Is Zambia heading for another political crisis in the future?

Is Zambia heading for another political crisis in the future?

The recent arrest of Zambia’s opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND), on treason charges has stoked fears of renewed unrest in the Southern African nation. His removal has done away with the last serious hurdle to unbridle governance by the incumbent President Edgar Lungu.

On April 9, an altercation between the convoys of the President and Hakainde Hichilema on the way back from the traditional Kuomboka ceremony in Mongu, allegedly endangering the Zambian President’s life, boiled over into a full blown sweeping under the rug of the opposition. A violent midnight raid on Hichilema’s compound on April 10th culminated in the arrest of Hichilema on a more alarming charge of treason.

Reports indicate that police were aggressive by destroying property, defecating on furniture, abusing Hichilema’s staff and using tear gas. He has since then been taken into custody, without bail, on two charges. The first charge is the accusation that Hichilema’s entourage broke the highway code and insulted uniformed officers when his convoy did not give way.

The second is the more serious charge in that between between 10 October 2016 and 8 April 2017 Hichilema conspired to otherthrow the incumbent government. Hichilema has appeared in the Lusaka Magistrate Court twice since the incident.

Most recently on May 6, the Court upheld charges of treason and is currently  awaiting a ruling on 11th May, as to whether the case will be referred to the High Court, suggesting that ruling on matters of treason is beyond the jurisdiction of the Court. In the event that the case is ruled on by the High Court, Hichilema either faces a minimum of 15 years imprisonment or a death sentence.

Why is this happening?

Despite President Lungu stating he will have no involvement in the defence of the prosecution of Hichilema, it is hard to hide his influence. Tension between the two leaders can be traced back to the August 2016 elections, which saw Lungu narrowly win the presidency.

This would be Hichilema’s second defeat to Lungu, and fifth failed Presidential bid in general, having also lost out to him in January 2015 when interim President Guy Smith was constitutionally obliged to step down after the death of former President Michael Sata.

Credible reports from local and international observers indicated that among the irregularities was the abuse of public funds, curtailing of press freedoms, electoral fraud and coordinated political violence that claimed three lives.

Lungu’s firm grip on dissent can also be linked to deteriorating economic circumstances in the country. 2016 saw economic growth slow to around 2.9%, down from 3.6% the year before and less than half of 2014’s 7.1%, Public debt has ballooned from around 33% of GDP in 2014 to around 57% today, and unemployment is predicted to hit 14% by July.

In the face of these challenges, public discontent is inevitable and Lungu’s support base will take a hit. By silencing dissent and freedom of information on economic matters, the blow will be softer. This is all the more relevant as Zambia is expected to reach a $1.6 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) later this month, likely contingent upon tighter public spending.

Those questioning why a support base is important to Lungu will do well to tune in for the 2021 general elections when Lungu is expected to vie for a constitutionally forbidden third term. Having argued that his first term was a continuation of the late Michael Sata’s, it is likely Lungu will leverage connections within the Constitutional Court to secure a third mandate.

What to expect?

It is unlikely that Hichilema is tried for treason, the courts have thrown out some of the prosecution documents by citing a lack of evidence. He will likely face a lesser charge for violating the highway code.

That said, it is not the success of the charge that matters. By initiating, and potentially drawing out this process, Lungu’s supporters will have left the desired impression.

Recent unrest in response to Lungu’s heavy handedness, which the government has blamed on opposition groups, has also opened the door for the President to announce a state of emergency. This development could give Lungu emergency powers to do away with any remaining dissent in the interest of nation stability.

Since Hichilema’s detainment, more than 30 people have been arrested and charged with offences, ranging from civil disobedience to arson. Among them was another opposition leader, Chilufya Tayali of the Economic and Equity Party, who was charged with criminal libel two days after Hichilema’s arrest. The charge relates to a Facebook post criticising the country’s judicial process. He has since been released on bail.

But surely this won’t sit well with international actors or the press, one might ask?

The international community has been particularly limp-wristed. Opposition parties in Zimbabwe and South Africa have called for a regional response through the Southern African Development Community (SADC), but with the track records of incumbent leaders such as Mugabe and Zuma, little can be expected.

It is also unlikely that the press will be able to hold Lungu to full accountability in any meaningful sense. Since taking office, the Lungu administration has undermined press freedom through intimidation, temporary detainment of journalists and the closure of opposition newspaper The Post.

Observers must sit tight as recent events appear to be a prelude to a long-term game plan. The potential sentencing of Hichilema, as well as a Constitutional Court ruling in favour of Lungu’s third term, will be two decisive events for Zambia’s democratic future.

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