By Simon Abaho
Zambia woke up to a social media frenzy over its president having gone the entire eight months since his election without pay.
The ministry responsible for paying presidential wages and allowances claimed that Hakainde Hichilema has forgone wages “in his interest to serve the public.”
In responding to the claim, Hichilema said a salary was not his motivation for seeking public office, to which he was elected last August.
“The issue of the salary is a non-issue because money was not our motivation for seeking public office and not that the government was not willing to pay,” he told reporters on arriving in the country’s southern city of Livingstone, where he is due to receive Rwandan President Paul Kagame on a state visit.
Hichilema, 59, an economist and businessman with local and international links, became president after a 15-year haul in the opposition, defeating then incumbent Edgar Lungu by more than a million votes.
His election followed campaign promises to heal an ailing economy by rooting out corruption and creating jobs for the masses, especially youths.
He has been a businessman since the age of 26 and amassed immense wealth, albeit amid challenges from political opponents that he made his money from his association with the controversial privatization of state assets in the 1990s.
“It is just that I have not paid attention to that (presidential salary). My intention and motivation is to see how we can better the lives of the people,” he added.
Since his election, Hichilema has been residing in his private residence in New Kasama, a plush residential area of the capital Lusaka miles away from Nkwazi House — the official residence of a Zambian president located within State House grounds.
In 2018, Lungu’s government amended legislation around presidential emoluments and allowances which saw the president start earning 40,653.25 kwacha in a monthly salary and K10,784.41 in monthly allowances.
There was however no indication that Hichilema had given up other presidential benefits.
Hichilema’s net worth is estimated to be in the millions of dollars and he has previously been reported to hold shares in local hotels and the cattle processing industry as among his income sources.
He did not publicly declare his assets prior to the August polls, as the law did not compel candidates to do so.
Several members of the immediate past ruling Patriotic Front used Hichilema’s wealth as a campaign tool prior to the polls, accusing him of having amassed it through the role he played in the privatization process.
Lungu had threatened Hichilema with arrest if he had won the poll, saying the then opposition leader had a lot to explain for how he became wealthy yet the privatization process left the majority in squalor.
Sean Tembo, a leader of the country’s Patriots for Economic Progress party and one of Hichilema’s fierce critics, said it was okay for Hichilema to forfeit his wages because “he had failed to deliver on his campaign promises.”
Hichilema’s decision could still be seen by some as a humane gesture amid a tough economic period for the country but does not entirely set him apart from his predecessor.
In 2016, Lungu took a 50% pay cut and another between 15% and 20% in 2019 to support government austerity measures introduced to meet the country’s debt repayment obligations.
He extended the 2019 decision to his highly paid Cabinet appointees, but Hichilema’s United Party for National Development described the move as deceptive.
Among other African leaders to have previously taken pay cuts in the last two years with percentages varying between 10% to 30% are South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.