By Sishuwa Sishuwa
The Commonwealth’s intervention did not rescue Hichilema from detention. It rescued President Lungu from political embarrassment.
On 16 August, Zambia’s main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, walked to freedom after spending four months in detention. The moment, which came shortly after an intervention from the Commonwealth Secretary General, was celebrated with relief internationally.
Many saw Hichilema’s release as a sign that President Edgar Lungu is still open to reason. It was regarded by some as an indication that the Commonwealth continues to wield some influence over its members. The reality, however, may be the complete opposite.
Hichilema’s arrest for treason
To recap: Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), was arrested on 11 April. He was charged over an earlier incident in which his convoy failed to give way to President Lungu’s motorcade, which was heading to the same event. Another charge was later added that Hichilema and others had “conspired to mobilise an advance party to ensure that Hichilema was to be accorded the status of the President of the Republic of Zambia at the Kuomboka Ceremony”.
What a dispassionate observer may have regarded as a possible violation of traffic rules or presidential protocol was soon inflated into a treason charge. The police violently arrested Hichilema for “an act that was likely to cause death or grievous harm to the President of the Republic of Zambia, in order to usurp the executive power of the state”.
These actions were likely linked to the fact that the UPND refused to acknowledge Lungu as the legitimate winner of the 2016 elections. In fact, Hichilema’s arrest came almost directly after a press conference in which the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) Deputy Secretary General, Mumbi Phiri, demanded he be charged with treason.
For the next four months, condemnation of the government’s actions grew both within and beyond Zambia’s borders, but Hichilema’s case was never heard. The authorities seemingly used every legal manoeuvre possible to delay the trial and keep the opposition leader in prison, further stoking political tension. Repeated attempts by domestic actors to broker a dialogue between Lungu and Hichilema appeared to be heading nowhere. It was not until after the intervention of Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary General, whose four-day visit to Zambia in early-August was marked by a red-carpet reception, that there was noticeable movement.
Following a series of meetings with both leaders, the Commonwealth intermediary left the country on 10 August, four days before Hichilema finally had a chance to take his plea before the Lusaka High Court. Trial was to start on 16 August, but when the day arrived, the case was brought to a halt when the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) withdrew the charges. The opposition leader was finally free to go home.
Lungu’s grand plan
Now that the initial euphoria that accompanied the Hichilema’s release has subsided, a sober assessment about what happened is needed. The existing explanations focus issues such as: the decisive intervention of the Commonwealth Secretary General, who reportedly issued a vague threat of an international travel ban; the restoration of Zambia’s judicial independence; or the magnanimity of Lungu. But these theories are all lacking. Hichilema’s discharge is better understood as a result of the internal political dynamics, and was ultimately inevitable given the wider context leading to his arrest.
Indeed, Hichilema’s ordeal was long planned. Campaigning in June 2016, ahead of the August elections, Lungu responded to opposition allegations that he was trying to fix the race. “If Hichilema refuses to accept the results, he will see what I will do to him,” he said.
This suggests that Lungu had foreseen that he would win and that his opponent would contest the outcome. It also suggests that Lungu might have already been seeking a pretext on which to detain Hichilema or intimidate him into accepting the results. A treason charge is especially useful in this regard because it is non-bailable under Zambian law, and a pretext was found in the motorcade incident. The primary motive behind the charge was never to convict Hichilema – any trial would have revealed the glaring errors in the prosecution’s case – but to force him into accepting the election results.
What Lungu underestimated in his plan, however, was the strength of reaction to the arrest. Condemnation came from leading opposition figures in Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nigeria, all of whom publicised the Hichilema’s arrest and demanded his release. But the most significant opposition came domestically, from the influential Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB) led by Lusaka Archdiocese Telesphore Mpundu. Barely a week after Hichilema’s arrest, Mpundu issued a statement that, aside from condemning the treason charge, accused Lungu of dictatorship. Attempts by ruling elites to discredit the statement as not representative only prompted the other two Christian church bodies – the Council of Churches in Zambia and the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia – to reiterate the ZCCB position at a joint press conference that precipitated the Bishops’ first mediatory meeting with Lungu.
On 25 May, South Africa’s opposition leader Mmusi Maimane was then deported from Zambia. He had arrived to attend Hichilema’s court appearance, but was refused on the grounds that his presence would undermine the judiciary’s independence. This episode further highlighted the erosion of democratic principles under Lungu and the growing international pressure.
By July, when the Catholic Bishops started mediation efforts, it was increasingly evident that Lungu was searching for a way to release his nemesis without causing himself further political embarrassment. What possibly stopped him was the fear of creating the impression that he was capitulating to domestic opposition. Lungu was probably scared that if the Catholic Bishops succeeded in bringing the treason case to a halt, that would embolden them and confirm their influence. In other words, it is possible that Hichilema’s release would have arrived earlier if Lungu had found a non-threatening intermediary who could free him from a self-inflicted mess without further humiliation. The role of the Commonwealth’s Scotland should be understood in this context: as the missing link.
The Commonwealth to the rescue
On the eve of Scotland’s entry into the Catholic Bishops’ mediation efforts, it was clear to many that the treason charge against Hichilema was entirely cooked up and that Lungu had got himself into an untenable position. His claims concerning the independence of the judiciary and respect for the separation of powers were now widely seen as hollow. In accepting Scotland’s intervention, Lungu may have reasoned that it was easier to deal with an external organisation rather than a domestic political actor, especially one that had accused him of dictatorship. The Commonwealth Secretary General was the perfect candidate to assist Lungu in avoiding a more just end of the treason case, which would have exposed him as the villain.
In effect, therefore, Scotland let Lungu off the hook because if the treason case had run its course, the bogus nature of the charges and possible presidential involvement would have been laid bare. Scotland did not save Hichilema; she saved Lungu.
The release of Hichilema was not a result of Scotland’s intervention, but an inevitable outcome that would have been secured anyway, either by an acquittal if the trial had run its course or by its discontinuation. If Hichilema had been convicted, it would have been a serious indictment of the judiciary. Many would have concluded that the rule of law no longer applied in Zambia. The prosecutor’s decision to drop the case should also be seen in this context: as a belated attempt to salvage a modicum of judicial integrity.
Recent efforts by some commentators and even the Commonwealth itself to present its intervention as decisive are therefore misleading. If anything, Scotland and the Commonwealth were easily duped into a case that, more than anything else, reveals their desperate quest for relevance. If anyone deserves credit for the release of Hichilema, it is the Catholic Church Bishops and particularly Mpundu, who, in spite of repeated attempts by the ruling elites to intimidate and discredit him, refused to be silenced.
This is not to downplay the role of external actors, but simply to place their efforts in context. If anything, the Commonwealth needed Zambia more than Zambia needed the Commonwealth. Appearing to negotiate a successful political settlement gives the organisation a sense of purpose. In reality, dialogue had already begun under the auspices of the Catholic Church, and it was only Lungu’s unwillingness to accept any local intervention that provided Scotland with a fortuitous opening.
Lessons from the episode
Scotland’s role seems to overlap considerably with the job description of the United Nations Resident Coordinator (UNRC) in Zambia, whose inaction is somewhat baffling. The primary role of a UNRC, a position currently occupied by Janet Rogan, is to prevent or arrest a slide into chaos and conflict. Precisely what Rogan – seen by many Zambians as too close to the levers of power and easily mistaken for a PF functionary – has been doing over the last year is unclear. What is the purpose of the UN if not to intervene in situations of escalating political tension and violence that threaten to descend into chaos?
Another important point to note about the process leading to the release of Hichilema is that Lungu and the PF’s pan-Africanist credentials are in tatters. Attempts at mediation from institutions within Zambia and from African political actors were either rebuffed or wilfully obstructed. When one contrasts the spectacle of a prominent African politician, South Africa’s Mmusi Maimane, being physically prevented from disembarking in Lusaka with the red-carpet treatment accorded to a representative of Zambia’s former colonial power, the hypocrisy is staggering. It could hardly be more damning: prioritising links with the successor organisation to the British Empire over relations with local institutions and African political actors is a total rejection of the idea of “African solutions to African problems”. It exposes Lungu’s criticism of external intervention as entirely self-serving.
The final broader point to note about the release of Hichilema relates to the publicised dialogue between Hichilema and Lungu, spearheaded by the Commonwealth. At the conclusion of her mission to Zambia, Scotland announced that the two political leaders had committed to a process of dialogue aimed at diffusing tension, preserving peace, and resolving key differences ahead of the 2021 elections. She subsequently appointed a special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to oversee the talks in conjunction with local civic organisations, including the Catholic Church. Yet a month since Hichilema was released, nothing concrete has happened. Gambari recently travelled to Zambia and met the two leaders separately. According to a well-placed source, Gambari is said to be of the impression that Lungu appears unready for dialogue. This observation is unsurprising and should be understood as a consequence of the marginal role that the Commonwealth in fact played in securing Hichilema’s release.
Along with agreeing to talks, it is widely believed that Hichilema agreed to stop contesting the legitimacy of Lungu’s rule in return for unspecified institutional reforms relating to electoral law, judicial independence, media freedom and the police. These demands for reforms, we are told, are to be tabled at their meeting when it finally takes place. But even if this is true, Hichilema is likely to be disappointed: Lungu is unlikely to institute any reforms that would undermine his own position and bid for absolute power. There is also no mechanism to enforce any agreements reached through these talks. The terms and conditions of the agreement for Hichilema’s release do not seem to have been made public, and all that is known about them comes from leaks from various sources.
In addition, if Hichilema agreed to stop challenging the 2016 election, this would seem to give legitimacy to the deceptions that produced such a flawed result, thereby giving us every expectation of seeing the same or worse in 2021. If Scotland imagines that she has made an agreement with Lungu, she is naive. But then this perhaps explains why Lungu gave consent to her intervention. Scotland and her envoy are easier to manipulate than Catholic Bishops who understand the cut and thrust of African politics as the ruthless pursuit of political power, and the slippery nature of trying to change the behaviour of a leader with authoritarian tendencies.
By contrast, Scotland has neither the experience of such politics nor of mediating in such a political dispute. She is instead relying on a vocabulary of “democracy, peace, good governance and the rule of law” which has little or no interpretive power for understanding African politics, but which has considerable potential for occluding the problem that she is supposed to be addressing.
Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian historian and political commentator
This article first appeared in African Arguments.
tell us something new ************
Malabishi! so this guy even went to school to come and write such long crap?
Nonsense! I have never read an article as biased article as this one. Take a seat you chi UPND cadre
is this story not over yet? even MPs agreed to recognize the fact that elections were fair after one month of no salary. Garry Nkombo was even the earliest to be sited in parliament on Friday.
A good read but I dont agree, that Scotland saved Lungu.
Just first sentence is enough. I will not read more.
It was Edgar who has been temporary saved.
Rubbish article. Why did HH then agree to be released? He should have insisted for the matter to proceed to trial…
Wabepa Tata…no government or president ever condemned Lungu
We had not reached that stage yet but we were heading there.
Kaili they have no time to condemn insignificant tinpot visionless drunkard dictators. They know we are capable of getting rid of them ourselves
U see the argument of the two cadres 2.1 and 1.2 very shallow this are HH advisers what can we get from him(hh)
Sishuwa what a bunch of tripe, crap and hogwash. Merely ideas in your thick head without a shred of research.
“These actions were likely linked to the fact that the UPND..”
“Many saw Hichilema’s release as a sign that President Edgar Lungu..”
“Along with agreeing to talks, it is widely believed that Hichilema agreed…”
Idiocy in UPND will never end. What a bunch of turds and douche bags. Under5 in the flesh
Sishuwa if you are positioning yourself to be a Spokesperson in Under5 Kaponya’s Utopian government think again because In 2021 UPND will be 4th to NAREP and MMD, maybe even 5th after FDD.
Sishuwa type of thinking, Mushipe type of Lawyer, Jack “Preliminaries” Mumbwe type of petitioning, Under5 Kaponya type of leadership – this is the caliber of members left in a party which was once upon a time the most powerful opposition and logical replacement for MMD.
Anderson Kambela Mazoka’s dream has been trashed by the low caliber directionless Under5 kids left in UPND. Look at the sewage brains like GBM, Poor writers like this Sishuwa that’s UPND for you.
wamukunda nyoko. Actually all pf *****s mwakunda manyokwe
Indeed he is a historian who wants to tread in other people’s heroic past, at is age he is still talking about the past when Zambian’s have long forgotten about the issue.
ECL is still the president of the nation no matter what other people may say? He will continue to reign as the republican president.
They are just frustrated people who wanted something from HH now that HH’s time has been denied to rule the nation, they are busy talking ill about ECL.
This is probably the most stupid article I have ever ready on this subject.
Wena Sishuwa, are you a kanamunungu of a person! We all know Lungu has a stinking inferiority complex his father having been a muzungu’s kaboy! So when he saw the Baroness Scotland, anali njenjenjeeee! She is a tough one not like the Doras and Mumbi-Phiris of this world ba binyo byebi nyafuta mabuku a tuswende!
Very true article….lungu was saved by the CW…..
What Crap of a biased foolish historian. What did HH say before elections my foot
Sishuwa sounds right, it just that some of us our education is so limited to be able to comprehend it. especially those who can’t think outside the box or who have narrow minded its surely not easy to understand.
Why didn’t you then advise your hakainde to reject the nolle??
You obviously are totally clueless about how the system and nolles work! Go back to school and try not to expose your ignorance here!
Well presented arguments in your article. I am with you on the little recognition given to Archbishop Mpundu for securing HH’s release. He and the other Catholic Bishops worked behind the scenes to soften Lungu only for Scotland to come in and take credit. The more we learn to listen and learn from fellow Zambians, the better democratic governance we will have.
Quote from Sishuwa’s article: “What a dispassionate observer may have regarded as a possible violation of traffic rules or presidential protocol was soon inflated into a treason charge.” Which dispassionate observer are you are referring to? You mean a UPND observer? Did you listen to what that South African political analyst said on SABC – that HH would have been shot dead if he had done that in the US to an American presidential motorcade? And you call this a violation of traffic rules! What sort of twisted thinking is this coming from a so-called Oxford educated intellectual!
This is an extremely stu.pid man Mr. Sishuwa. People need to listen to that Izhak Khomo interview. Mr. Sishuwa is so d.ull that he does not seem to realize that HH’s case has embarrassingly exposed those South African opposition stooges and Raila in Kenya on whose payroll they are.
@Facts. Firstly That incident would never happen in the US. The secret service would’ve cleared that road HRS ahead. This is why some of us think that the whole incident was planned ahead so that HH can arrested. Whenever the president travels by road, the road usually gets cleared by the police way ahead but this was not the case in that incident. A presidential motorcade doesn’t just appear from nowhere like that and starts trying to force people out of the way. The analyst from SABC you’re talking about must very shallow minded. Such nonsense doesn’t happen in civilized societies. The last thing you expect to happen in America is the Secret Service shooting at an opposition leader’s motorcade. In fact opposition leaders there are given state security. In America people openly…
Don’t use America to justify stupidity in Zambia. American politicians have too many important things to do than focus on fighting opposition leaders. In America, the president gets insulted openly every single day by anyone including Musicians and movie actors (not that it’s ok). You will never hear that a person in America is being prosecuted for insulting the president. You need to understand that America is a model of democracy and not rely on lies being told by a dull analyst from SABC.
11.2 and 11.3 – First listen to and watch the interview before you draw premature conclusions. You are just embarrassed by what that journalist said. Nolle Nolle – When you say “Such nonsense doesn’t happen in civilized societies”, are you aware that America has suffered several Presidential assassinations and attempts? Also, I feel sorry for your way of thinking – you seem to glorify insults heaped on the American President as democracy.
RUBBISH. SOUR GRAPES.ECL ALL THE WAY
Sishuwa Sishuwa this is one of the best articles that you have written. Good and accurate analysis. I’ve been reading Sishuwa Sishuwa’s articles for a longtime now and this man is an independent thinker. His articles are never biased. He never takes sides but writes the truth.
Sounds like you mean the reverse to me.
Iwe Sishuwa, your delivery is TRASH!!! SAD!!!
This chap is sick as simple as that.
In his own mind he thinks – he has written a master piece. This is all based on imaginations. That only works if you want to write (i) fictional articles, (ii) stories or (iii) movie scripts
This article is not worth serious considerations. So lets just call this guy a FICTITIOUS WRITER. !!!!
This article is on point … Good analysis Mr Sishuwa .
mbuzi iwe,khuku yakanthu.
This whole drama simply confirmed the luck of direction and vision in a head.
Oh shut up and give us break. Next time he goes in he won’t find it easy to get out.
Nonsense!!!that door was closed long ago and nobody in Zambia needs the opinion of this man about this matter.
Just find what to do man.President Edgar Lungu never lost anything.its actually HH who suffered and lost a lot because nobody on Earth can ever reverse the 4 months HH wasted in jail.If Edgar Lungu’s PF popularity was damaged by this,PF could have not won 8 out of 10 seats during the by eletions last week.so spare us please!!!COME 2021 NI PF NAFUTI NAFUTI!!
Rubbish why taking us backwards instead of forward, idi.ot.
The guy is in same league with Dr.s Chimbwi Kabwili n Gbm…shallow n irritating
Sishuwa’s write up is mere speculation, a hunch feeling. What If I told you the it was Mutinta’s appeal to Ester that had more effect. You cannot say this or that person or party prevailed more. It was the sum of all these appeals culminating in Ms Scotlands visit to Zambia, and her toing and froing between State House and Mukobeko that led to the drop in charges.
They say u wawa tabula akabepesho. They don’t want to accept that even now HH would be at Mukobeko had Mrs Scotland not brokered a deal. GRZ could have done anything to keep the rebel under lock and key
Zambia is better without agitators. Please go away, far away, we are tired of you!
Malabish! You are busy dreaming of state house while ba coswe are busy on a rampage. Debate real issues.
The truth hurts, dull chaps are busy catching feelings here coz the plain truth has been laid out plain!
Dull chaps! indeed
Point all of you are missing !
The judiciary is independent and does not take its orders from State House.
The President has no say in whom to arrest and whom to prosecute
DPP office is not an extension of OP !
What is wrong with all of you, as if ECL simply ordered the release of HH ?
If thats what you truly believe then we are living in a monarchy not a democracy !!!
ECal cannot be blamed and neither can he be credited with either arresting or releasing anyone !!
If elections were based on LT postings Mr Hakainde Hichilema would have been president a long time ago.
Blame is an insult to the poor brain while it is a blessing to the rich brain. Dull ones will always be on their side where blame is an insult.
We are still counting how many people were killed in Southern province at instigation of Hichilema after he lost both the January 2015 and August 2016 elections. He’s lucky not to be behind bars, we are watching him
HH can’t say no to violence no to killing he delighted to see people killing each other according to Commonwealth agenda of the Freemasonry .
Commonwealth muzungus are poisonous they don’t invest they just harvest from the colonial rule up to now they cannot change the agenda but advanced in stealing . It took Chinese contractors to help Africa develop . Muzungus must be ashamed of themselves because their satanic policy cannot help the black community .
Catholic Bishop mpundu address the southern people to stay away from hate , killing of other tribes . God is watching . One Zambian one Nation .
Perfect analysis. Lungu was scared that power would slip off his hands to HH who rightfully won the elections on 08/16. So yes, Lungu had intimidate HH. He did that by arresting him. Criminal behaviour.
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