybe let us know if you’re optimistic. (Laughs.)
HICHILEMA: Democracy—there’s no question democracy’s under threat, not just on the African continent but everywhere—January 6th here. It’s not a joke. But democracy holds the future. Democracy provides space, a breathing valve, moderation. Democracy provides opportunity for all people. We believe in that. And I think it is important for us who believe in values, of rule of law, media freedoms, enterprise, opportunities to work together, not only to sustain but to expand and grow democracy. Thank you.
GAVIN: Please join me in thanking Mr. President for his time and insight. (Applause.)
Thank you all for joining us as well.
HICHILEMA: Thank you. Thank you very much.