LUSAKA: Newly elected Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema (center left) is congratulated by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (center right) after taking oath at the Heroes Stadium in Lusaka yesterday.-AFP

LUSAKA: Zambia's newly-elected president Hakainde Hichilema yesterday promised to rebuild the ailing economy and alleviate poverty as he was sworn in following an election hailed as a milestone for African opposition movements. "We will grow our economy so we can lift more people out of poverty than ever before," 59-year-old Hichilema told thousands of jubilant supporters-sporting the red and yellow colours of his United Party for National Development-in the Heroes Stadium in Lusaka.

Hichilema also vowed to restore respect for human rights and liberties eroded under his predecessor. In his sixth bid for the presidency, Hichilema defeated the incumbent Edgar Lungu, 64, by almost one million votes-a landslide spurred by economic hardship and restricted freedoms under the previous regime. The victory is the 17th opposition win in sub-Saharan Africa since 2015 and was achieved despite restricted campaigning and suspected rigging in favour of Lungu's party.

"We showed the world the resilience of our democracy," Hichilema exclaimed in a face mask, dark suit and bright red tie. He recalled that his victory marked Zambia's third peaceful "transition of leadership" since multi-party democracy was adopted in 1990 -- an example for "Africa and the global world".

'New dawn'

Lungu and his rival were neck-and-neck in both a snap election in 2015 and in polls in 2016. But the incumbent's popularity was sapped by unsustainable infrastructure spending that plunged the copper-rich southern African nation of over 18 million into debt default. The local kwacha currency plummeted and inflation rose to more than 24 percent, rendering basic goods unaffordable in a country where more than half the population lived in poverty before the pandemic.

Hichilema, fondly known as "HH" or "Bally"-an informal term for father-has vowed to clean up the mess and woo back spooked investors. "The erosion of our economy, the debt situation has become unsustainable," he said, stressing that "no Zambians should go to bed hungry" in a country so rich in natural resources. He announced plans to boost and diversify the mining industry in Africa's number-two copper producer and "facilitate local ownership".

He also promised to crack down on political "thuggery" and repression of dissent under Lungu, reassuring independent media that they would no longer face tear gas or shutdowns. Hichilema himself has run foul of the authorities on numerous occasions, and regularly mentions that he has been arrested 15 times since getting into politics. "It's a new dawn," he said. "The time has come for all Zambians to feel fully free." - AFP