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Fresh out of prison, Zambia opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has no time to lose

Hakainde Hichilema, president of the UPND party
Hakainde Hichilema, president of the UPND party REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The leader of Zambia's main opposition party has been out of jail less than a week but says he's determined to restore rule of law to Zambia. United Party for a New Democracy President Hakainde Hichilema says he wants to get back to work immediately-- calling for a revitialization of the judiciary and police force, as well as to protect the freedoms Zambians normally enjoy under the constitution. RFI spoke to him at length on his plans. An excerpt of the interview is below, as well as the whole audio interview.


RFI: You're out of jail now. How do you feel?

Well, it’s good to be out of jail because jail is not a place I’d wish anyone to be in, especially the Zambian jails, which are absolutely congested and in a nutshell, they are just death chambers in there. It is nice to be out.

RFI: What was going on in your head for those 100+ days?

Let’s go 4 months, eh? One hundred twenty-six days, to be specific. The main concern that we had, really, was that we’d begun to understand that not everybody in jail has committed a crime...So first, we were thinking about our fellow inmates in there, most of whom have not seen their day in court, and they’ve been in detention 5-10 years, in those conditions. So you do worry about that. Because our criminal justice system has collapsed, completely collapsed. From policing, where citizens are arrested without a proper investigation. They get arrested because a politician has asked them to arrest a political opponent. And that’s unacceptable. Many people are dying unnecessarily because of lack of ventilation, congestion, so we were concerned about our fellow inmates… secondly, we were worried about the people outside, who have been broken down by a dictatorial regime, a brutal regime that ended up invoking Article 31 of our constitution, which really has something to do with the state of emergency…and I was more concerned about other people than myself because I knew I did not commit any crime, anyway.

RFI: When you talk about this breakdown in terms of policing and the judiciary, is this a recent phenomenon in Zambia, or has this been going for years? How would you characterize this?

It’s been building up, but it got worse since this party in office came onto the scene in 2011. After 2011 when the Patriotic Front came into office we began to see the breakdown in the rule of law. We began to see the erosion of basic and fundamental human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, association, conscious, freedom of the press, and indeed, many other freedoms that begun to be taken away from our citizens, even though they are enshrined in our constitution under the Bill of Rights. So this situation has gotten worse under the Patriotic Front mainly from 2011. It got worse when this particular individual [President Edgar Lungu] took office in 2015, after the death of President Michael Sata. So it got worse, the violence got worse, and the use of state institutions, such as the police to brutalize citizens, other institutions to suppress citizens. Parliament, as you know what happened to our members of Parliament [47 members of parliament suspended], so it got worse after 2015.

RFI: A lot of your supporters were happy and relieved to see you and the others released, but they were angry about the nolle prosequi, the dropping of the charges. What would you say to them on this?

On Wednesday, last week, the trial was commencing. And I went to court looking forward to the trial. And to be honest, between you and I, I was delighted that, I wanted the country and the world to see how people can concoct crimes that do not exist. How there will be witnesses for crimes that were not committed. And basically just for political competition. So we were keen to see how the trial would pan out. We knew it would not end anyway. But I guess when the nolle prosequi came in, it was a surprise, even to myself and our supporters. Because our supporters knew that we were innocent. What they wanted to see was an acquittal. An outside acquittal. That’s what we all wanted…so that’s where we are. Our supporters are largely disappointed because of that. Because the nolle prosequi is supposed to be like a temporary release.

RFI: What’s your next step? Vacation?

There’s no vacation. We cannot afford vacation. To start with, one of our priorities is to secure the release of a lot of our members. A lot of our members are political prisoners and detainees in prisons across the country. Despite that, after the 2016 elections, we did not call for any violent acts. We took the civilized route of a court petition. But even with that a lot of our members have been detained and given trumped up charges. One of our members who was a minister before was given trumped up charges of aggravated robbery, which is not bailable. And was only acquitted last week, having spent one year in prison. Our primary duty is to secure the release of all of these members, other citizens who have expressed an opinion different form the ruling group and have ended up being detained, including other opposition leaders…we also need to immediately embark on a fight to retain the basic rule of law back to our country... and also we have to deal with the judiciary, which is really compromised, by and large. And the prosecution process which is also, not just delayed but also compromised. And we have a problem with some of the institutions of governance that are being turned into political party institutions and are used to suppress citizens. We cannot have a country operating like that, especially Zambia.


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