The Catholic Church had harsh words for government following the arrest of opposition UPND president Hakainde Hichilema for treason. Telesphore George Mpundu, Archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated on 23 April:
“The Prophet Jeremiah reminds us that we cannot claim to know God if we fail to confront the injustices in our society. Consequently, people who inflict pain and suffering to their fellow human beings cannot claim to know God, let alone be Christian!
We do not in any way condone illegality. We nevertheless deplore the massive, disproportionate and entirely unnecessary force with which the police acted in apprehending him [HH]. We are deeply saddened by the incidents of unprofessional and brutal conduct of the police, the damage to innocent citizens’ property by suspected cadres, the arbitrary arrests and horrific torture of suspects, as well as the careless, inflammatory and divisive statements of our political leaders. Our democratic credentials which have not been much to go by at best of times have all but vanished in this nation.
We are convinced that a big part of the problem is that politics in Zambia are still reeling in the hangover from the pre-independence political struggle, which was reinforced in the one-party-state, deriving from the wrong perception that political competition is aimed at annihilating or totally silencing political opponents! It is the same story from one administration to the other. Anyone who criticises government for wrongdoing is sure to have the police unleashed.
We have always been concerned about the selective application of the Public Order Act by the police. It is quite disgraceful that a quarter of a century after the return to plural politics, and more than half a century of political independence from Great Britain, our governments use the Public Order Act to oppress political opponents.
It is an open secret that the judiciary have let the country down by failing to stand up to political manipulation. How can one explain the failure of the Constitutional Court to hear and exhaustively conclude a presidential petition? We also strongly denounce attacks on the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ), and government’s plans to undermine it. Together with the judiciary, LAZ is the last defence of citizens particularly in respect of excesses by the executive.
There is fear and trembling among the people as shown in the way they are afraid to speak out against injustices. Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship, and if it is not yet, then we are not far from it. Our political leaders in the ruling party often issue intimidating statements that frighten people and make us fear for the immediate and future.
The politicians, especially those in the ruling party, must realise that the nation is deeply divided between those who voted for UPND and those who voted for PF. Let the politicians of both parties take it from us, since we always have our ears close to the ground, that our country now stands on the edge. Only genuine and sincere dialogue aimed at national reconciliation is the long-term solution.”
It was difficult to formulate an appropriate comeback to the statement from the Catholic Church, so government chose to ignore most of it. Chief government spokeswoman Kampamba Mulenga released this statement on 23 April:
“Government has maintained that it remains open to dialogue on various issues affecting the country. Chief government spokesperson Kampamba Mulenga says despite remaining open to dialogue, political parties like the opposition UPND have not been forthcoming. Ms Mulenga says the opposition party has on several occasions refused to recognise President Edgar Lungu being a legitimately elected head of state. She says government has however ignored all this because it is focusing on serving the interests of citizens instead of politicking.”
Frank Bwalya, deputy spokesman of the ruling PF party, joined the debate on 25 April:
“The manner in which the PF government has responded to the statement by the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops speaks volumes about the respect President Lungu’s government has for the church in Zambia. We are particularly impressed by the approach and choice of words by the chief government spokesperson in her prudent response. In the past, statements such as the one by the Catholic clergyman received sharp and harsh reactions. But President Lungu has introduced a new culture of dialogue based on mutual respect. As a matter of fact the PF government has demonstrated commitment to accommodate divergent views from stakeholders with a reputation of meaning well, even when such views are based on opinions that don’t reflect reality. We wish to encourage Archbishop Mpundu not to doubt the sincerity of the PF government to dialogue with church leaders. In the same vein, we wish to encourage the Archbishop to heed the request by Ms Mulenga to engage the UPND, including their refusal to recognise a duly elected and validly sworn-in republican president.”