Recently Zambia deported a leading Zimbabwean opposition figure, Mr Tendai Biti while attempting to enter the country to seek political asylum. The opposition figure was handed back to Zimbabwean authorities despite having successfully obtained a court order restraining Zambian authorities from doing so.
The decision to hand over a man who claimed that his life was in danger in his home country because of his political activities has received local and international criticism. This is expected because it was a blatant disregard for international law by Zambian authorities, a decision that is actually simply embarrassing.
However, the deportation would not come as a surprise to those that have been following Zambian politics in the recent times. Biti took a strong stance as leader of a coalition of regional opposition political parties in condemning a growing culture of political intolerance in Zambia particularly during the incarceration of UPND leader Hakainde Hichilima, by Edgar Lungu’s led government.
In this video Biti is seen described Hakainde, Zambia’s leading opposition leader as his personal friend and described charges against him for treason as vexatious and frivolous, something Zambia’s ruling elite have clearly not forgotten. Biti is a strong critic of political intolerance in Zambia and has led a campaign calling for Zambia to return to its natural DNA of political tolerance, peace and love and protect constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Ironically Zambia is entertaining and hosting Moise Katumbi a leading opposition leader in the Democratic Congo Republic of Congo, who was barred from entering his home country by the Congolese government. The decision by the Congolese government to deny Katumbi is widely seen as a measure to bar Mr Katumbi from contesting in the impending presidential election in that country.
The double standards of the Zambian authorities in this matter punch holes in the country’s diplomatic policy and opens up the country to undesirable and unavoidable consequences on the diplomatic front. For instance the United States summoned Dr. Ngosa Simbyakula, the Zambian Ambassador to that country, in the wake of the “deportation” scandal involving the MDC leader Tendai Biti.
In a strongly worded statement, the US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the US government will be discussing this matter with President Edgar Lungu and reviewing certain aspects of its cooperation with the Zambian government.
“The United States government is gravely concerned by credible reports of numerous detentions, beatings, and other abuses of Zimbabweans over the past week, particularly targeting opposition activists. There should be no role for violence, intimidation, or harassment in the new Zimbabwe. We are also deeply concerned that Zambia chose to hand over former Minister of Finance Tendai Biti to the Zimbabwean authorities, and in the face of a reported Zambian court order blocking his expulsion from Zambia.” Ms Nauert said.
She added that the decision was particularly disheartening given the courage that Zambia showed in sheltering thousands of Zimbabwean freedom fighters from Rhodesian aggression in the days of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle.
Zambia has since insisted that its actions were proper and appropriate. Chief government spokesperson Ms Dora Siliya said that Mr. Biti’s request did not meet conditions for asylum as there was no breakdown of law and order in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of elections that saw the ZANU-PF’s Emerson Mnangagwa declared winner
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, expressed grave concern on the treatment of Biti by Zambian authorities, describing it as an act of Refoulment. Refoulement or forcibly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law. Lusaka High Court Judge Gertrude Chawatama signed an order against Zambia’s Immigration Department attempt to deport Biti back to Zimbabwe.
Zambia’s treatment of foreign opposition leaders is exhibiting signs of a worrying pattern of inconsistencies and disrespect for international law and human rights. When Zambia’s leading opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was incarcerated on a questionable treason charge, opposition leaders from the international community demonstrated solidarity with their incarcerated counterpart. These acts of solidarity did not sit well with those in power in Zambia.
South Africa’s Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane was forcibly deported from Zambia in a fashion South Africa likened to the behavior of the apartheid regime. DA Leader Mmusi Maimane, a Constitutional Office Bearer of South Africa, was forcefully prevented from entering the Republic of Zambia, by Zambian Police who boarded his arriving SAA flight upon touchdown. The episode was hard to defend even by Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa Emmanuel Mwamba after the opposition figure staged a protest outside the Zambian High Commission in Pretoria.
The Church in Zambia had warned that Zambia had slid into a dictatorship. It is now clear that those tendencies were not only affecting local opposition parties and civil society leaders but also affecting opposition leaders from other countries who may not be in good books with Zambia’s ruling elite. This is not only bad for Zambia’s governance record but also for its economic growth as no one wants to invest in a country that seems not to respect human rights and demonstrate commitment to protecting private property.