Exiled Zambian activist-rapper arrested in Lusaka

Zambian musician Fumba Chama, also known as Pilato, fled to Johannesburg after receiving death threats regarding an anti-corruption song that has been interpreted as being ‘insulting’ to President Edgar Lungu and his ministers (Oupa Nkosi)

Zambian musician Fumba Chama, also known as Pilato, fled to Johannesburg after receiving death threats regarding an anti-corruption song that has been interpreted as being ‘insulting’ to President Edgar Lungu and his ministers (Oupa Nkosi)

According to an eyewitness, Zambian rapper Fumba Chama, aka Pilato, was detained by plainclothes police on arrival at Kenneth Kaunda international airport on Wednesday afternoon.

He was returning to Lusaka from exile in South Africa.

In a tweet, the rapper said: “I have been detained at Kenneth Kaunda airport… Upon arrival, however the spirit will not die… I will hand over all my gadgets to the friends of Pilato, they will be updating you on everything.”

Pilato — whose stage name is an acronym for People in Lyrical Arena Taking Over — is an outspoken critic of the Zambian government.

In December 2017, the 33-year-old, dropped Koswe Mumpoto, which in Bemba means “rat in the pot”. He raps: “A rat has entered our house/ It is busy stealing, thinking we will not question it.” The song contains veiled references to current and former Zambian leaders and alludes to the country’s complicated politics.

READ MORE: Exiled Zambian rapper stirs the president’s pot

Koswe Mumpoto was an especially direct attack on Zambian President Edgar Lungu. On the day the song was released, Pilato began receiving threatening phone calls, voice-notes and messages from Lungu supporters.

The rapper left Ndola, his hometown, to seek refuge in Lusaka. But the threats of violence intensified when the youth wing of Lungu’s Patriotic Front, the governing party, weighed in.

Moses Chilando, a senior youth league official, gave Pilato 48 hours to “withdraw” the song. Instead, Pilato fled again: first to a rural farm and then, a few weeks later, to Johannesburg. 

“I haven’t been home since I released the song on December 11. I haven’t seen my wife; I haven’t seen my kids. I don’t know how safe they are back there,” Pilato told the Mail & Guardian in February.

A warrant for Pilato’s arrest was issued on February 5 after he failed to appear in a Zambian court on charges connected to his participation in a peaceful protest in September 2017. Pilato believes the timing of the warrant is suspicious.

In a statement, Amnesty International insisted that Pilato is an activist and artist, not a criminal.

The organisation’s regional director for Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, called Pilato’s arrest a “shocking affront to justice”. Muchena said: “It shows the lengths to which Zambian authorities are prepared to go to stifle dissent.”

The M&G reached out to the Zambian embassy in South Africa, but they did not respond to comment at the time of publication.

This is a developing story and will be updated as more details emerge.

UPDATE:

Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba has told the M&G that the Zambian embassy is surprised by Amnesty International’s statement, saying that it is based on “falsehood”.

He noted that Pilato left Zambia after being criminally charged for staging an “illegal” demonstration.

“Pilato fled the country, jumped his bail conditions. A bench warrant was issued against him and later an interpol arresting warrant was also issued,” Mwamba said. “So upon arrival at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport it’s was an obligation by any law enforcement agency to effect the arrest.”

Thus, he said, Pilato’s arrest was not “untoward and irregular”.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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