Hakainde Hichilema, the perennial challenger, may be popular abroad but it’s voters back home and an increasingly authoritarian president who will determine his fate.

For a relatively young man, Zambia’s opposition leader has lost a lot of elections. Hakainde Hichilema, 55, has been defeated in five presidential contests since first running in 2006.

What’s more, Mr Hichilema, head of the centrist United Party for National Development (UPND), remains remarkably upbeat considering he spent over 100 days in jail earlier this year. The businessman-turned-politician, who’s not short of a dime, was jailed on treason charges in April after his motorcade failed to pull over for the presidential motorcade. In Zambia’s prevailing political climate, big men and their toys are not to be messed with. The case was eventfully withdrawn, however, and Mr Hichilema was released in August after domestic protests. Lobbying efforts from the Commonwealth office also proved influential.

President Edgar Lungu, 61, who defeated Mr Hichilema in a tense and tight election in 2016, is accused by many of taking Zambia down an authoritarian path. “Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship and if it is not yet, then we are not far from it,” said the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, a religious peak body. This condemnation came in April 2017, not long after Mr Hichilema had been charged and jailed.

Zambian political commentator Sishuwa Sishuwa, writing in African Arguments, an online magazine, says his country was “once rightly regarded as a beacon of democracy on the continent”. Mr Sishuwa says it’s “disturbing that the Zambian president’s most notable political friendships are now with the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame”; all figures not known for their democratic instincts. Mr Lungu has also “successfully closed down the critical free press and almost succeeded in muzzling civil society”, adds Mr Sishuwa.

Mr Hichilema, who disputes the 2016 election result, clearly endorses the criticism the president has attracted. The unfolding turmoil has “never happened in our country since 1991”, he says, further urging the government to “release all political prisoners”.

It should be noted that Mr Hichilema and his opposition party, UNDP, are not immune from criticism. Many Zambians aren’t sold on his competence or his polices. “A close scrutiny of a cluster of our opposition parties tells that only UPND is a functional opposition, but not because this party successfully fulfils its role of offering checks and balances and providing alternatives to the governing Patriotic Front but solemnly by default,” says The Kwacha Times, a small online publication, in its editorial on 13th November. The editorial says Hichilema’s party has not “earned” its status as the country’s main opposition. Rather, the UPND occupies this position thanks to the incompetence of various smaller opposition parties.

Zambia, a landlocked nation of 16 million, had been remarkably stable since becoming a multi-party democracy in 1991. And in the post-colonial era, the country’s economy, centred on copper mining, has outpaced many of its neighbours. A slump in 2015, though, was caused by falling commodity prices, drought and a power crisis. Modest economic growth returned to Zambia in 2016 and 2017, according to the World Bank. But stubborn poverty and health challenges pose huge tasks for any government to overcome.

Political uncertainty hasn’t helped economic growth or poverty reduction, either. The death of former president Michael Sata in late 2014 led to a hotly-contested national by-election in 2015, in which Mr Lungu defeated Mr Hichilema for the first time. The victor has been trying to shrug off his pesky opponent ever since. But as the president consolidates his power using dubious means, he is indirectly giving more motivation to his challengers.

Losing five elections and a stint in jail on trumped up treason charges might be enough to scare off many would-be leaders. Not Mr Hichilema. “We need to restore the rule of law, restore public order,” he said on October 31st, speaking at Chatham House, a London think-tank. He was due to speak earlier in the year but couldn’t make it owing to his arrest and imprisonment; a point he joked about in his opening remarks.

His optimism was clear, as was his seemingly genuine attempt to overcome any ill-feeling at being jailed by his opponent. “We are not bitter about our arrest,” he said, referring to himself and his five colleagues who were also caught up in the road rage row. “We forgive those who did this.”

Of course, this language appeals to liberal-minded Westerners who yearn for another Mandela-type figure to rise in Africa. But despite his efforts at reconciliation, one can still sense Mr Hichilema’s understandable anger over this treatment. That said, he knows how to charm a crowd. The London audience was impressed with his business-friendly and open-minded message.

The question, however, is whether his message resonates back home. More to the point, will president Lungu allow him the space to talk? Provided he stays out of jail, one thing seems certain: the 2021 election will be Mr Hichilema’s sixth attempt at securing the top job.

Top photo: Zambia's opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema speaking at Chatham House in London on October 31st, 2017. Bill Snaddon