Zambian under pressure over the arrest of opposition leader

By Jeff Kapembwa

Lusaka – Zambia has once again come under the spotlight from the international community following the arrest and detention of one of the opposition leaders in the copper producing Southern African nation.

Hakainde Hichilema (55), the leader of United Party for National Development (UPND), is in detention on charges of treason, disobedient to lawful orders, disobeying of statutory laws and use of insulting language contrary to the laws of Zambia.

Hichilema was the runners up in the 11 August 2016 Presidential poll, to winner and incumbent leader Edgar Lungu (60).

According to the initial indictment,  Hichilema is being detained and presently appearing in court after his convoy obstructed President Lungu’s motorcade in Mongu, in western Zambia, near the border with Angola, during a traditional ceremony held by the Lozi people, an act deemed ‘endangering the life of the head of State’.

By the time of going to press, Hichilema was appearing in the Zambian courts, being defended by over five renowned lawyers.

On Tuesday, Hichilema’s lawyers had raised, among other preliminary concerns, that some of their client’s rights were being infringed upon, including being denied rights to his doctor and family visitations.

“The police officers who unlawfully invaded the house did not only damage the home and property, but also did steal colossal sums of money in Zambian kwacha, South African rands and United States dollars, as well as shoes, speakers, blankets, carpets and food,” Hichilema’s affidavit presented by his lawyers read in part, a claim the government has dispelled.

During the detention, lawyers argued that Hichilema and his co-accused were tortured while being denied the right to visitation by their relatives, family, lawyers and medical attention, which the court granted to be accorded to all the accused.

The detention of Hichilema has, however, raised international attention. Several commentators, among others, the European Union, some diplomats accredited to Zambia, the United States and former Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, have raised different appeals and are concerned with the rising political tension in the past weeks following the detention.

Other foreign based human rights activists, trade unions and political parties are seeking Hichilema’s release unconditionally before the matter is disposed of. Others want dialogue to take place to sustain peace in Zambia, renowned as Africa’s “beacon of peace”.

The European Union claims the political tension in Zambia has increased since Hichilema’s arrest almost a fortnight ago with the spokesperson stating briefly: “Calm and to refrain from any actions and rhetoric likely to aggravate the situation are much needed,” while calling for dialogue and respect the rule of law.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president has also appealed to the Zambian government to adhere to the rule of law and human rights principles, in dealing with the opposition in the country, says his media aide, Kehinde Akinyemi.

“It is in the best interest of the country in ensuring that the rule of law and human rights principles are followed to ensure peace, stability and security, which are fundamental basis for development, which all Africans require at this point in time”,  Obasanjo added.

The United States Embassy in Zambia has also expressed concerns over heightened political tension in the country, specifically noting the April 10 police raid of opposition leader’s Lusaka residence and his subsequent arrest for treason.

“The US government urges all actors to exercise restraint in addressing differences, to respect the rule of law and electoral proceedings, and to follow the due process Zambians expect from a country with a reputation for political pluralism and peaceful conflict resolution, ” the statement concluded.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the South African opposition, has also strongly condemned the arrest, which according to its spokesman Mbuyiseni Quintin Ndlozi “political intolerance often reflects political parties that are terrified of political contestation”.

Ndlozi argues his party will never tolerate political arrest and intolerance anywhere in the world, regardless of opposing views, particularly opposing views of political orientation. The Africa Liberal Network, the continent’s largest political affiliation,  condemned the arrest of Hichilema and claims the latest development was attempts by the ruling Patriotic Front of President Lungu to silence dissent and the opposition, says its president Stevens Mokgalapa in a statement.

“We will explore potential options to add pressure to President Lungu’s government and request satisfactory clarity,” he adds.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) also added its voice and argues it would be illogical for  South Africa to remain silent over the events in Zambia, its spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi said while recognising Zambia’s participation in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

“During the darkest days of apartheid, Zambians played a critical role in providing a home base for South Africans fleeing oppression. The Zambian government of that time risked major repercussions from the diabolical South African regime” he stated.

Meanwhile, Zambia’s Police Inspector General Kakoma Kanganja described the action by Hichilema as “unreasonable, reckless, and criminal” and warned that police would remain vigilant and “ensure all those that would want to cause unnecessary anarchy are arrested and prosecuted”.

Presidential aide Amos Chanda said despite the developments in the country, investor confidence has remained favourable but that police will continue maintaining peace and order. However, President Edgar Lungu has distanced himself from the calls to release Lungu and wants the rule of law to take its course noting that he can only pardon people who have been convicted.

April 2017
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