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"We need free and fair elections" - Zambia's opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema

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SALIM DAWOOD/AFP or licensors


Zambia's main opposition criticised the government on Tuesday, saying it had no idea how to deal with the debt problem after the country became Africa's biggest defaulting economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The southern African country of 17 million people is planning presidential and parliamentary elections in August, with an estimated external debt of nearly $12 billion, half of which is held by private creditors.

In October, Zambia missed a deadline to pay $42.5 million in interest due on a $750 million bond that matures next year. Three months later, it failed to pay $56.1 million in interest on another bond.

"The debt has really reached unsustainable levels," Hakainde Hichilema told AFP in an interview. The 58-year-old businessman accused the Patriotic Front government of racking up an astronomical debt by borrowing to fund luxury consumer spending by "corrupt" officials.

"They created the debt crisis" and "they don't know how to get out of it", he said. "They have derailed many things, even governance. The levels of corruption are unprecedented."

The copper-rich country has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for funding to deal with the debt, but so far without success, with the IMF stressing that "major challenges remain".

The government has also requested restructuring of its loans as part of a new G20 debt suspension initiative. Paying off the debt is made more difficult by the fact that the country's currency, the kwacha, has fallen by about a third against the dollar since last year.

This crisis, poverty and a struggling economy are expected to dominate the polls where "HH", as he is known to his supporters, leading the United Party for National Development (UPND), is expected to face incumbent President Edgar Lungu, 64.

"Zambians want change," says the man who is making his sixth bid for the presidency, having narrowly lost in 2016.

"We need free and fair elections," he said, pointing to irregularities in voter registration and restrictions on freedoms.