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Remand of UPND leader for trial to trigger violent protests across Zambia, particularly in opposition strongholds

Published: 6/14/2017

The leader of Zambia's opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainde Hichilema, was remanded in custody on 9 June for trial on a charge of treason, after his arrest on 11 April.

IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • The remand of Hichilema and other opposition leaders for trial is highly likely to increase unrest, which in turn risks derailing recent positive economic developments.
  • Violent protests and riots are highly likely before and after the trial, the date of which has yet to be set, particularly in opposition strongholds, such as the Southern and Western provinces, as well as in Lusaka, the capital.
  • Access to tourism and energy assets is likely to be disrupted during protests in opposition strongholds, such as the proposed Batoka Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station in Southern province; ground cargo to and from neighbouring Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Angola also faces increased risk of disruption.


Protests and riots; Government instability

Sectors or assets

Individuals; Tourism; Property; Defence and security forces; Ground transport

UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema was remanded in police custody alongside five other party members after a magistrate ruled that they should face trial in the High Court over treason charges – a non-bailable offence with a minimum 15-year jail term and the death penalty as the maximum sentence. Following the ruling, local media reported that Hichilema had been transferred from Lusaka, the capital, to the Mukobeko maximum security prison in Kabwe, about 150 kilometres north of the capital.

The treason charges relate to claims that Hichilema's convoy allegedly obstructed the motorcade of President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF). Both convoys were travelling to participate in the traditional Kuomboka festival in Zambia's Western province.

Rising political instability and rivalry

The charging of Hichilema with treason comes against the backdrop of the closely fought 2015 and 2016 presidential elections. Zambia, historically regarded as one of the more politically stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa, has gone through a period of political turmoil since 2008. It has held four presidential elections in the years following the deaths in office of presidents Levy Mwanawasa (2008) of the centre-left Movement for Multi-party Democracy and Michael Sata (2014) of the PF.

Following the death of President Sata in October 2014, PF's Lungu won the presidential election held in January 2015 to serve the remainder of Sata's term, securing 48.8% of the vote; Hichilema of the UPND came a close second with 47.2%. In the August 2016 elections, Lungu again won the presidential poll with 50.4% of the vote (while the PF won 80 out of 156 parliamentary seats) against Hichilema's 47.6% (and the UPND won 58 parliamentary seats). The opposition UPND claims there were irregularities in the 2016 elections and filed a petition at the Constitutional ourt to stop Lungu's inauguration but the court rejected the petition. Hichilema and the UPND have since declared that they do not recognise Lungu's presidency.

The governing PF party has strongholds in the Muchinga, Northern, Copperbelt, and Lusaka provinces, whereas the UPND controls the Western, North-Western, Southern, and parts of the Central and Lusaka provinces. The UPND is also popular with the country's younger voters.

Deciphering Lungu's end-game

An IHS Markit source in Lusaka has commented Hichilema's arrest came as little surprise as it is consistent with reported plans by the PF to assert the legitimacy of Lungu's presidency. According to the source, the PF intends to do so by using state-backed power in the police and the courts to not only quell political opposition and dissent, but to weaken otherwise rising opposition prospects ahead of the 2021 elections. Before the latest developments, in October 2016, Hichilema and his UPND vice-president, Geoffrey Mwamba, were arrested on charges of sedition and unlawful assembly, and subsequently released on bail; Hichilema claims to have been detained by national security over a dozen times in the past five years. On 13 June, Patrick Matibini, the speaker of parliament, suspended 48 UPND members of parliament (MPs) for 30 days without pay for boycotting the president's address to the National Assembly in March. Matibini added that the UPND MPs should resign if they do not recognise President Lungu's legitimacy and urged the Inspector General of Police to consider investigating Hichilema for insulting Matibini's office, according to local media reports.

Hichilema's continued detention has attracted criticism from civil society groups, including the Zambian Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council, Amnesty International, and South Africa's Democratic Alliance party. On 9 June, the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to South Africa's governing African National Congress, led by its leader Mmusi Maimane, condemned the planned trial as political witch-hunting, that threatens to destabilise democratic politics in Zambia.

Outlook and implications

Remanding Hichilema and other opposition leaders for trial is highly likely to increase risks of protest and riots, which raises the risk of derailing the recent positive turn in economic developments. These are notably increased copper and electricity production, and falling inflation.

Violent protests and riots are highly likely in the run-up to the trial and, if Hichilema is convicted, in the immediate aftermath of the court's ruling in opposition strongholds such as the Southern and Western provinces, including in Lusaka. This presents death and injury risks to security force personnel, protesters and bystanders, during likely confrontations between UPND supporters and security forces and PF supporters. Nearby retail outlets and transport infrastructure will face risk of collateral damage, while key access roads in UPND strongholds face risk of disruption from likely roadblocks. This increases risk of disruption of ground cargo travelling to and from neighbouring Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Angola.

Commercial farms, particularly those owned by close associates of the ruling PF in the opposition strongholds of Southern and Western provinces, face moderate risk of targeted mob raids and looting. In addition, tourism and energy assets in opposition strongholds are likely to be affected by UPND roadblocks, disrupting access to key facilities. These include Victoria Falls and the site of the proposed Batoka Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station, which is 54 kilometres downstream of Victoria Falls, in Southern province.

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