Edgar Lungu suspends 48 MPs in latest power grab

Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka is on edge after forty-eight UPND members of parliament were suspended for boycotting President Edgar Lungu’s state of the nation address. Those sanctioned constitute a majority of the opposition party’s total body of fifty-eight.

According to a report in the Lusaka Times, Parliament speaker and Lungu loyalist Patrick Matibini stated the MP’s actions constitute “gross misconduct” and that “if [the members] still maintain that they do not recognise the president, they should resign on moral grounds.”

The episode is only the latest in a string of developments that reflect a country ostensibly slipping into dictatorship.

In April, UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema was violently arrested and charged with treason for allegedly failing to yield to Lungu’s presidential motorcade. Reportedly, in a midnight raid, more than 100 armed police officers inundated Hichilema’s home with tear gas before taking the politician into custody.

Hichilema has been held in detention for the past eight weeks, but his plight erupted onto the international stage after Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane was refused entry into Zambia after landing in Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. South Africa’s opposition leader had previously expressed interest in attending the UPND leader’s trial in an effort to show solidarity with opposition parties around the world.

In a statement to the press, Zambia’s high commissioner in South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, said Maimane was deported because “his presence was going to undermine the sanctity, integrity and independence of the judiciary.”

In response, Maimane effectively declared that Hichilema is being tried by a Kangaroo Court.

“The violent nature of his arrest, and the inhumane treatment that Hichilema has received in detention confirms the political motives behind these charges,” Maimane said.

“I have no doubt these charges were manufactured by the Zambian government to intimidate those who are opposed to its oppressive rule, which is an abuse of power and a serious disregard of the rule of law.”

Tensions have been high in Zambia since a pair of elections in January 2015 and August 2016 resulted in narrow, contested victories for Lungu. Opposition party members – including Hichilema prior to his incarceration – have openly questioned the president’s legitimacy and filed several unsuccessful legal bids in the country’s Constitutional Court.

In an unprecedented foray into politics, Zambia’s Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement against what the organisation called Lungu’s recent efforts to “politicise the police.”

The group asserted, “[Zambians] are afraid to speak out against injustices,” and “our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship.”

Previous reports by the Mail & Guardian questioned whether Lungu possessed the political acuity to successfully consolidate power; his early pivots toward authoritarianism were sloppy at best.

However, this most recent move to subvert Parliament is disturbing, and it’s unclear how the international community will respond.

While Hichilema continues to fight a charge of treason (and its possible death penalty) and his suspended UPND allies are removed from government property, Lungu has, in effect, purged Zambia of any significant opposition to his regime.  

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Peter Rothpletz
Peter Rothpletz is an American writer and contributor to the Mail & Guardian. An alumnus of Yale University's Journalism Initiative, he primarily reports on international affairs, civil conflict, and radical extremism.

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