It appeared, at first, to be a bizarre coincidence. On Thursday, at roughly the same time, opposition leaders from Zambia and Zimbabwe appeared in court, both fighting treason charges that they claim are politically motivated.
In Lusaka, Hakainde Hichilema, the head of the United Party for National Development (UPND), defended himself against allegations that he deliberately obstructed President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade at a cultural festival, and that he conspired with others “to be accorded the status of president”.
In the high court in Harare, Pastor Evan Mawarire stood accused of subversion and “insulting the national flag of Zimbabwe”. Mawarire, who founded the #ThisFlag social movement, has previously argued that it is President Robert Mugabe’s government that is guilty of bringing the flag into disrepute.
Perhaps the coincidence of their simultaneous court dates is not so strange. Across the region, and the continent, space for opposition politics appears to be narrowing as governments seek to consolidate their power. Not for the first time, dubious treason charges are the weapon of choice.
Other victims include Moïse Katumbi, the Congolese politician who is now in self-imposed exile after being accused of recruiting mercenaries in a bid to overthrow President Joseph Kabila; Kizza Besigye, archnemesis of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who was arrested last year after declaring himself president in a mock swearing-in ceremony; and the 17 members of the so-called Luanda Book Club, a group of young activists in Angola who are being tried for “conspiracy to rebel” against the president.
Even in South Africa, usually seen as a beacon of African democracy, Economic Freedom Fighter-in-chief Julius Malema has found himself on the wrong side of a treason charge. The charge was laid in April 2016 by the ruling ANC, in response to an interview in which Malema said his party would be prepared to take up arms against the government. Legal experts have dismissed the case against Malema as groundless.
“This trend is part of a politics of delegitimising political opposition, a particularly negative trait of post-colonial politics, and one that contributes to a politics of exclusiveness and zero-sum options,” said Piers Pigou, Southern Africa researcher for the International Crisis Group. “It also reflects a tendency for governments to use the law for political agendas, designed to curb real and perceived opposition threats.”
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the South Africa’s Democratic Alliance and chair of the Southern African Platform for Democratic Change, a coalition of opposition parties in the region, said the charges against Hichilema and Mawarire are “trumped up”. Governments in the Southern African Development Community are employing tactics such as “wire-tapping, arrests and in some instances murder” to maintain their power, said Maimane.
“Intimidation and repression usually happen at a time when the governing party begins losing legitimacy among the people and then mimics the tactics of oppressive and repressive regimes.”
Maimane and his colleagues are right to be concerned, but it’s not all bad news for opposition politicians. Counterintuitively, the crackdown might suggest that opposition parties are more powerful than ever before.
“I have a hypothesis that one of the things that is happening is we’re seeing a lot of incumbents, who were holding power fairly comfortably, facing increasing challenges,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. “This is partly to do with economic difficulties; partly because people want to see more effective performances from ruling parties; but also partly because opposition parties are learning, becoming more effective and forming better alliances.”
In this context, Cheeseman argues, “the fallback on treason is a well-learnt response, we’ve seen that in previous decades”. It may be an old tactic but that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. For example, Hichilema’s lawyers estimate that, if the treason charge is confirmed at the ongoing preliminary hearing, his case could take as long as six months to be heard by the high court — six months in which Hichilema is not campaigning, criticising the government or organising the political resistance, giving the beleaguered Lungu a merciful respite from his fiercest foe.
On the other hand, Zambia’s president risks creating a martyr. “For better or worse, in this part of the world, sometimes in politics you’re not considered real unless you’ve been to prison,” said a prominent Zambian civil society figure, who asked not be named. “Hichilema is now real.”