Amnesty International said on Monday that the inauguration of former opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema as Zambia’s new president is an opportunity to turn the tide on the country’s worsening human rights situation.
The organization urged the president-elect to prioritize protecting freedom of expression and association, take decisive action to end abuses by police and place socio-economic rights on his agenda, including tackling inequality, poverty, unemployment, collapsing healthcare system and poor education funding.
Hakainde Hichilema will be inaugurated on Tuesday, August 24, in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.
U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced on Saturday that Ms. Enoh T. Ebong, Acting Director of the United States Trade and Development Agency, will lead a presidential delegation to attend Hichilema‘s inauguration.
Other members of the delegation include Mr. David J. Young, Chargé d’Affaires, ad interim, U.S. Embassy Lusaka; and Ms. Dana L. Banks, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Africa.
The Biden administration said last Monday that it looks forward to working with Hichilema who unseated President Edgar Lungu, according to election results released last Monday.
“The United States congratulates President-elect Hakainde Hichilema on his victory in the August 12 general elections. We congratulate the people of Zambia for exercising their right to vote in historic numbers and welcome commitments from all parties to a peaceful and orderly transition,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with the Zambian government to advance our mutual interests and deepen the friendship between our two nations.”
The U.S. government added that “these polls are a tribute to the democratic ideals upon which the country was founded and an inspiration for the democratic aspirations of people around the world.””The United States reaffirms its strong partnership with Zambia and the Zambian people,” the statement added.
Human rights abuses in Zambia under outgoing president Edgar Lungu
In its statement on Monday, Amnesty International said under the outgoing president, Edgar Lungu, Zambia’s human rights record has deteriorated sharply. Opposition leaders and activists have been arrested and detained, prominent media houses have been shut down, and police crackdowns on peaceful protests have led to several deaths.
“The inauguration of Hakainde Hichilema must spell the end of a dark era of repression in Zambia,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“We are calling on the new administration to place human rights at the centre of their agenda, including by removing restrictions on the peaceful exercise of human rights, and ensuring accountability for past violations in order to end the culture of impunity. Years of intensifying repression have pushed Zambia to the brink of a human rights crisis- now is the time for a decisive break with the past.”
The rights group added that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly had come under increasing attack in Zambia, particularly over the past five years, with opposition leaders and activists jailed and at least five people killed by police since 2016.
It said under President’s Lungu’s administration, “authorities weaponized the law to criminalize peaceful dissent, charging critics with a wide range of offenses including criminal defamation, incitement of public disorder and sedition.”
For example, on March 9, 2020, police arrested a 15-year-old boy in Kapiri Mposhi, and charged him with three counts of criminal libel after he allegedly criticized President Lungu on Facebook.
Media outlets were not left out as they also came under attack during Lungu’s presidency.
In June 2016, one of Zambia’s leading daily newspapers, The Post, was shut down and liquidated over a disputed tax debt. The closure of the newspaper, which was known for its critical investigative work against government, was preceded by state-sanctioned violence against staff, including the beating the owner of The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe, his wife Mutinta M’membe and the newspaper’s Deputy Managing Editor, Joseph Mwenda.
Amnesty International said the crackdown also saw an escalation in excessive use of force by the police, which has been fatal in some cases.
On December 22, 2020, police shot dead two unarmed people at a gathering of opposition supporters.
Several people had gathered to show their solidarity with Haikainde Hichilema, who is the leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), when he was summoned for questioning at police headquarters in Lusaka.
State prosecutor Nsama Nsama, who was not part of the gathering, was shot dead while buying a meal at a nearby restaurant, while Joseph Kaunda, a UNPD supporter, was shot by police as they dispersed the crowd.
A day earlier, the government had publicly urged police to use ‘any means necessary to maintain law and order’ when dealing with opposition supporters.
An investigation by Zambia’s Human Rights Commission established that the order to shoot came from Lusaka Police Commissioner Nelson Phiri, who was removed from service but not charged with any offense.
In 2018, student Vesper Shimuzhila died when police threw a tear gas canister into her room, during their violent dispersal of a student protest. Her family were given $25,000USD in compensation but no officer has been charged.
“President-elect Hichilema must adopt a bold and decisive human rights strategy to ensure respect for the human rights of all Zambians, including by tackling impunity and bringing perpetrators of past violations to justice,” said Deprose Muchena.
“Hakainde Hichilema has an opportunity to pull Zambia back from the brink. Tackling the injustices of the past is a crucial step towards building a better future for the country.”
Last June, Amnesty International’s campaigner for Southern Africa Vongai Chikwanda told Today News Africa‘s Kristi Pelzel in an interview that human rights violations were intensifying scarily in Zambia under President Edgar Lungu.
Chikwanda said there had been a rise in impunity, including unlawful killings, illegal and prolonged detentions of opposition figures and supporters and a ban on protests and public gatherings since Lungu came to power in 2016.
“For many years we have seen that Zambia was a haven for peace, but in recent times, things have gotten worse,” Chikwanda said. “Opposition parties are not allowed to assemble and protests are not allowed, and people are spending longer times in detention.”
Biden administration pledges to support new Zambian government.
Hichilema, the leader of Zambia’s main opposition party, captured 2.8 million votes to defeat President Lungu who received 1.8 million votes, according to the election results. Lungu had governed the southern African nation since 2015.
59-year-old Hichilema, a businessman and the candidate of the United Party for National Development, had lost five previous bids for the presidency, but was lucky on his sixth attempt
He benefited from an economy that was in a mess due to Lungu’s bad policies, the devastating impact from the coronavirus pandemic, rising debt, skyrocketing unemployment numbers and increasing food prices.