Understanding why Zambia’s Hichilema talks of a coup plot on him

Hakainde Hichilema weku Zambia

On 4 September, Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema denounced alleged coup plotters who he claimed were planning to undermine the country’s democratic rule and stability by illegally seizing power. Coming after a string of military coups in West African countries, including Guinea, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Gabon, his comments have attracted widespread attention across the continent and beyond.

By Sishuwa Sishuwa

‘We are coming for you’

The warning by Hichilema that he would go for those considering a coup was first issued during a public rally in Kanyama, a densely populated slum in the capital. Any assumption that it was an off-the-cuff statement made in the heat of the moment was eliminated when the president reiterated the remarks in a carefully written Facebook post later that evening.

“To colleagues that think we are timid by being kind and that they can break the laws and entertain thoughts of illegal takeover of government including undemocratic coup d’état, our only word is that ‘We are coming for you, and we will not allow you to make Zambians start running around as is the case in some places’,” he wrote.

Why is Hichilema saying this?

Hichilema’s talk about a coup plot caught many people by surprise. Zambia has no history of military rule or interference in political processes, and the last failed coup attempt occurred 26 years ago. Furthermore, the country’s political elite has a well-established commitment to democratic politics, informed in part by a track record of elections that result in peaceful transfers of power.

Given this background, it is easy to understand why some individuals and organisations have since condemned Hichilema’s remarks as irresponsible. This condemnation is necessary, but not sufficient.

Zambians also need to understand why Hichilema is making such comments. Contrary to what some of his political opponents have argued, the president’s threats were neither random nor a result of careless talk. They are deliberate and demonstrate how Hichilema is slowly becoming adept at undermining democratic institutions in a committed, strategic, and well-defined manner.

If Zambians wish to avert the increasing restrictions on political and civil rights, they will do well not to underestimate the lengths to which he is prepared to go in his bid for re-election.

Outside Hichilema’s head, there is no coup plot in Zambia. The talk about people scheming to overthrow him and his vow to punish those responsible should be seen as part of his wider political strategy to undermine opposition forces and stay in power beyond 2026.

Warning soldiers 

Hichilema’s coup remarks were directed at different audiences for different objectives. The first was the military whom he was warning not to depose him from power. Here, appreciating the objective of his comments requires an understanding of the wider context to which the president was responding: the recent political developments in West Africa, where several incumbent presidents labelled by their opponents as ‘puppets’ of a major Western power, France, have been deposed from office by the military.

On the domestic front, Hichilema has faced growing criticism that he is a “puppet” of Western powers led by the US, UK and the EU. His administration’s policies in the areas of mining, energy, security and foreign affairs have pushed the perception that he is actively favouring Western interests — an outright reversal of the position of his predecessor Edgar Lungu, who pivoted towards China and Russia.

The characterisation of Hichilema as a puppet of Western countries was amplified by the toxic fallout from the August poll in neighbouring Zimbabwe, which saw the re-election of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Upon assuming the rotational chairpersonship of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) organ on politics, defence and security, Hichilema appointed as head of the SADC election observer mission, Nevers Mumba, a Zambian opposition leader who, like himself, is politically close to Zimbabwean oppositionist Nelson Chamisa. The mission’s preliminary report went on to criticise the election as deeply flawed, a verdict shared by most other international observers.

Lashing out, senior figures in the ruling Zanu-PF alleged that Hichilema had tried to influence the outcome of the election by providing financial support to Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). Zanu-PF spokesperson Christopher Mutsvangwa dismissed the SADC preliminary report as evidence of how Hichilema, “who wants to become part of the charade of Western countries that always see Zimbabwean elections as a transition from Zanu-PF rule to some puppetry”, had sought to use SADC structures to push a Western agenda.

“The West,” Mutsvangwa added, “would like to see the back of the national liberation movement in Zimbabwe. They would expect the same thing in South Africa [and] Namibia. We know the game plan. I do not know if Hichilema wants to become the new champion of Western neo-colonial interests in southern Africa.”

This message even found support from some within the ANC, whose secretary general Fikile Mbalula declared the outcome of Zimbabwe’s election as “a victory over imperialist puppets”. This is the wider context of heightened regional political rhetoric and geopolitical rivalry within which Hichilema’s remarks about the risk of a coup should be understood.

In warning that he would crush the unspecified coup plotters, the Zambian president was attempting to make it look like there are elements in the military who may seek to take advantage of the puppet label to emulate their colleagues in West Africa. Behind the talk of a coup is rising political paranoia in Hichilema’s head emanating from his government’s failure to reduce the worsening cost of living, two years after his election.

The removal of most subsidies — at the instigation of the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund — and falling value of the unstable kwacha have not only exerted pressure on input costs since Zambia is an import-driven country but also pushed the price of fuel and corn meal, the country’s staple food, by over 100% since August 2021.

The worst-affected are the urban poor on the Copperbelt and in Lusaka, where the president was booed and accosted with chants of “hunger” a day or two before he issued the coup speech. Although State House tried to play down these incidents as part of democratic expression, they demonstrate the changing public tide against Hichilema in urban areas as a result of severe economic difficulties.

Previous coup attempts — both in the era of one-party rule and multiparty democracy — have all taken place during periods of steep increases in the cost of living. Though unsuccessful, most were celebrated by urbanites on the Copperbelt and in Lusaka. While Zambia’s military has usually intervened in support of democracy, Hichilema is undoubtedly concerned by the precedent here.

It is probably one that fed his fears that overzealous soldiers — his target audience — may seek to seize power via a coup, as their colleagues attempted to do against founding president Kenneth Kaunda in June 1990, and against former president Frederick Chiluba in October 1997.

Preparing Western allies 

The second audience Hichilema was speaking to were Western governments and their diplomatic representatives in Zambia, whose opinion he respects to the point of weakness. Through his comments that there are people planning to remove him unconstitutionally, the president was effectively preparing the ground for a further crackdown on opposition party leaders as he worries about the safety of his own political position ahead of the 2026 election.

The motivation behind his talk is ultimately to implicate his “political colleagues” in the imaginary coup threat, have them arrested on bogus but non-bailable charges like treason, and cripple their political activity. There is a well-established history of trumped-up charges being used against the political opposition in Zambia.

For instance, in March 1993, Chiluba accused the then main opposition United National Independence Party (UNIP) of planning to overthrow the government by illegal means. The plot, known as the “Zero Option Plan,” was said to have been devised by UNIP leaders with support from foreign governments. While no real evidence was offered, 26 people, including key UNIP figures, were detained on charges of treason after Chiluba — to the displeasure of donors, Western governments and human rights organisations — declared a state of emergency.

In April 2017, Hichilema was arrested by his predecessor and detained on charges of treason for four months after his convoy failed to give way to President Lungu’s motorcade, which was heading in the same direction. What a dispassionate observer may have regarded as a possible violation of traffic rules or presidential protocol was inflated into “an act that was likely to cause death or grievous harm to the president of the Republic of Zambia, in order to usurp the executive power of the state”.

In the cases of Chiluba and Lungu, the motivation for arresting opposition leaders were the same: a sense of political insecurity and the desire to demonstrate that they were fully in charge of national security forces and could deal decisively with sources of instability — real or imaginary — regardless of who was involved.

One reason why Hichilema is feeling more vulnerable is the growing perception in Zambia that he appears to be primarily serving two interests: his own (mainly business) and external ones, with little attention paid to addressing the domestic concerns or needs of the people who put him in office.

Were opposition parties to unite or form a coalition and field a common and credible candidate against him in 2026, they would be likely to win. Worried about this prospect — and conscious of the 50%+1 requirement, a very big change in the structure of the country’s politics that has significantly increased the chances of an opposition candidate winning — Hichilema, elected only two years ago, has launched a pilot clampdown on his political opponents.

Opposition parties, for instance, have been attempting to hold rallies and increasing their criticism of what they see as a lack of action over the cost of living. Hichilema has responded with increasingly authoritarian measures — ironically drawing the opposition closer and making the prospect of an alliance against his candidature likelier.

‘Primitive politics’

Over the past 30 days alone, three opposition leaders — Edith Nawakwi of the Forum for Democracy and Development, Sean Tembo of the Patriots for Economic Progress, and Fred M’membe of the Socialist Party (SP) — have all been separately arrested on what appear to be political charges.

The objective of harassing opposition leaders through frequent arrests and court cases is to keep them away from political work and stretch their already limited resources. The arrest of M’membe in particular — the third this year alone — deserves brief discussion because it is relevant to Hichilema’s coup talk.  Following these arrests on charges of “unlawful discharge of a firearm, libel, and acts intended to cause grievous bodily harm”, the government, fearful that M’membe could lead the opposition resistance against Hichilema, started looking for a pretext on which to bring a more serious charge against him such as treason.

On 8 August, inspector general of police Graphel Musamba held a politically charged press conference in which he declared that socialism will not succeed in Zambia and vowed to crush SP, accusing it of “panting for violence because they want to cut corners to reach their destiny”.

Musamba further claimed that M’membe, who has seemingly cultivated close political ties with Moscow and Beijing, had used social media to comment on “the emerging juntas in West Africa … thinking that the same [can] be extended to this country. We are carefully studying the ingredients of the offence, and we will let you know in due course what his fate is going to be”.

The SP leader, arguing that Musamba went too far and had waded into political debate, sued the police chief for criminal defamation of character. Under Zambian law, privately prosecuting anyone for criminal defamation requires consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and M’membe sought this permission on 25 August.

Afraid that a court trial would expose Musamba’s partisanship and frustrate the government’s desperate scheme to arraign the opposition leader on a trumped-up charge, the DPP declined the request. In a letter dated 11 September 2023, Gilbert Phiri — Hichilema’s former lawyer in opposition — informed M’membe “that due to public interest considerations, your application to conduct the captioned prosecution (The People VS Graphel Musamba) is hereby denied”.

In a sense, this sequence of events shows the political undercurrents behind Hichilema’s coup talk and suggests that he may all along have been the power behind Musamba.

The case also lays bare the DPP’s partisanship and abuse of the power to initiate or discontinue criminal prosecutions especially on matters involving opposition figures. When one of Hichilema’s State House aides Clayson Hamasaka recently sued an opposition leader, Saboi Imboela, for criminal defamation, Phiri gave consent to prosecute, as he did when Minister of Finance Situmbeko Musokotwane filed a lawsuit against an independent member of parliament, Munir Zulu, who accused the government official of corruption.

Meanwhile, police arrested, within the last month, former president Lungu’s wife, Esther, for theft of motor vehicle in a move criticised by the main opposition PF as aimed at indirectly punishing Lungu. As they did with Sean Tembo, the police kept the former first lady in detention longer than it was necessary despite meeting bond conditions.

It was not until after Lungu protested by camping at the police station that she was released in the night. Additionally, within this same period, the government has twice refused to allow the PF to hold public rallies in Lusaka and Central provinces, despite their compliance with the law, using the excuse of unspecified “security concerns”. Despite condemnation of this continued suppression of the rights to peaceful assembly, association, and free speech (since people meet to talk) by the Law Association of Zambia, the government has intensified the violations.

On 9 September, a battalion of police officers in full riot gear dispersed an interdenominational church service on the Copperbelt at which Lungu was invited. The pastor who organised the church meeting was arrested and charged with “conduct likely to cause breach of public peace”.

Police, who sealed off the place of worship, had earlier attempted to block Lungu from traveling for the religious event. Earlier, on 7 September, the government had declined Lungu’s request to travel abroad for medical review, a clear violation of his legal entitlements as a retired former president. According to sources at the cabinet office, Lungu has a scheduled appointment with medical doctors in South Africa, one that was secured after discussions between the permanent secretary in the ministry of health and his personal physician.

At the heart of the government’s manoeuvres on Lungu is Hichilema’s fears that his predecessor harbour plans of a political comeback. Generally, opposition challengers who defeat incumbent presidents in Zambia have gone on to develop a deep-seated phobia for their predecessors. For instance, so fearful of Kaunda’s political comeback was Chiluba that he changed the country’s constitution to disqualify the founding president from challenging him in the 1996 election.

Hichilema — whose party lacks a clear parliamentary majority required to change the constitution or lift his predecessor immunity from prosecution — will not take this path. However, the president does appear to be extremely bothered by Lungu’s political shadow, especially that the PF is yet to choose a new leader.

Recently, the president ordered PF leaders to stop regrouping or face arrest. Overlooking its members’ right of association, he declared: “I want to send a message to the PF thugs. I can see they are regrouping now. The fact that we did not lock you up, that we did not arrest you is not that we are not capable. We are just kind people.  If you start regrouping now, we will come after you in a heavy way.”

The highly-regarded retired archbishop of Lusaka, Telesphore Mpundu, quickly condemned Hichilema’s threats as “primitive politics”, motivated by the desire “to completely get rid of the opposition”.

“We want this country to remain a democratic dispensation where people are free to speak, associate and so forth. The only way to silence the opposition is to perform well… If people are not given opportunities to access food and access it affordably in amounts that are accepted, whatever you may say, you are a failure with a capital F,” he added.

Many people see these undemocratic actions as resembling the crackdown which Hichilema and the now governing United Party for National Development (UPND) endured while in opposition in the 2010s. The major difference is that the different interest groups that previously condemned similar attacks on democracy and human rights under Lungu are now mute for a variety of reasons.

Appointments to government bodies have secured the wilful silence of erstwhile civic actors while intellectuals, mainly from Hichilema’s ethnic Tonga group, who led the onslaught against the PF, have developed a new career: attacking those who criticise Hichilema, making excuses for and justifying his nascent authoritarian behaviour, and ignoring his transgressions.

Hichilema also feels that he has the personal support of key figures in the diplomatic community whose grovelling attitude towards him lends credibility to the charge that Western countries are prepared to ignore a leader’s attacks on democracy if that leader serves their interests. These include the UK High Commissioner Nicholas Woolley and the US ambassador Michael Gonzales, the latter of whom has — unlike his recent predecessors David Young, Daniel Foote, Eric Shultz, Mark Storella and Donald Booth — hardly shown any interest in questions of human rights and considers Hichilema “a personal friend”.

Other diplomats such as the recently arrived Swedish ambassador Johan Hallenborg are not simply ignoring the violations but even attempting to construct an alternative reality by claiming that Hichilema, who has strategically weakened civil society, has “enhanced human rights and improved the civic space”.

Like their governments, Western diplomats have so far conveniently avoided publicly criticising their malleable partner for the rights abuses of his administration partly because of the fear that doing so may inadvertently strengthen his main political opponents, who ideologically lean towards Russia and China. Regional rights bodies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that previously highlighted violations with impressive commitment and efficiency now speak through absolute silence.

Zambia’s democracy on a knife-edge  

Emboldened by the lack of vocal outrage against his emerging authoritarian tendencies, Hichilema’s claims of an impending coup serve as a convenient pretext for consolidating what he is already doing – eroding civil liberties – and stopping Western allies and rights bodies from calling him out.

Knowing that he has their support may make him feel comfortable in expanding the crackdown on opposition leaders and using the threat of what has happened to Western-backed presidents in West Africa as a sufficient reason for Western governments to continue supporting him even if his actions erode democracy.

As mass hunger bites and poverty worsens due to the rising cost of living and doing business for most Zambians, will Hichilema, a man elected precisely to resolve these challenges and to advance democracy, resort to full-blown repression or authoritarian rule to sustain his hold on power?

Only time will tell.

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian writer, historian, and Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University. This was first published here in the Mail & Guardian

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