In the week just past, Hakainde Hichilema – leader of Zambia’s main opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), and presidential candidate in the August 2016 elections –was arrested and later charged with treason for “obstructing” the motorcade of Edgar Lungu, the Zambian president. Fondly called “HH” by his supporters, Mr Hichilema’s “crime” was being on the same road as President Lungu, who is also leader of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party. There has been no love lost between the two since Mr Hichilema was declared to have lost last year’s polls, results affirmed by the courts when he sought redress. Despite this, Mr Hichilema refused to recognise Mr Lungu’s victory. So it was only a matter of time before the two would find reason to cross swords again. Mr Lungu has decried suggestions that he might have a hand in Mr Hichilema’s travails or that he could stop his prosecution. Still, Mr Lungu must be just a little delighted at the irony of being able to use his rival’s troubles to demonstrate how law-abiding he is: “How many of my own cadres are before the courts of law today?” Mr Lungu asked rhetorically at a rally of his supporters last week. The ruse that the whole episode is would be comical if it were not so serious.
Judging from the video of the incident, Mr Hichilema would probably be freed by the courts. Firstly, Mr Hichilema’s convoy was already on the Mongu-Limulunga road long before Mr Lungu’s that fateful day. Secondly, Mr Hichilema was not driving. More fundamentally though, the whole incident could have been avoided if Mr Lungu’s security team did its job. Typically, before a presidential motorcade proceeds, an advance party would have gone ahead to clear the road. In most countries, the entire route (including the decoys) is closed to traffic. Because the road in question is a single carriageway, what the advance party was supposed to do was to get Mr Hichilema’s convoy to halt long before Mr Lungu’s convoy got to the scene. To have wanted that to happen virtually seconds upon accosting Mr Hichilema’s convoy was just impractical. More appropriately, Mr Hichilema should have been advised of the presidential movement. There is no evidence as yet that he was. Still, considering the bad blood between the two, Mr Hichilema’s ostensibly longer convoy, and the outsized egos of African big men, Mr Lungu probably felt insulted. It is also likely that Mr Hichilema was just a little glad to show Mr Lungu some palpable disdain. Even so, Mr Hichilema committed no crime. If the courts follow the letter and spirit of the law, he should be freed quite soon. But that would likely matter little to Mr Lungu: Mr Hichilema would have languished in jail for days at least.
Taking lessons from tyrants
This recent incident however highlights observations that Mr Lungu is increasingly becoming tyrannical. It has been suggested that he may be taking lessons from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, whose handling of rivals or those who slight him and his household follows a similar pattern: harassments, arrests, frivolous prosecutions and so on. Incidentally, Mr Lungu has never hidden his admiration for the veteran Ugandan leader, who often returns the compliment by honouring Mr Lungu’s invitations in person. Incidentally, Mr Hichilema’s travails and Mr Lungu’s irritation coincides with President Museveni’s similar hurt by insults against him and his wife by a feminist academic, Stella Nyanzi. One struck a nerve: she derisively referred to him on her Facebook page as a “pair of buttocks”. “Empty-brained” was how she described his wife Janet, who also doubles as education minister. She has similarly been charged to court. Ordinarily, veteran Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), who has challenged Mr Museveni for the presidency some four times already, is typically the object of Mr Museveni’s wrath. Once his personal physician, Mr Besigye has endured years of arrests and harassment by the Museveni government. In charging Mr Hichilema with treason, Mr Lungu was probably copying from the Museveni manual: Mr Besigye was accused of treason in May 2016 for swearing-in himself as president after the disputed and highly irregular February 2016 polls. Treason charges against Mr Besigye were eventually dropped, just like they were more than a decade earlier. It is not exactly certain how long a recent rapprochement between the two –they agreed to foreign-mediated talks in February – would last. But judging from how effective Mr Museveni’s tactics have been at keeping his rivals at bay hitherto, it is probably the case that Mr Lungu may have found in his method a viable model for his own rule. This is a sad turn of events.