On Wednesday 5 October, the Zambian police announced that they had arrested two of the main leaders of the United Party for National Development (UPND). This was not the first timer either party president Hakainde Hichilema or vice president Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba have been arrested – indeed Mwamba, popularly known as GBM, was detained earlier this year during a particularly heated election campaign. Zambians could therefore be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu, as even the charges were similar to those that have been brought against opposition leaders in the past: sedition and unlawful assembly.
However, in other ways the recent arrests represent a worrying new development in Zambian politics. Following controversial presidential elections that were marked by long delays and accusations of electoral malpractice, relations between the government and opposition have hit a recent low. On the one hand, Hichilema has refused to accept the official verdict, and has described the court proceedings that ratified it as a sham. On the other hand, President Edgar Lungu has shown no signs of being ready to adopt the conciliatory and inclusive stance required to build bridges and legitimate his government.
As a result, the tense political atmosphere is likely to continue, as is the game of brinkmanship between leaders on different sides of the country’s political divide. Instead of bring treated with respect, Hakainde and Mwamba have alleged that after their arrest they were denied the food, water, bedding, and warm clothing brought by their legal team. However, instead of persuading opposition leaders to give up the fight, their current difficulties appear to have hardened their resolve. For example, in a recent statement, Lungu explained that “… we are telling Lungu and his disputed regime that we shall not stop moving around the country to meet our structures and greet our people“.
In the past, charges against opposition leaders have typically been dropped quickly. However, although Hichilema was subsequently released on bail, having pleaded not guilty, it appears that the state may push ahead with prosecution in this instance. While this would have the benefit of distracting the opposition from campaigning against Lungu’s election, it would also further alienate opposition supporters and may become a sticking point in Zambia’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund – which has said that it is ready to pursue a $1.2 billion rescue package for the country’s ailing economy, but wants to see evidence that the president is willing to enact political and economic reforms.