16 June 2017

Zambia 'Becoming a Dictatorship', Say Church Leaders

Photo: Zambia Reports
Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema.

Church leaders in Zambia are worried that the country is turning into a dictatorship with challenges relating to governance, restrictions on people's freedoms and human rights violations. The strongly-worded statement by three church bodies published on Friday calls for the release of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema who is currently in jail facing treason charges.

"We find it hard to find other ways of describing rather than to say, here are signs of a kind of regime which has the tendency of dictatorship," Cleophas Lungu, Secretary General, Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, told RFI.

The joint statement by the Council of Churches in Zambia, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia and the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops said that they cannot stand by during a "continued state of political tension". The 13-page document said that "Zambia eminently qualifies to be branded a dictatorship".

Hichilema, leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), was jailed in April following an incident between a convoy of vehicles belonging to the UPND and a motorcade carrying President Edgar Lungu.

The UPND leader was moved from a prison in Lusaka to a maximum security jail outside the capital on 9 June.

The Zambian church groups liken recent actions by the country's authorities as similar to treatment by the country's former colonial administration.

"Dogs were unleashed on Africans by the colonial masters and the powers that be can do that now," said Father Lungu, referring to treatment of Hichilema by the Zambian police force during the UPND leader's arrest.

"Certain people, especially those who are perceived as political opponents of the powers that be or the current establishment, are being treated in a manner that is no different from the way Africans were treated in the colonial era," Father Lungu said by telephone.

Zambia's parliamentary speaker earlier in the week suspended 48 opposition MPs for boycotting a speech by President Lungu. The lawmakers were suspended from the national assembly for a month with Speaker Patrick Matibini challenging them to resign if they did not recognise the government's legitimacy.

"Generally, there's a lack of tolerance for divergent views," said Linda Kasonde, Chairperson, Oasis Forum, an umbrella group of civil society organisations. "The nation is more or less divided half and half between the ruling party and the main opposition party," Kasonde told RFI.

"Dialogue is very important, because ultimately it's not about them [the politicians], it's about the people of Zambia, it's about serving the interests of the people of Zambia and their job is to serve the best interests of the people of Zambia," said Kasonde, who's Oasis Forum group also published a statement this week.

As well as demanding Hichilema's release, church leaders are also calling for national dialogue. "The time has come for key stakeholders to come round a discussion table," said Father Lungu. "There would be sincere, honest and respectful dialogue that should be aimed at reconciliation."

Hichilema lost Zambia's 2016 election to Edgar Lungu and challenged the result in court claiming a number of irregularities.

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