Government continued to respond to international criticism of its arrest of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema (HH) for treason.

Last week, it was Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition and former prime minister of Kenya, a country with its share of electoral violence, who commented on 19 April:

“Treason for a traffic incident – this speaks of vengeance not justice. Frankly, the international response has been weak. Ruling parties don’t go easily, even when they lose. We know about this in Kenya! The idea that one man and one party knows best, and that all alternatives should be repressed, has throughout history proven a disastrous route to follow. We Africans need to stand up and be counted when democracy is under threat on our continent. What has been happening in Zambia must not pass without comment. It is a direct assault on Zambia’s democratic traditions and a stain on the continent’s record. Quickly releasing HH would be a good first step for the cause of democracy.”

Government, through spokesperson Kampamba Mulenga, responded on 8 May:

“Releasing someone who is still being tried in court cannot in anyway promote democracy but lawlessness, because every other suspect will also ask to be released. We are a sovereign state, and we don’t meddle in other countries’ governance issues, so, we don’t expect other countries to meddle in the running of our affairs, especially those that are in court.”

This week, government turned to former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Greg Mills, head of the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa. Right after HH’s arrest, the duo appealed to government to adhere to the rule of law, but government dismissed their motives, arguing that they are linked to South African mining interests that funded HH’s election campaign. However, Obasanjo and Mills had more to say on 11 May in an article about elections:

“Aside from questions of openness and liberty, the record shows that democracies, at least in Africa, do much better than their authoritarian counterparts when it comes to economic growth and development. But a free and fair election involves more than what happens on the day itself. For example, [US think tank] Freedom House’s current downward rating of Zambia ‘reflects the restrictive environment for the political opposition in the run-up to general elections’.”

PF deputy secretary general Mumbi Phiri reacted on 14 May:

“The entire international community starting from former US President Barack Obama, Angela Merkel of Germany, the Queen of England, Presidents Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Pope Francis II and indeed all leaders from functioning democracies in Africa and beyond endorsed the election of President Lungu. How hard is it for Brenthurst, Obasanjo and Hichilema to swallow humble pie and accept the poll? We resent the deliberate bad press and distorted facts Anglo America and retired military ruler Obasanjo are placing on a peaceful nation like Zambia. Mr Obasanjo was once accused of being responsible for political repression in Nigeria. In one particular recorded instance, the compound of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti was raided and gutted (…) and his mother was killed by being thrown from a window. Is this the kind of man that can condemn the administration of President Lungu, a law-abiding Christian president? As a party, we are tired of reading distortions in the international press skewed at making us look bad. From now on, every lie told about us shall be countered with the harsh truth of those peddling the lies. Give justice a chance! This is Zambia, not a military regime or a family trust!

And then there was Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development, Birmingham University, UK. In April, Cheeseman argued that government was violating Zambia’s “fragile democracy”. That comment was ignored by government, but this week Cheeseman stated:

“Until now, Zambia’s progress under multi-party politics has been quietly impressive. Over the last year, though, things have changed. (…) According to the Conference of Catholic Bishops – one of the most influential bodies in the country – Zambia doesn’t deserve to be called a democracy (…) it has become a dictatorship – or getting there. Many Catholic leaders were seen to be sympathetic to the PF, when it won power under Michael Sata in 2011, so what has changed? This is not the first time that a Zambian president has sought to consolidate his authority by manipulating state institutions. Nor is it the first time that opposition leaders have been arrested, or civil society groups intimidated. In the recent past, these moments of high political tension have often been resolved peacefully, (…) but it’s unlikely that Lungu will cede his quest to remain in office. First, key civil society groups such as the trade unions have been weakened by privatisation, informalisation and unemployment. Second, the Constitutional Court, that’s responsible for interpreting the constitution, was handpicked by Lungu. Third, Lungu’s case is more complicated than Chiluba’s. In 2001, the second president had served two full terms in office and wanted one more. Today, Lungu is arguing that he should be allowed to have a third term because his first period in office did not count, as he was just serving out the final year of Sata’s term. All of this means that Lungu is likely to get his way. (…) Opposition protests are inevitable, as is some civil society criticism. If past form is anything to go by, Lungu’s government will respond with threats and intimidation.”

PF deputy secretary general Mumbi Phiri reacted on 16 May:

Cheeseman is nothing but an attention-seeking professor, who thinks he can lecture us about democracy. The people of Zambia spoke through the vote, and their wishes must be respected by all, including Cheeseman. Cheeseman creates the impression that there was a letter authored by all Catholic bishops, which labelled Zambia as a dictatorship. For the record, that was an opinion expressed by the archbishop. (…) It is irresponsible for Cheeseman to compare ours with late President Frederick Chiluba’s third-term bid. The view that the current constitution allows President Lungu to seek re-election (…) is before the courts of law. (…) the PF will respect the outcome of the court system. President Lungu’s good governance record remains solid. It was President Lungu’s administration that took the referendum on the proposed Bill of Rights to the people. (…) it was UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema who campaigned against it. It is President Lungu’s administration, which allowed for the 50%+1 clause in the constitution, the running mate clause, and reduction of presidential powers. President Lungu believes in an independent judiciary. (…) Today, Zambia has a Constitutional Court, something that was unheard of in the history of our nation. While the opposition petitioned the Constitutional Court, President Lungu remained calm until the matter expired. We wish to correct the view that human rights of politicians in trouble with the law are being violated. Citizens, who are also politicians, and on trial, have appeared in court within a week of being charged, and (…) for continued trial. The due process of the law is clearly being followed to the letter. Professor Cheeseman‘s daydream, that Zambia is falling from grace because of HH’s arrest, is a lie. Zambia remains a shining example of democracy not only on the African continent but world over.”