Hakainde Hichilema, Zambia’s main opposition leader, will wait until Friday on the verdict of his treason charge, that has already been twice rescheduled. The case was initially adjourned a couple of days due to the magistrate being unwell, and will now be delivered on Friday.
What was initially seen to be strongman scare tactics from State House turned into several nervous weeks behind bars for the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) leader, with Hichilema’s wife, Mutinta, pleading the international community to do all they can to free her husband.
Opposition activists have raised question marks about the credibility of the magistrate to make the ruling on whether or not Hichilema’s case will proceed to trial in the High Court. Magistrate Betty Malupenga is the wife of Amos Malupenga, a local government permanent secretary – prompting queries from UPND.
The charges were brought to Hichilema in no uncertain terms when his home was raided by policemen in balaclavas at the dead of night in an operation that left the 54-year-old’s mansion in tatters. Windows broken, ornaments displaced and the garden defecated on. Hichilema’s domestic helpers were tortured and others had tear gas sprayed on their genitals, according to local media reports.
“Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship; and if it is not yet, then we are not far from it,” declared Lusaka Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu when opening Sunday mass at the end of April. He laid plain what many in the country were thinking but feared to to say aloud.
Hazy in the aftermath, it later became clear that the charges for treason were brought forward for a traffic incident on the way back from the Kuomboka Ceremony in Western province. Hichilema’s convoy failed to let President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade through and according to the prosecution this was evidence of Hichilema’s attempts to conspire “to be accorded the status of president.”
After UPND lawyers demanded that the ‘baseless’ treason charges be dropped against Hichilema and five associates, Magistrate Greenwell Malumani – who led the legal proceedings – said that was only in the powers of the High Court, agreeing “the charge has no substance to be submitted for trial.”
The six men have been acquitted of charges of using insulting language, involving a tangle with the veracity of witness testimonies. Magistrate Malumani concluded that the witnesses had deliberately falsified their statements, with the intention to lie under oath.
This is only the latest instalment in a long running feud between the president and Hichilema, dating back two narrow elections, the most recent of which the opposition unsuccessfully disputed in constitutional court. In response, Hichilema antagonised the issue by not recognising Lungu’s Patriotic Front as the party in power. But what may come of it is still unclear as those with the power to create change sit idly by.
The African Union have remained silent on the issue and the closest SADC have come to lifting a finger has been through the Southern African Partnership for Democratic Change (SAPDC) imploring them to take action. Speaking on their behalf, South Africa’s main opposition leader who was recently advised against visiting Hichilema, Mmusi Maimane, said “As the regional bloc tasked with ensuring economic and political stability, it is high time that it spoke out and acted on this atrocity unfolding in a country once regarded as a beacon of democracy on the continent.”
Hichilema’s pleas to the international community have also seemingly fallen on deaf ears. When his house was under siege during the police raid and he took refuge in a panic room he spoke to no domestic media houses but rather South Africa’s Mail&Guardian and the UK-based Financial Times. His attempts to take the fight to the international arena rather than the one place he can win it, at home, are indicative of a domestic disconnect he has sometimes been accused of, and a distrust in censored local media.
The flaccid reaction to the situation could prove the end may justify the means for Lungu, according to activists. Hichilema has been locked up since April 11th as treason is a non-bailable offence and was restricted visitation. While the self-made businessman has been imprisoned his vice-president has slipped into hiding – with his whereabouts currently unknown.
Despite this, Hichilema has portrayed a figure of resilience. He recently told supporters through his carefully curated social media accounts that “This will not kill our spirit, they may inflict physical pain and humiliation, but that will do nothing to our spirit.” The statement spoke to the ‘we’ and ‘our’, addressing the collective, in search for solidarity from his supporters where others had left him wanting.