On 11 May 2017 Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of Zambia’s main opposition the United Party for National Development (UPND) will again appear in the Lusaka Magistrate’s Court on charges of treason. The court is expected to rule on whether or not the case should be referred to Zambia’s High Court.
Hichilema was arrested on 11 April 2017 on treason charges after an 8 April incident when he allegedly purposefully used his motor convoy to obstruct President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade in Zambia’s Western Province. The country’s security forces claimed that by doing so, Hichilema intentionally endangered the President’s life and that, in turn, was an act of treason.
Since his arrest the UPND’s efforts to have the case dismissed or obtain bail for Hichilema have failed and international organisations such as Amnesty International have joined it in accusing the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) government of denying Hichilema his rights and acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
These concerns about the PF’s increasing authoritarian tactics were first raised ahead of Zambia’s presidential election in August 2016. Critics claimed government was misusing state-owned media to promote the PF and abusing the Public Order Act (POA) and the Zambian Revenue Authority (ZRA) to harass opposition parties and independent media outlets. Lungu ended up winning the 11 August 2016 election with 50.35% of the vote compared to Hichilema’s 47.67%. The UPND contested the result claiming major irregularities, essentially implying the PF stole the election. This led to countrywide protests with the worst occurring in the towns of Monze, Chombe and Mazabuka in the country’s south. Despite Zambia’s constitutional court ruling to uphold the election result, Hichilema has continued to maintain that Lungu is an illegitimate president.
Accordingly, even before Hichilema’s 11 April arrest, political tensions in Zambia were exceptionally high and they have since skyrocketed. UPND MPs have boycotted parliament limiting the national legislature’s ability to function with multiple cases of arson marking pro-Hilichema protests. Courthouses in Lusaka and the towns of Kabwe, Mongu and Monze were set alight and markets burned in Lusaka and the southern town of Choma. In response to these protests President Lungu has openly contemplated further authoritarian methods to suppress dissent, most notably threatening a nationwide state of emergency which would enforce a curfew and grant increased powers to security forces.
Significantly, Lungu has seen scant criticism from neighbouring powers and regional organisations for his increasing repressive tactics. This appears to be in line with a reluctance of regional blocs to criticise regional leaders, as recently seen with the likes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s, Joseph Kabila, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.
It is generally expected that the Lusaka Magistrate’s Court will refer Hichilema’s treason case to the High Court and that he will remain in detention as treason cases in Zambia usually preclude the possibility of bail. As the case progresses political tension will likely rise and further violent protests are possible. In response, the government may well step up authoritarian measures including a possible a state of emergency; inevitably elevating the probability of violent clashes between protesters and security forces. In the meantime, ongoing failure by regional leaders or blocs, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to exert pressure on the Zambian government, will signal to Lungu, and others, that there is a certain tolerance for authoritarianism.