•Treason charge against opposition leader divides country
Courtesy of Sun newspapers Nigeria
The political drama in Zambia reached its climax Thursday when President Edgar Lungu declared a state of emergency as a measure to halt the spate of violence sweeping across the country following the arrest and charge of his rival, Hakainde Hichilema, for treason.
The declaration of a state of emergency came on the heels of the setting ablaze of part of Lusaka’s largest market, the City Market, by yet-unidentified persons. Declaring the state of emergency, the president said the fire was politically-motivated.
“This is not an easy decision to make but, in order to preserve peace, tranquility, safety of our citizens and national security, we had no choice but to take this decision given the events that have occurred in the recent past. The primary responsibility of government is to protect life and property in our nation,” Lungu said.
But the president’s decision has widened the cracks in the country, with the opposition and a cross-section of civil society groups, the church and the media accusing the government of attempting to introduce dictatorship and stop any form of dissent.
Now, the people are worried that the country is on the precipice as opposing political forces gear for a fight-to-finish.
Is the turn of events in Zambia a fulfilment of the words of its founding president, Kenneth Kaunda. He said: “The power which establishes a state is violence; the power which maintains it is violence; the power which eventually overthrows it is violence.”
The road to chaos
Since independence, Zambia has enjoyed peace, political and economic stability, making it a haven for thousands of its troubled neighbours in the region. It transited peacefully from a one-party state to a multi-party system. Kaunda voluntarily stepped down in 1991 after 27 years in power. He chose to quit the stage after the ruling party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) lost elections to a new entrant, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMPD). Lungu is the country’s sixth president since the exit of Kaunda.
Meanwhile, campaigns and elections in Zambia have not been different from what obtains in other African countries except that the drums of war have never reached such a crescendo since independence, and two factors are responsible: unexpected economic slump and fierce rivalry by new-breed politicians.
During the early days of economic boom, Zambians were comfortable enough to believe that their political leaders were on course, never minding the corruption and mismanagement that was allegedly going on. But, as reports showed, this was followed by the season of “aggressive structural adjustment programmes spearheaded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank” which “led to the privatisation of the mines and other key industries,” and the gains made under Kaunda’s “successful nationalisation programme” were reversed.
Trouble started when politicians of the new era “operated as local agents of foreign capital. They sold off national assets for a fraction of their value and brought taxation revenues and public spending to appalling lows.”
A 2015 report said the country was “losing $3 billion a year in tax dodging by multinational mining companies.” The mining lobbies have become so powerful that successive governments have not been able to reverse the trend because notable politicians, in government and the opposition, are major beneficiaries of the system. A suit brought against a Canada-based mining company, First Quantum, by the state’s mining investment body was reportedly dropped at the orders of the president. Lungu bowed to pressure and chose out-of-court settlement.
Today, the plight of the common man in Zambia is nothing to write home about as the mines are closing up in the wake of the plunge in global copper prices. Zambia is the world’s seventh and Africa’s second largest copper producer. In the face of mine workers being laid off, drought remains a threat to farmers and herdsmen; 95 per cent of the country’s electricity is from hydropower. Therefore, whenever the water level is low, the socio-economic life of the country comes under threat.
“In a sign of the economic hardship, eight people were crushed to death and 28 injured in a stampede for free food being handed out by a Lusaka church in March,” Crux, the Catholic News Service, reported.
While economic hardship is a remote cause, political fighting is the immediate cause of the threat to the peace and stability of Zambia. After the results of the presidential election were released and Lungu was declared winner, Hichilema went to court. All his efforts to get the court to nullify the results failed. Even then, he and his party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), have continued to insist that Lungu is not the president of Zambia. Lungu contested the election under the Patriotic Front Party.
According to reports, Hichilema wants Lungu to negotiate peace with his party, but the president would not succumb to any form of intimidation or pressure, insisting that he won the election. Thus the situation could be likened to a fight of the Titians.
An opportunity for Lungu to ‘silence’ Hichilema came up in April when Hichilema’s convoy, on its way to a traditional ceremony, blocked that of the president. Hichilema and his convoy refused to obey the order by the president’s escort that he and his convoy should give way for the head of state.
The president and his men considered Hichilema’s audacity unacceptable as it clearly demonstrated disrespect and a deliberate attempt to put the president’s life in danger. The next day, Hichilema’s home was raided with brute force by the police.
Hichilema, his wife and aides were tear gased and property destroyed before he was taken into custody. Reports said his wife fainted three times as a result of the tear gas. He and five others were consequently charged to court on a two-count charge. The first was that he “violated the Highway Code and insulted uniformed officers when his convoy did not give way.” The second was that “between October 10, 2016, and April 8, 2017, Hichilema conspired to overthrow the incumbent government.”
While the court threw out the charge of traffic violation, it upheld the charge of treason. In Zambia, treason attracts either a minimum of 15 years in prison of a death sentence. Here lies the dilemma of the people: would Hichilema be discharged and acquitted or, if found guilty, would he face the death sentence or get state pardon (and under what conditions)? Would Hichilema and his party accept any unfavourable verdict by the court, which some claim is under the government’s control?
This is the second time Hichilema would be arrested. Prior to the latest incident, 48 opposition lawmakers had been suspended from parliament for boycotting the president’s speech. As the international community watches the unfolding drama in Zambia, it is clear that both sides in the confrontation are gearing for violence that could upturn the fortunes of the country.
According to some reports, since Hichilema’s arrest and detention, 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. Though he has been released, it is instructive that the opposition in Zambia would not know peace if they attempt to match force with the government.
Already, Lungu’s government has started clamping down on the opposition media, closing the largest private newspaper in the country, The Post. Civil groups who are opposed to the government, particularly the state of emergency, are already crying out that their lives are being threatened by government agents.
Prayers for peace
The Catholic Church and other Christian groups, feeling dismayed by the happenings in the country, are nevertheless intervening. They are talking to aggrieved parties while praying for peace in the country. Even as the church leaders intervene, reports say many condemn the decision of the government to turn a traffic violation to a treasonable offence.
They fear that it could set a dangerous precedent if not checked. Prior to the incident, the country had already been polarised by the feud between Lungu and Hichilema to near breaking point. The convoy blockade was regarded as the climax of acts that may tear the country apart for the first time since independence.
The on-going crisis is a challenge to the sub-regional body, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the international community. A stitch in time saves nine.