NEARLY a year after coming to power in a contested election, Zambian President Edgar Lungu is facing a growing chorus of criticism over his government’s crackdown on dissent.
‘Zambia eminently qualifies to be branded a dictatorship,’ the country’s religious leaders said in a rare statement on Friday, the latest sign that opposition to Lungu’s authority is spreading.
At the heart of the tension is the arrest and continued detention of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, a rich businessman who has run for president five times, narrowly losing to Lungu last August.
His United Party for National Development (UPND) unsuccessfully tried to contest what it called a stolen election, and in April Hichilema was arrested on treason charges after his convoy allegedly refused to give way to the presidential motorcade.
He has since been moved to a maximum security prison and it is unclear when he will return to court. In the meantime, the authorities have kept up pressure on his supporters, including blocking a South African opposition leader from attending Hichilema’s trial last month.
‘Hakainde’s arrest for treason was at first dismissed as an intimidatory gimmick by President Lungu,’ said Telesphore Mpundu, the archbishop of the Lusaka diocese, but “outrage over Hichilema’s arrest and incarceration is growing.’ Treason is a non-bailable offence in Zambia, with a minimum jail term of 15 years and a maximum sentence of death.
And Lungu himself did not mince his words during last year’s election campaign, warning political rivals and activists that ‘if they push me against the wall, I will sacrifice democracy for peace.’
The country’s parliament early this month suspended 48 UPND legislators and the government has increased pressure on media outlets that support the opposition.