On Thursday afternoon, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane flew to Lusaka. It was an unexpectedly short trip. On Thursday night, he flew home again, having been denied entry by immigration officials.
Maimane was going to Zambia to attend the treason trial of Hakainde Hichilema, Zambia’s main opposition leader. According to local media, Maimane was told that his presence at that trial would somehow undermine the integrity of the court – and then he was put on the first plane home, minus his cellphone, which was confiscated by police.
The DA is aggrieved. “In stark contrast to the spirit of Africa Day today, an act akin to the tactics of the Apartheid government has occurred at Lusaka Airport this evening…It is a deeply shameful day for the Republic of Zambia, when a Leader of the Opposition from South Africa cannot pass freely into the country,” the party said in a statement.
This kind of aggressively hostile behaviour towards any kind of opposition may be expected from the governments of Zimbabwe or Angola. Until recently, it would have been unthinkable in Zambia.
But this is just the latest in a series of disturbing actions from Zambian President Edgar Lungu’s government. Zambia is supposed to be one of Africa’s most celebrated democracies; instead, under his rule, it is displaying a deeply worrying authoritarian streak.
The treatment meted out to Hichilema is the most obvious example of this. Hichilema was arrested last month in an unprecedented midnight raid. Dozens of armed policemen, many of them masked, descended on his Lusaka home, breaking down doors, throwing tear gas grenades and intimidating staff. This was an entirely unnecessary display of force, designed simply to intimidate.
Even more outrageous are the charges levelled against Hichilema. He stands accused of treason because his motorcade failed to clear the road quickly enough ahead of the president’s motorcade at a cultural festival. Yes, the charge is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, but it will keep Hichilema entangled in legal action for months. And because treason is a non-bailable offence, he remains in prison for the duration of the legal process, in the atrocious conditions typical of Zambian prisons (as the Mail & Guardian reported earlier this month). This tactic is clearly designed to keep Hichilema out of political life for as long as possible.
The truth is, if anyone is subverting Zambia’s government, it is President Lungu himself. The actions taken against Hichilema and Maimane, coupled with a concerted effort to close space for independent media and civil society organisations, have raised real fears within Zambia that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Lungu has also taken advantage of a controversial 2016 Constitutional amendment – which he pushed through – to stack the civil service and the judiciary with political appointees.
As Zambia’s influential Catholic Conference of Bishops recently noted, in a scathing and unprecedented statement: “Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship.”
This may be an exaggeration. Although the signs are not good, Zambia is not yet a dictatorship. And it is unclear whether Lungu is a sufficiently skilled political operator to make it so. His efforts to consolidate power have so far been ham-fisted and amateurish, opening himself up to easy criticism. The deportation of Mmusi Maimane could be another own goal – especially if it prompts the South African government to take action.
South Africa wields plenty of influence in Lusaka, thanks to the strong commercial and historical ties between the two countries, but has so far remained resolutely silent on Zambia. However, a sharply-worded condemnation from President Zuma might still be enough to keep Lungu’s autocratic instincts in check.
But Zuma might be part of the problem. As the Brenthurst Foundation’s Greg Mills noted on the Daily Maverick, “the emergence of a patronage regime in the hegemon, South Africa, may also have encouraged Lungu and his Patriotic Front to follow a similar path.”
Zambia is at a crossroads. It’s not too late for Lungu to walk back from the brink, and restore the rule of law and democratic process to his country. But given his crackdown on opposition at home, and the reluctance of the region to get involved, is anybody brave enough to persuade him to change course?