Lungu’s power grab: Complete

Edgar Lungu is not afraid to call himself a dictator. 

The Zambian President returned to Lusaka on Tuesday, following the African Union Heads of States Summit in Ethiopia. He was greeted by a massive fire that gutted his country’s largest trading hub, City Market, and destroyed the personal property of several thousand merchants.

Security Service officials allege the blaze stands as only the most recent episode in a string of arson attacks directed at parastatal buildings. They point to more than half a dozen infernos that burned through government-owned bazaars, hostels, courthouses, and the Zambia National Commercial Bank, alongside an “act of sabotage” that cut power to the country’s Copperbelt region.

Speaking to local press outlets upon his arrival in Lusaka, Lungu announced his intention to “up [the] game” of policing operations.

“If it means taking measures which are unprecedented we will do just that; some people will have to lose their rights,” the president declared.

“People who have lost their property have lost their livelihoods. So if I become a dictator for once bear with me.”

The remarks alarmed UPND opposition leaders, who have long maintained the arson attacks are likely a covert effort by Zambia’s ruling party, the Patriotic Front, to consolidate Lungu’s power and pivot toward authoritarianism.

During an April press conference, UPND Chairperson Mutale Nalumango stated the fires were simply “a ploy by the government to cause a state of emergency which will result in a one-party state”.

The assertion, out of context, would appear to be little more than an abject conspiracy theory. However, as previous reports explored, Lungu has made significant ground in purging Zambia of any effective opposition to his regime.

In June, forty-eight UPND members of Parliament were suspended for boycotting the president’s state of the nation address – a majority of the rival bloc’s total body.

According to an article 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.”

Several weeks earlier, the opposition party 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 security officers inundated Hichilema’s home with tear gas before taking the politician into custody.

The UPND leader has been held in detention for more than three months, and Zambia has denied requests by international observers to sit in on his upcoming trial – most notably one from Mmusi Maimane, who was refused entry to the country after landing in Lusaka.

In response, Maimane declared that any punishment ultimately handed down would be the product of 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 asserted.

“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.”

In an odd showing of solidarity with the DA leader, Zambia’s Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed, “[Zambians] are afraid to speak out against injustices,” and “our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship”.

In a short few months, Lungu has subverted his own Parliament, caged his most powerful political rival, consolidated his influence over the police and court systems, cloistered Zambia from meddlesome champions of human rights, and now, allegedly, set the stage for a justified, absolute power-grab. What’s more, if Lungu’s latest press conference proves anything, it’s that he’s willing to brag about it. 

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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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