UPND president Hakainde Hichilema says the struggle for a better Zambia will continue even when the current regime decides to kill all those championing change in the country’s key institutions.
And Hichilema says the country’s key institutions of governance such as the judiciary, police, the Electoral Commission of Zambia and National Prosecutions Authority need a complete overhaul before the 2021 elections.
Meanwhile, the opposition leader who was released from detention almost two weeks ago after spending 126 days in jail for alleged treason says the charge against him and others was premeditated because President Edgar Lungu had threatened to sort him out if he rejected results of the August 2016 elections even before Zambians voted.
He says the time spent in detention was a way that God used for him to see the other side of society because “our prisons are death chambers and require urgent change”. The Director of Public Prosecutions on August 16 entered a nolle prosequi in the case where Hichilema and five others – all his relatives – were charged with treason.
But they pleaded not guilty on August 14.
Hichilema said he and his co-accused had looked forward to the beginning of trial in their case so that Zambians could hear testimonies of state witnesses on how treason was committed.
In an interview with The Mast yesterday, Hichilema gave an account of their time in detention from the day of their arrest on April 11 until their release on August 16, describing it as a “learning experience”.
Below is Hichilema’s full interview:
Mast Reporter: Good morning Mr Hichilema and thanks for your time.
Hichilema: Good morning to you too and thank you for coming.
Mast Reporter: Let’s start from the day of your arrest, April 11. When police picked you up, what was racing in your mind?
Hichilema: The feelings were gravitating. Before that, remember they came in the night, April 10. It was extremely disappointing, annoying that unidentified people wearing police uniforms could force their way in a brutal manner in a private property. It demonstrates that the basic human rights were abrogated. The right to private property was abrogated. The right to privacy was also abrogated. Before we realized it, they were breaking part of this property to gain entry by force. Yet they could just send me a police callout and I would have taken myself to the police.
Since PF came into office, I have been detained 10 times, and all those times, they sent police callouts and I took myself to police. I cannot run away from the police. Others had suggested that I run away, but run away to where? Run away from my own house? My own country? Why would I run away as if I committed a crime? I had not committed any crime so there was no reason for me to run away at all.
And why did they come in that manner? Questions were racing in my mind. Why were they that brutal? At that point, we began to have feelings that things were different from previous arrests. Lots of our workers were beaten, visitors were caught in the fracas, tortured. Poisonous gases were administered to them, even in areas where it should never happen – total repressive approach. We had to endure that pain, that brutality from 21hrs to 22 hours on the 10th of April to 11:00hours on the 11th [of April]. After our brutal arrest, I was taken first to Woodlands Police Station and thereafter to Lilayi. Some of my colleagues, I didn’t know they were arrested as well, were taken to other police stations.
Mast Reporter: What happened at Lilayi because you spent quite a number of days there?
Hichilema: I was there for eight days; eight days in detention in a terrible room – there was no light, no ventilation. That was all done to punish me, that was the intention. I was considered guilty until proven innocent, not the other way round. And it was like a joke. A charge was laid out without any proper interrogation, four counts.
One of which was treason, unbailable. They had to charge us with treason. The objective was to punish us on account of hatred. There is no doubt that all of this was all because of hatred. It was also to dismantle our support. Before the elections, remember during his campaigns, Edgar Lungu threatened that I would be dealt with. So it was premeditated. Even on this Mongu road issue, we were doing 30 kilometres per hour, they [President Lungu’s motorcade] were doing 150 kilometres. And he overtook us, and his window was open. How would he be threatened if he could open his window? It was all premeditated and I saw this coming. First, it was the closure of The Post just before elections, then the killings. That lady Mapenzi Chibulo, she was killed in a brutal way by police. And then came the threat that if I do not accept the results, I would be dealt with. He said ‘akamona efyo nkamucita’. So of those four charges, others didn’t surprise me but I was surprised with the treason charge because it was nowhere near what anyone can ever imagine.
Mast Reporter: So how did you handle that?
Hichilema: It was difficult emotionally, as you know prison conditions are atrocious, they are inhuman. The treatment of prisoners, detainees is dehumanizing. There is so much congestion in prison. If you are treated the way I was treated at a cell in Lilayi, a place not for detention, in a room with no light at all…These fellows had smeared fecal matter on the walls and on the floor before I was taken in that room.
You have to understand the type of people that you dealing with on the other side. Then you start asking yourself questions: how did these guys think of doing this to a room they knew I would be brought? It was difficult yes, but being human, you later take a nap. After an hour, two hours, it was becoming normal. When you talk about detention, for people like us who were just suspects, it was dehumanizing.
Then I was moved to Chimbokaila where now I was put together with my colleagues. Life was not easy there. It was tough but I spent a lot of time reading and reflecting. I made a lot of friends in prison; it was heartbreaking to listen to their stories of many of them who had been in detention for many, many years without being taken to court. Some have been there for 10 years plus and have never even been inside the court. That gave me an opportunity to see the need to bring dignity to prisons.
Mast Reporter: You were later taken to Mukobeko Maximum Prison in Kabwe, how was life that side?
Hichilema: At Mukobeko, we were thrown in a cell with 178 people. There was no sleeping there, just sitting. There was no space for anyone to sleep. We were treated as common criminals, we were found guilty before even being tried. A typical day at Mukobeko would start at 06:00 hours. The first thing we would do is empty the buckets which were using as toilets, clean then up and then immediately after that, it was time for breakfast. You can imagine having to eat your first meal of the day after cleaning a bucket that had fecal matter for lots of others. We would use buckets all of us. The degrading treatment, the use of a bucket to answer the call of nature, all that has an effect on an individual. We must realize how brutal this regime is; how the criminal justice system has broken down.
One interesting thing you must know is that when we were thrown in that crowded cell, the inmates, through the prison warders, were given instructions to beat me up. But to their surprise, the inmates didn’t touch me at all. They instantly became my friends immediately I got into that cell. So when the prison warders found out that I wasn’t lynched as per instruction, they got furious and decided to take us to an isolation cell where prisoners who are awaiting execution are taken. I was condemned before even trial begun. Then there was a rule where power would be switched off at around 20:00 hours until the next day. But I negotiated my way. I broke the rules…I approached the powers that be that I needed to read. We negotiated reading time up to 21:000 hours for myself and six others. When I was not reading, I was using the time to think a lot. A lot of things take place in a cell. The primary thing that occupied my mind was that I was detained not because I committed a crime but because of hatred. In this country, you are guilty until proven innocent. Some people have been in prison for so long for no reason. I was worrying about my family, families of my fellow detainees. How were their children copying, their wives? Two of them are my in-laws, three others are two cousins and a nephew. Will their families think I am responsible for their incarceration?
Reporter: Now that you are out of detention, what do you say about the arrest?
Hichilema: My concern has been: how can police arrest us on the instruction of a political cadre, Mumbi Phiri without a proper investigation? The magistrate court ruling on another case [the use of insulting language case] is evidence enough that there was no investigation. The criminal justice system is broken; this high-handedness of the system is worrying. An ordinary citizen is disadvantaged in so many ways, say for example on issues of bond at the police and bail at court. We need to change the system completely – giving people bonds, bail which is affordable. We can deal with all those issues.
Reporter: Then came the nolle prosequi on August 16, did you expect that?
Hichilema: We were excited about August 14 [when trial in the matter should have commenced]. After a long wait, we had our day in court. We didn’t expect to be discharged, we were excited that trial was commencing so that the nation could listen to how we committed treason. We took plea on Monday, Wednesday we expected trial to commence. We wanted to look in the eyes of those witnesses as they spoke on the crime we committed. We didn’t expect the nolle, what we would have wanted was an acquittal…Some of the individuals get nolle before they take the stand.
Now nolles are becoming the norm in the judicial system. It shows that there is something wrong. Then you have the judiciary itself, the actual courts, the delays in trying people. There are people in those prisons who have been in detention for over 10 years and they have never been in court. And when the case starts, after a short while they will be acquitted. People are dying in prison, Zambian prisons are death chambers. We have to change the criminal justice system for the better, we have to return the police in a professional way. Other institutions of the state like ZRA have been largely used to close down The Post, as an example. This should come to an end.
Reporter: What lessons have you learnt from prison?
Hichilema: We have learnt that not everyone in prison is guilty. We must change to a system where prisoners will not be kept like they are guilty. There are good people in prisons who have managed to survive under these extreme difficulties. And that, you can explain our detention, unjustifiably so, as God’s way of showing us that side of society. We had to experience it. Then we will have an obligation to correct it when our time in office comes. It is a big lesson. We don’t have to have families, children, going through those life-threatening situations unnecessarily. And right now, even those who issued instructions that we should be arrested and those who carried out the instruction, I don’t wish them to go through what we went through. I wouldn’t wish them that. If we did that, it means we are no different from them. We will be better qualified ourselves not to do what they did. We should not continue with this vindictiveness in our country. But that requires a change of leadership, because the leadership we have now knows one way traffic – brutalizing citizens, injuring, killing.
There is no pride for us to talk about being Zambians and being free. We have lost all freedoms granted to us by our forefathers. This is unacceptable. There is so much money being wasted on these political arrests for nothing.
And I also hear that these fellows want to buy Russian planes to start a national airline. This is a tragedy of the absence of leadership. Why would one buy a Russian plane at $35 million? It will not be viable, it will be abused like Zambia Airways.
Why not spend even just a quarter of that to improve prison conditions?
Decongest the prisons by reforming the criminal justice system. I am talking about priorities. It is the choices that we make that will see Zambia change either for the better or worse. This is where the question of leadership comes in. Zambians are beginning to get accustomed to low caliber leadership.
Reporter: Do you harbour any anger that you were detained for 126 days and later released without trial?
Hichilema: We are not bitter, I am not bitter. We may ignore, forgive but we won’t forget because we will use these things to correct what has gone wrong. Our approach not to be vindictive means our understanding of these things is good for them so that they can be assured of safety when they leave office. We want to show them a different picture, that we want to create conditions that will make them live in this country without worrying about us doing what they did to us. Secondly, police must act professionally, the prosecution to act correctly, not to be biased, abused; the judiciary, judges should equally act correctly and deliver timely, fair justice.
If you look at the conduct of the Constitutional Court, who wants a Constitutional Court that conducts itself in the way this one conducted itself?
Reporter: There’s currently the debate on 2021, with others suggesting that you focus on mobilizing support for the coming elections. Are you gearing up for that?
Hichilema: We must first work together to restore basic provisions, bring back normalcy to our country. We must restore the rule of law. We shouldn’t wait for elections. We must end violence before talking about 2021. Political violence barbaric, uncivilized. There is also the issue of ECZ…what election will you have with [chairperson Esau] Chulu there, [director Priscilla] Isaac there? And let me tell you this, 2015 was equally a bad election but we didn’t want to petition. But in 2016, we saw a situation where the referee, the ECZ, aided PF in winning and we couldn’t ignore that so we decided to petition. So all these things must be put into consideration before talking about 2021. We will not have credible elections if we leave the ECZ as it is, if we leave police to continue acting in the manner they are acting, if we leave the judiciary to be used by the executive and to have the National Prosecutions Authority acting on instructions of politicians when it comes to prosecution of political matters. So personally, I am ready to continue fighting for what is right, until one day change will return to Zambia. We have lost all the independence we attained which our forefathers fought for, now we are fighting for it again. They can kill us, but they won’t kill all of us. Others will remain to carry on the fight for a better Zambia. This issue of restoring confidence and professionalism in the institutions of the state is not about HH, neither is it about Lungu. It is about our country. Others are telling me I should just let things be and enjoy what I have. But I ask: what is there to enjoy? Is there anything for me to enjoy? I got into politics knowing fully well what lay ahead and I am ready to make those sacrifices for the good of the 16 million people of this country.
Reporter: Lastly, please share with us your interactions with the inmates.
Hichilema: They are amazing people, so amazing. I made lots of friends in there. I have told you the story of these inmates at Mukobeko who were told to lynch me but they didn’t. We became friends instantly. It was the same with Chimbokaila. And I know where those instructions were coming from. But they were shocked that none of those prisoners touched me. The day we left Mukobeko, on Sunday August 13, it was amazing. We were taken out of the isolation cell, and we proceeded to the clearing gates to a common area where we found a large crowd of prisoners waiting. I could see in their eyes that they had a lot to say. I didn’t know what to say to them, so all I did was wave at them. Oh God, you should have heard the response – they broke into a large cheer. The warders threatened to punish them for that behaviour but a number of the brave ones told them off that ‘aba nibakateka’. So those are the people we have left there, and it will be wrong for me to keep quiet and not fight for their cause. Then the same day when we arrived at Chimbokaila awaiting court appearance on Monday, it was the same reception. There was jubilation there. These people want me to speak for them, and I will surely do that. If it means me getting arrested for doing that, I am ready to be thrown back in jail.
Reporter: Thank you very much for giving us this interview.
Hichilema: Thanks to you for telling our story in a manner that the world came to know about us. If it wasn’t for the media, we would have been forgotten.