Hakainde Hichilema‘s arrest for treason was at first dismissed as an intimidatory gimmick by President Edgar Lungu after the ‘clash of the motorcades’ early this month. However, as days behind bars turn into weeks for the leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), the view that Lungu is creating a new dictatorship is increasing in currency. The influential Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke for many on 23 April when it said the country, ‘is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship and if it is not yet, then we are not far from it.’ The UPND still won’t recognise the legitimacy of Lungu’s re-election last August.
Hichilema has been in custody since he was arrested in a raid on his home on 10 April. That followed incidents at the Kuomboka celebration of the Lozi people in Western Province on 8 April (AC Vol 58 No 8, Lungu’s way and the highway). Hichilema’s convoy allegedly refused to make way for Lungu’s.
When he came to court Hichilema’s lawyers demanded the dismissal of the treason charge because it failed to specify any treasonous acts at all and also because it was ‘bad in law’. It should have cited the ‘government of the Republic of Zambia’ but the indictment, possibly revealingly, had it as ‘the government of Edgar Chagwa Lungu‘. Prosecutors acknowledged the fault in the wording and sought to rectify it at a hearing on 26 April. There, magistrate Greenwell Malumani said, ‘the charge has no substance to be submitted for trial’ but refused to dismiss the charge on the grounds that only the High Court could decide the issue. No date for the High Court hearing is yet set but Hichilema will remain in custody until then because treason is not a bailable offence. One of the ‘overt acts’ prosecutors claimed as evidence of treason was that Hichilema ‘did obstruct the presidential motorcade, an act that was likely to cause death or grievous harm to the President of the Republic of Zambia, in order to usurp the executive power of the state.’
Prosecutors are under intense pressure from State House to obtain a conviction because no one convicted of a criminal offence may contest an election, which would disqualify Hichilema from the 2021 presidential race. We also hear that efforts are being made to concoct evidence of treason from documents found in his home during the 10 April raid.
Some pundits see Lungu’s admiration of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at work. The two are close. Lungu attended Museveni’s inauguration in May last year and went to Uganda again in July to attend the 40th anniversary commemoration of Israel‘s Entebbe raid (AC Vol 57 No 14, A close political race gets angrier & Vol 50 No 19, A business and strategic foray). Last October Museveni made a two-day state visit to Zambia, when he recommended the opposition concede defeat and move on.
The same Dubai company, Al Ghurair, which was contracted to print the ballot papers in the controversial re-election of Museveni in February 2016, won the contract to print Zambia’s ballot papers for the election last August, even though it was not the lowest bidder. Zambian oppositionists regarded the choice as suspicious, although the company has denied any wrongdoing.
Lusaka buzzed with rumours during the August count about the nefarious activities of Ugandan political operatives on behalf of Lungu, but no hard facts emerged. Perhaps the strongest similarity between Lungu and Museveni is the tendency of the Ugandan leader to occasionally lock up opposition leader Kizza Besigye on treason charges.
Lungu is already worrying about who might be challenging him for presidential office in 2021, say PF sources, when the austerity programme agreed with the IMF, which is due to start in September, starts to bite (AC Vol 57 No 25, Preparing for the worst).
Lungu may also try to take advantage of a series of highly suspicious arson attacks on public buildings throughout the country, including Lusaka, to declare a state of emergency and prolong Hichilema’s detention. Police blame these incidents on UPND supporters unhappy about the incarceration of their leader but oppositionists argue that the attacks have been stage-managed to make it look as though the UPND is responsible. Lungu has promised a state of emergency if the arson continues. Nevertheless, Hichilema’s detention has been effective and the opposition is in disarray, especially with so many other parts of civil society unable to operate freely.
Outrage over Hichilema’s arrest and the treason charge is growing outside Zambia’s borders. The United States Embassy in Lusaka and the European Union have called for dialogue between the PF and UPND. Critics of Hichilema’s arrest include Kenyan former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Nigerian ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. Two South African opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance, as well as Tendai Biti of Zimbabwe‘s opposition Movement for Democratic Change have all sharply criticised Lungu’s actions, not least because some see strong similarities with the actions of their own leaders.