Zambia closes democratic space President Hakainde Hichilema

Gibson Nyikadzino Herald Correspondent

Zambia’s opposition parties yesterday made distress calls on the diminishing state of democracy and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights by President Hakainde Hichilema’s administration following the arrest of five opposition leaders on charges of espionage and sedition after speaking in a documentary broadcast.

The espionage charges stem from the interviews of Zambia’s opposition politicians and President Hichilema’s opponents granted to Zimbabwean journalists who made a documentary broadcast in September soon after Zimbabwe’s August elections on the ZBC titled: “The grand regional scheme: How foreign powers and local elites are destroying Africa.”

The offences are alleged to have been committed between August 26 and September 16.

Those who participated in the documentary were Socialist Party (SP)’s leader Dr Fred M’membe, Patriotic Front (PF)’s vice-president Mr Given Lubinda, Economic and Equity Party (EEP) leader Mr Chilufya Tayali, PF member Mr Raphael Nakacinda and Zambia’s former Permanent Representative to the African Union Ambassador Emmanuel Mwamba.

Following the broadcast, the head appointed by President Hichilema to lead the SADC Electoral Observation Mission, Dr Nevers Mumba, described those interviewed as “anti-Zambia”, hence their concerns of being targeted by the government.

According to charges by the Zambian police, by participating in the documentary, the quintet acted “without lawful authority to communicate or pass on information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to a foreign power and that the said information is prejudicial to the safety or interest of the Republic of Zambia” as read in Section 3(c) of that country’s State Security Act.

Opposition party representatives in Zambia yesterday told The Herald that the arrests of their leaders and harassment of government critics on charges they see as politically motivated expose President Hichilema of “being in pursuit of a neo-liberal agenda and a western puppet”.

At his inauguration in August 2021, President Hichilema promised to “guarantee real freedom, better democracy, ensuring that Zambians are truly free, restore the rule of law, general order, and bring our country back to normal” describing the outgoing Patriotic Front government as a “brutal regime”.

But on June 9 this year, nine opposition political party presidents wrote to President Hichilema expressing concern over the alleged human rights abuses happening during his reign following the arrest of Ambassador Mwamba.

Last month Mr Batuke Imenda, the secretary general from President Hichilema’s party, warned Zambians they will be jailed for “abusing President Hakainde Hichilema” through sharing his videos online. Western governments have so far remained tight-lipped on the events in Zambia.

SP first vice-president and secretary general Mr Cosmas Musumali confirmed the arrest of Dr M’membe and that he had been moved to Westwood police station, 35km out of Lusaka, and his lawyers were working to ensure his release.

“We are dealing with a government that is failing to deliver. Its popularity is waning by the day and is now trying hard to harass the opposition in pursuit of the neoliberal agenda as western puppets. But Zambians are now seeing this government for what it is.

“This arrest is based on the view that Dr M’membe and the SP do not hold to the findings of Dr Mumba’s report on Zimbabwe’s elections. Dr M’membe is a revolutionary and internationalist. He feels very strongly for the struggle of Zimbabwe,” said Mr Musumali.

Before his arrest, Dr M’membe issued a statement urging authorities to: “Arrest the high prices of mealie meal, not me. Arrest the high cost of living, not me. Arrest the high prices of fuel, not me. Arrest the depreciation of the kwacha, not me.”

The lawyer representing arrested PF members, Mr Makebi Zulu also confirmed the rising authoritarian tendencies of President Hichilema which he is using to systematically attack the opposition.

“The state has moved to penalise the opposition. For legitimate calls to broaden democracy, the state is stifling democracy. But we will not allow democracy to be strangled by a regime that wants to remain in power because of its shrinking popularity,” said Mr Zulu.

At the time of printing, Mr Zulu said of his two clients, Mr Nakacinda was in police custody while Mr Lubinda had been released from police custody.

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