Zambia’s leading opposition figure, Hakainde Hichilema and his co-accused walked to freedom on Wednesday 16th August, 2017 after the state entered a nolle prosequi [the plaintiff or prosecutor decides to stop legal proceedings] in the matter in which they were charged with treason.
The release came after Hichilema, President of the United Party for National Development (UPND), spent four months in maximum remand prison in conditions described by his supporters as dehumanizing. Zambia’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Lillian Siyuni on Wednesday morning filed a ‘nolle prosequi’ in the case where Hichilema and five others were supposed to stand trial. The accused party had pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charges.
The release of Hakainde popularly referred to as HH signals the commencement of the end of a protracted political impasse that has resulted in heighted political tension in the country following failure by the opposition to accept the results of the August 2016 general elections. This was after their petition in the Constitutional Court could not be heard and determined for want of time as the 14 days stipulated by the constitution had elapsed.
The UPND leader was arrested in April during a police raid on his home in the capital Lusaka. Hichilema was said to have endangered the life of the president when his motorcade refused to give way to a presidential convoy months back.
Hichilema along with five others, was charged with three offenses: treason, disobeying lawful orders and using insulting language. The state prosecutor dropped the second charge whiles the magistrate struck out the third citing incoherent and untruthful testimonies by police officers.
Lawyers for the accused previously argued the case should not proceed to a high court because the officer who issued the trial papers had no authority to do so. The UPND have maintained that the 2016 polls were rigged in favour of President Edgar Lungu and the ruling Patriotic Front (PF). They have however failed to overturn the results through the courts.
Whilst HH was in prison, local and international pressure was mounting on the government to drop his charges as failure by his motorcade to give way to President Lungu’s motorcade could not have been cited as treason, yet it was the basis for his brutal arrest together with his domestic workers.
President Lungu proclaimed a Threatened State of Emergency which was upheld by parliament whilst opposition members of parliament were absent in response to what he described as acts of sabotage following the burning of the country’s biggest market in the country’s capital Lusaka.
The release of HH was brokered through sustained international intervention at its climax the intervention by the Commonweal Secretary General Patricia Scotland who held a series of talks with Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu and his rival Hakainde Hichiilema a few days before his release. A few days before Scotland’s visit to Zambia, Nigerian former President, Olusegun Obasanjo held talks with President Lungu and also with then incarcerated Hichilema after which he declared that the gap between President Edgar Lungu and opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was narrowing.
General Obasanjo who flew into Zambia with South Africa President Jacob Zuma committed to ensure the political tension in Zambia was diffused. Zambian authorities had strongly resisted international advice on the matter of the arrest and detention of the opposition leader arguing that Zambia was a sovereign state. One victim of this decision was Mmusi Maimane, leader of Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition, who was forcefully deported at the airport on arrival to attend the trial of Hakainde Hichilema in the Lusaka magistrate court.
“I see that the gap between the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and His Excellency the President is narrowing and I think that we can move the country forward and put the issues of 2016 behind us. As an elderly African statesman, I remain fully committed to ensuring that peace and stability is in progress and continue to exist, not just in Zambia but in all the 53 countries in Africa”, General Obasanjo said.
Following HH’s release, the Commonwealth’s Secretary General described Director of Public Prosecutions Lillian Siyuni’s decision to enter a nolle prosequi in UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema’s treason case as reasonable.
She also announced that she had appointed Nigerian diplomat Professor Ibrahim Gambari as her dialogue envoy to Zambia. Scotland stated that the opposition leader’s release from prison was an opportunity for the country to move forward in the interest of all Zambians, and to achieve political cohesion and reconciliation through dialogue.
“The DPP’s decision to issue a nolle prosequi in the case against Mr Hichilema is reasonable and offers a unique opportunity for the country to move forward in the interest of all Zambians, and to achieve political cohesion and reconciliation through dialogue. The DPP, as a custodian of the public interest and the rule of law, must have weighed what was in the interest of justice and the public interest at this delicate point in Zambia’s history and decided that, at this material time, it was not in the interest of the public to prosecute the leader of the opposition, especially following the commitment to peace and harmony generously given by both President Lungu and Mr Hichilema to me during my recent visit to Zambia, and their pledge to engage in a constructive, responsible and forward-looking dialogue.
“She added that Hichilema’s release was an opportunity for Zambians and their leaders to show the world that the country still remains a symbol of peace and a beacon of stability, unity and political tolerance in Africa and the Commonwealth.” Scotland said.
Hakainde declared on release that he was 1o times stronger and would not rest until all the other party supporters who remain in detention across the country were released.
UPND legal counsel Jack Mwiimbu insisted that the right to be heard case the party has before the courts will not be discontinued as they fight for their election petition to be heard.