Southern Africa’s regional bloc praised Zambia on Tuesday for overseeing a peaceful transition of power after a veteran opposition politician won a landslide victory at the ballot box.
Hakainde Hichilema was declared the winner on Monday after roundly defeating Edgar Lungu, who had been in power for six years.
It is the third time that power has changed hands to the opposition in Zambia since 1991, on a continent where incumbent leaders often hold on to power for decades.
“The pattern of peaceful transitions of power we have been seeing in our region in recent years, … (with) Zambia being the latest member to embody that, are worthy of global acclaim and our applause,” said Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, launching a summit of southern African leaders.
“To all the leaders and people of Zambia, we say thank you,” he said.
Chakwera, himself a former opposition politician, came to power last year after the re-election of his predecessor Arthur Mutharika was scrapped for vote rigging and the ballot re-staged.
He told the 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) that regional peace and security depended on democratic norms being sustained and on the protection of human rights.
Lungu had claimed the election was not free or fair, while votes were being counted at the weekend. But on Tuesday, hours after the vote was declared, Lungu conceded defeat and promised to peacefully hand over power.
A few hours later he met Hichilema in the presence of former leaders — Zambia’s Rupiah Banda, Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma.
In one of the post-meeting pictures posted on Twitter by Lungu, the two political foes were seen laughing and elbow-greeting.
Last Thursday’s election marked Hichilema’s sixth attempt at Zambia’s top political job and his third bout against Lungu.
In his first address to the nation, Hichilema, 59, assured his predecessor — whose administration arrested him several times — “don’t worry, you’ll be okay, you won’t face retribution or get teargassed.”
– ‘Serve Zambia with distinction’ –
He pledged to “foster a better democracy… rule of law, restoring order, respecting human rights, liberties and freedoms.”
Despite occasional episodes of political violence, Zambia has earned a reputation for stability. Every transition of power has been peaceful since the former British colony adopted its multi-party system in 1990.
African leaders have been slow in delivering their congratulatory messages — with most of them only doing so more than 24 hours after the results were proclaimed.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa commended the vote which “provides the basis for continued stability and development in Zambia” and the region.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted that “I have no doubt that you will serve Zambia with distinction for the benefit of all”.
But Mnangagwa’s message received insults on social media. “Respect the will of the people in your country…” said one tweeter, yet another questioned him “If you are beaten by …(Zimbabwean opposition leader) are you going to concede defeat?”
Further afield in east Africa, a statement from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s office said the election “demonstrated the strong confidence and trust the people of Zambia have in his leadership”.
Hakainde’s inauguration is slated for Tuesday next week.