Hichilema’s rough political walk

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Zambia’s main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has been the latest victim of state abuse. Hichilema and five others were released on August 16 after spending four months in detention on a trumped up charge of treason.

The arrest, charge and detention resulted from the United Party for National Development (UPND) leader’s refusal to recognise incumbent President Edgar Lungu as winner of the disputed August 2016 election. Lungu prevailed by a razor-thin margin of 100, 000 more votes than Hichilema and it would have gone to a run-off. The opposition leader rejected the result, claiming that the government had intimidated voters and rigged the ballot. He petitioned the Constitutional Court, but there was never a full hearing and the judges ruled in favour of Lungu after his supporters camped out on the court premises and members of his party posted threatening messages on social media.

On the night of April 10, armed police raided Hichilema’s residence. They tear gassed the premises and broke down doors and windows. They picked up Hichilema the same night, and the following day he was officially charged with treason for obstructing President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade two days earlier in Mongu, a rural district in western Zambia. Western Province is also a stronghold for Hichilema’s party. Both Hichilema and Lungu had been in the area to attend an annual traditional ceremony organised by the Lozi ethnic group. Hichilema spent two months in detention at Lusaka Central Prison before being moved to a maximum-security prison in Kabwe, north of Lusaka.

This came after officials from Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party threatened to get Hichilema arrested and charged with treason for refusing to recognise their leader’s election. In fact, about six days before the arrest, Home Affairs minister Stephen Kampyongo and the ruling party’s deputy secretary general Mumbi Phiri warned that Hichilema would be arrested and charged with treason if he continued to ignore Lungu’s presidency. But in the Zambian law it is not criminal to refuse to recognise someone’s election if one questioned the credibility of the electoral process. At a campaign rally in Lusaka in June last year, Lungu warned Hichilema not to dispute the results of the election, threatening unspecified consequences if he did. “If [Hichilema] refuses to accept the results, he will see what I will do to him,” Lungu said in the local Bemba dialect. Appeals from stakeholders to have Hichilema released fell on deaf ears.

When the influential Zambia Council of Catholic Bishops spoke out and described the country a dictatorship, Lungu was enraged. Later, the Council’s president, Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu and two other bishops spoke to Lungu and he allowed them to visit Hichilema in detention. After the visit, it was agreed that Archbishop Mpundu’s team brokered dialogue between Lungu and Hichilema. While this was going on, international pressure also mounted for Lungu and his government.

Commonwealth secretary general Patricia Scotland traveled to Zambia to mitigate the stand off between the two leaders. She reminded Lungu of Zambia’s membership and subscription to the Commonwealth Charter, which promoted good governance and adherence to the rule of law. In her one-week stay in the country, Scotland managed to convince Lungu to get Hichilema released as a start up to the process of dialogue.

Hichilema, a successful businessman and economist, assumed leadership of the UPND in 2006 after the death of its founding leader Anderson Mazoka. In him, supporters and independent political commentators have seen a prospective economic transformer. The argument has been based on how Hichilema has successfully built a business empire without reliance on government connections. And they believe that if granted a chance to govern the country he would use his business skills to grow the economy and reduce poverty.

Since return to multiparty politics in 1991, five presidents have governed Zambia respectively: three from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party and two from the PF party. Of the three political parties that have governed Zambia, the most intolerant has been the PF. Yet, when they were in opposition under then leader Michael Sata, the PF enjoyed a good amount of freedom of speech and assembly. To the contrary, leaders of this party and government have failed to accord the same freedom to the opposition, civil society organisations and other oversight groups.

Sata himself, as president of the Republic, ensured that the opposition never found space and time to sell their programmes to the masses. He curtailed their plans using the infamous Public Order Act, a law that requires persons wishing to have a public meeting or peaceful demonstration to inform police of such an action, at least seven days before. And the law does not require police to grant permission to such groups. However, successive administrations have used this law to suppress those with opposing views by not allowing them to gather, picket or demonstrate peacefully as enshrined in the Republican constitution.

In March 2012, Hichilema was more than three times stopped from organising political rallies in Lusaka and the country’s mining area, the Copperbelt. In Lusaka, about 30 of his supporters were arrested from a group that matched in protest against a looming dictatorship in the country. And the PF’s intolerance of divergent views has worsened under Lungu.

After his release, Hichilema declared that he was 10 times stronger. And many stakeholders feel that the detention has made him even more popular than he perhaps was. His release has on the other hand eased tension in the country. Looking at the pressure mounted so far on Lungu’s government and his sudden shift to dialogue, it is again an indication that real power lies with the masses. For Hichilema, he needs to harness the countrywide sympathy received and turn it into votes at the next election.

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