Financial Times: Treason charge plunges Zambia into political crisis

In many African countries, a traffic violation generally results in nothing worse than a fine or demand for a bribe. In Zambia, one man faces a somewhat stiffer charge: treason.

The man in question is Hakainde Hichilema, an opposition leader who claims he was cheated of the presidency, and the violation, which was his refusal to move over for President Edgar Lungu, helps explain why the seemingly minor incident has plunged Zambia into a political crisis. Mr Hichilema, a businessman who narrowly lost August’s presidential election, a result he unsuccessfully challenged in court, has been charged with treason.

The motorcade escorting him to a traditional ceremony in last month allegedly refused to give way to the presidential convoy, a show of bravado that is said not only to have shown disrespect to the office of the president, but also to have put Mr Lungu’s life in danger.

Tension in Zambia, which has been one of southern Africa’s most vibrant democracies, is threatening to destabilise a country that is already grappling with rising debt, widening deficits, sluggish growth and weak revenues from copper that account for 70 per cent of export earnings. Unknown assailants have burnt public buildings and Mr Lungu has threatened to impose a state of emergency that would give him sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

“This used to be a beautiful, stable country but unfortunately it is sliding into the abyss,” said Jack Mwiimbu, Mr Hichilema’s lawyer. He accused the police who arrested Mr Hichilema last month of acting like goons, raiding his house, pepper-spraying the groins of his employees and dragging Mr Hichilema to jail on what, he said, was the ridiculous charge of treason. This used to be a beautiful, stable country but unfortunately it is sliding into the abyss Jack Mwiimbu, Hakainde Hichilema’s lawyer Treason can carry the death penalty, although nobody is thought to have been executed in Zambia for 20 years. Mr Hichilema’s defence team is challenging the treason charge in court this week.

Public opinion is divided over the motorcade incident, with some Zambians accusing the government of suppressing the opposition leader on a flimsy pretext, but others blaming Mr Hichilema for what they describe as arrogant and reckless behaviour.

Telesphore Mpundu, the Catholic archbishop of Lusaka, weighed in on Zambia’s most serious political crisis in years, saying: “Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship.” Since the raid on his home, Mr Hichilema, 53, has been in jail, save for a few brief court appearances. Mr Lungu has refused to enter into dialogue with the opposition leader until Mr Hichilema recognises him as the country’s legitimate head of state. President Edgar Lungu, above, has refused to talk to Hakainde Hichilema until the opposition leader recognises him as the country’s legitimate head of state © Reuters Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born economist, said the political stand-off was “a really big distraction when there are so many other issues”. She pointed to a recent softening of copper prices after a long period of recovery, adding that Zambia’s dollar borrowing could come back to haunt it if US interest rates rise, the greenback strengthens and revenues continue to be weak. Zambia, Africa’s second-largest copper producer, issued three Eurobonds between 2012 to 2015, totalling around $2.8bn. While its ratio of debt to gross domestic product is a manageable 50 per cent, a low tax base means it spends almost 20 per cent of revenue on debt service, according to Fitch, the rating agency. Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa at Standard Chartered, said the foreign debt burden made the conclusion of a long-delayed International Monetary Fund programme essential to restore investor confidence. From the archive Africa is growing in fits and starts The hopes of resource-rich countries have faded along with commodity prices A delegation from the fund is due in Lusaka this month. But Mr Lungu’s government is believed to be reluctant to agree to some IMF conditions, including cutting politically sensitive fuel subsidies, especially at a time of rising public discontent.

In a sign of the economic hardship, eight people were crushed to death and 28 injured in a stampede for free food being handed out by a Lusaka church in March. One foreign investor said Zambia’s economic fundamentals were reasonable, if copper prices stabilised. But he added that political stability was crucial. “What we would like to see is the wheels of democracy run safely,” he said. Mr Mwiimbu fears that Mr Hichilema could spend months, even years, in prison. “There’s been a breakdown of law and order,” said Mr Mwiimbu, accusing the government of using the police and the judiciary to silence the opposition. The country is “going back to the days of a one-party system”.

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