Hichilema is openly telling lies – Sishuwa
“We have no business in choosing who runs PF”, claimed the President of #Zambia yesterday. Lying is a norm among the country’s politicians, but it is profoundly unsettling and disturbing when the President himself is openly telling lies. Hichilema’s administration is both abusing state institutions and committing high-level fraud to either destroy or take control of the main opposition party. I show how in this article.
In Zambia today, stealing a political party is big business
Zambia’s former ruling parties have usually fared poorly after losing power. The United National Independence Party (UNIP) — the party of Kenneth Kaunda that led the country to independence from Britain in 1964 — gradually collapsed following its defeat to the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in 1991. After 20 years in office, the MMD was defeated by the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) in 2011 and is no longer a formidable force. Many observers, including the incumbent president of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema, expected the same thing to happen to the PF after it was trounced by the then opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) in August 2021.
Speaking in October 2021 during the campaigns for a key parliamentary by-election in Eastern Province — the first since the general election — Hichilema declared the former ruling party “dead” and “buried”. He appealed to the electorate to vote for the UPND candidate, stating that the PF, like the UNIP and the MMD, would never return to power. “The dead do not come back from the graveyard. Do not make the mistake of voting for a ghost,” the president warned. But the results from the by-election showed an unexpected resurrection. Voters overwhelmingly backed “the ghost”, whose candidate polled twice as many votes as the ruling party’s, demonstrating that there was still life left in the PF.
Why the PF has bucked the trend
There are several reasons that explain why the former ruling party has not crumbled since losing the 2021 election.
First, the PF has greatly benefited from changes to the Constitution of Zambia that were introduced by former president Edgar Lungu in 2016. Unlike before, when they could cross the floor at will, MPs are now discouraged from leaving their parties because the Constitution bars them from running in the by-election. This enforced discipline has enabled the main opposition party to retain control over its MPs. The amendments also abolished the position of deputy minister — previously used by incumbent presidents to lure opposition MPs into the executive. The Constitution also now limits the number of cabinet ministers the president can appoint to a maximum of 30. Hichilema’s reduced capacity to dispense patronage has aided the PF’s survival.
Second, the former ruling party retains a stable base both among the electorate, especially in the Copperbelt, Northern and Eastern provinces, and indeed in parliament, where 58 of the total 59 seats held by opposition parties belong to the PF. Such is the seeming unattractiveness of the UPND since the election that unlike in previous instances after a transfer of power, the losing opposition party has not suffered mass defections to the ruling party.
Third, the party has not held a convention to elect the successor to Lungu, who formally quit active politics in August 2021. This has kept the different factions jockeying for the leadership within its ranks in the belief they each have a chance to lead the party and possibly the country. These factors — alongside an uncertain economic outlook and an incumbent seen as promoting ethnic-regional appointments — have left the PF relatively intact, unsettling the ruling UPND.
When the next set of parliamentary by-elections arose in October 2022, this time in the politically influential Copperbelt Province, the UPND, amid preliminary indications that the “ghost” was set to win both seats, manipulated both the electoral body and the judicial process to exclude the PF candidates from the ballots. Pitted against weaker rivals, the ruling party won easily.
The ‘ghost’ must die
Despite winning the by-elections, Hichilema and the UPND were so alarmed about the former ruling party’s potential for resurrection that they undertook to either destroy or control it. “If the PF won’t die quietly,” Hichilema and the UPND appear to have decided, “then we will help finish it off or at least capture it from within.”
The first expression of this strategy of political murder appeared in April this year when the government threatened to deregister the main opposition party for failure to provide an updated list of office bearers after Lungu’s retirement. Public backlash against the move forced the UPND to back down.
The second occurred in May when the minister of home affairs and internal security, Jack Mwiimbu, issued a bizarre gazette notice that conferred powers on the Registrar of Societies to order political parties to hold elective conventions “within sixty days of the directive” to fill any existing vacancies. The Registrar of Societies is a government official under Mwiimbu’s control whose department is responsible for the registration, supervision and regulation of the operations of political parties. Failure to comply with such a directive, Mwimbu warned, would have serious consequences. Although the notice applied to all political parties, it was primarily intended to force the PF to choose Lungu’s successor so that Hichilema could know his rival for the next election well in advance and devise appropriate mechanisms of containing them.
In early October, the Registrar of Societies, as per Mwiimbu’s desire, ordered parties to hold elective conventions or face deregistration. When the PF rejected the directive and threatened to challenge the legality of the gazette notice in court, the UPND moved to essentially take control of the main opposition party.
Coalition of Hichilema bays for PF’s blood
To better understand this final element of the UPND’s strategy of political murder, it is important to locate the campaign to render the PF non-viable within a broad coalition of domestic and international interest groups that stand to benefit from its suffocation, notwithstanding the consequences of such a move on Zambia’s democracy.
The first group consists of international, mainly Western, actors. The PF is believed to ideologically lean towards China and Russia, countries that are threatening the economic interests of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union in Africa. Western nations seek Zambia’s alignment with them not only in terms of great power rivalry but also in terms of access to precious minerals that are essential to electric car batteries and the just energy transition. In Hichilema, they have a malleable partner, and this explains why they have been largely restrained in their criticism of him. Hichilema understands that he has the backing of the West, not because of his qualities of leadership but because they do not wish to see a return of Lungu and his ilk.
In other words, Western nations have a high stake in Zambia’s mineral wealth and overlooking Hichilema’s attacks on democracy is a small price to pay for having a leader who serves their interests. (Had the pro-China and pro-Russia President Lungu done to the then opposition UPND what Hichilema is currently doing to the PF, the West would probably have expressed vocal outrage.) It is thought that the possible death of the PF increases Hichilema’s chances of re-election, which in turn would firmly lock Zambia in the West’s sphere of influence.
The second group is made up of prominent domestic and foreign businessmen who aligned with the UPND for essentially financial reasons. They bankrolled Hichilema’s election campaigns and now seek a return on their investment. One five-year term is insufficient to recoup their investment, so they are pushing for Hichilema’s re-election. One or two of these businessmen are reportedly financing a faction that recently sprouted within the PF and is generally seen as working with the UPND to weaken the main opposition party from within.
The other set of local businessmen is made up of Hichilema’s close allies from the 1990s when major state enterprises were dismantled for privatisation. Their reference point is Frederick Chiluba, who opened the door of accumulation for them but was side-tracked by a life of fancy suits and shoes. The nationalistic impulses of Chiluba’s successors adversely affected this cohort’s aspirations, but the election of a privatisation-minded leader has thrust the country back into its hands. If the PF’s survival threatens the private interests of this group, supporting Hichilema’s stay in power offers it a chance to continue accumulating by expanding its business portfolio and securing lucrative shares in major economic sectors (energy, transport, tourism, agriculture, mining,) while negotiating government deals with foreign firms.
Added to this local network of businessmen is the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, Hichilema’s long-term supporters, that serves as a lobby for foreign mining capital and whose head, Greg Mills, appears to be a key member of the shadow state that seems to be deciding government policy.
The third group comprises the budding presidential hopefuls in the UPND, mainly Tonga speakers but for two or three from other ethnic groups. Hichilema is eligible to stand for re-election in 2026, but members of this group are using a long-term perspective to maintain the party’s position. In the short term, supporting him in rendering the PF an opposition party in name only secures their collective positions in the power structure. In the long term, decapitating the PF enhances their chances of succeeding Hichilema in 2031 — if he wins the next election.
The fourth group is made up of professional elements of urban middle-class Zambians embedded in civil society, academia, and the private media who are not card-carrying members of the UPND, but whose personal, ethno-regional, and business interests make them grovel towards Hichilema. These elites were vocal critics of abuses of government power under the PF but now either have been sucked into various government bodies or are tacitly supporting the president for reasons that have little to do with public considerations.
For the private media, it has now positioned itself as a loyal mouthpiece and public diary of Hichilema that overlooks his abuses or leadership failings. When it offers criticism, it is largely that of the annoyance of an impassioned supporter concerned with activities that risk jeopardising the leader’s electoral prospects. The survival of the PF and its subsequent potential to hurt Hichilema’s re-election prospects threatens the long-term security of the material interests and business aspirations of this cohort.
As a result, and since the 2021 election, the group’s members, who help shape public opinion using a diminishing credibility gained from criticising Lungu-era wrongs, have sought to shield Hichilema from blame, discredit his critics who have developed a certain level of legitimacy, preclude from media coverage alternative policy proposals offered by opposition parties, and delegitimise the political opposition by scaring voters into seeing, for example, the PF or the Socialist Party as dangerous electoral options. The implication here is that Zambians would be better off retaining Hichilema, “the devil you know”.
In short, this group is focused less on defending UPND and more on manufacturing false public consensus to a rotten situation by targeting and discrediting both opposition to and criticism of Hichilema — ultimately for his and its benefit. It fears that any serious criticism of Hichilema’s leadership may inadvertently strengthen his main political opponents.
The final group is made up of Hichilema, Mwiimbu and the loyalist officials around them. A cabinet minister who requested anonymity said that no amount of criticism is likely to dissuade Hichilema from the path of destroying the PF. “He harbours an intense dislike for the PF that makes him totally inadvisable on the issue. It is like the former ruling party reminds him of the atrocities committed against him in opposition and annihilating it is a form of closure for him or enacting revenge. If the PF was a building, I am convinced that HH would have razed it to the ground.” But the real motivation behind the president’s undemocratic manoeuvres is a desperate desire for re-election, amid apparent levels of rising discontent against his leadership.
Taking control of the main opposition party
Hichilema’s problem is that the voting base of the former ruling party has not disintegrated and does not look likely to do so. If the party finds a new credible leader or forms an alliance with other opposition parties, the incumbent may easily lose the 2026 election. If the PF is nullified as an effective opposition force, though, its supporters can be acquired — either directly once the party is destroyed or indirectly through a leadership that is installed by the UPND. Either option could help build a winning coalition for Hichilema in the future. This is the context within which his almost complete theft of the main opposition party should be understood. When the PF indicated that it would not comply with the government’s directive for parties to hold elective conventions within 60 days, Hichilema’s group moved to effectively organise the convention on behalf of the main opposition party.
On 24 October, Miles Sampa, a renegade PF MP and one of the eight individuals who had formally expressed interest in replacing Lungu, caught his party unaware when he held an hitherto unannounced meeting that he dubbed “the PF convention to elect new office bearers”. The use of a key government facility as the meeting’s venue, the heavy presence of state security normally reserved for the president and the live broadcast of proceedings on the national television provided earliest prima facie evidence of the state’s involvement in this scheme. Under Hichilema’s rule, police only appear at opposition gatherings to disrupt and not protect them, and the state-run broadcaster serves as the mouthpiece of the governing party.
A day later, on 25 October, Sampa’s faction submitted a list of new office bearers, with himself as the PF president, to the Registrar of Societies, Thandiwe Mhende, asking her to reflect these changes. Meanwhile, the substantive leadership of PF, accusing him of gross indiscipline, expelled Sampa from the party on the same day and asked the speaker of the National Assembly, Nellie Mutti, to declare his parliamentary seat vacant. Mutti, a former UPND lawyer, refused, stating that only the constitutional court has the authority to do so. Zambia’s Constitution states that an expelled MP “shall not lose the seat until the expulsion is confirmed by a court, except that where the member does not challenge the expulsion in court and the period prescribed for challenge lapses, the member shall vacate the seat in the National Assembly”. Sampa has, to date, not filed any legal challenge against his expulsion from the PF.
On 26 October, Sampa’s faction, which retains the support of one or two PF MPs, wrote to the speaker asking Mutti to accept the changes it had made to the party’s leadership in parliament. For context, the Constitution provides that “the opposition political party with the largest number of seats in the National Assembly shall elect a leader of the opposition from amongst the members of parliament who are from the opposition”. The law further states that the party shall, upon electing such leader, communicate the decision, in writing, to the speaker. After emerging from the 2021 election as the largest parliamentary opposition, the PF chose Brian Mundubile and Stephen Kampyongo as the leader of the opposition and chief whip, respectively. These are the officials that Sampa’s faction asked the speaker to replace with their own.
Four days later, on 30 October, the clerk of the National Assembly, Roy Ngulube, wrote to the Registrar of Societies, Thandiwe Mhende, seeking clarity on the actual leadership of the PF.
RE: Request for information on office bearers and membership of the Patriotic Front PARTY
Reference is made to the above captioned matter.
On Wednesday, 25th October 2023, the National Assembly received correspondence from Mr Raphael Mangani Nakacinda, in his capacity as Secretary General of the Patriotic Front party (PF), to the effect that Mr M B Sampa, MP, is no longer a member of the PF.
Further, on Thursday, 26th October 2023, correspondence was received from Mr Morgan Ngona, in his capacity as Secretary General of the PF, notifying the National Assembly that Mr R Chabinga, Member of Parliament for Mafinga constituency is the new Leader of the Opposition in the House, with immediate effect.
In this regard, we request your office to furnish the National Assembly with information on the membership and office bearers of the PF. It would be appreciated if your response could reach the Office of the Clerk as soon as possible.
Roy Ngulube. Clerk of the National Assembly.
This letter has never been made public. Mhende responded promptly. In a letter dated 30 October, addressed to the clerk of the National Assembly and referenced MHA/ORS/101/11/8, the Registrar stated that the process of confirming whether Sampa’s faction had complied with the PF constitution on the requirements for holding a convention “has not yet been completed”.
Re: Request for information on office bearers and membership of the Patriotic Front PARTY
Reference is made to your letter dated 30th October 2023 regarding the above subject matter.
Following the convention that was held on 24th October 2023 by the Patriotic Front Party, the following names were submitted as Office Bearers of the party arising out of that convention.
You may wish to note that verification of the submission and attachments has not yet been completed. However, find attached the list that was submitted as new Office Bearers for the Patriotic Front Party.
President…. Miles Bwalya Sampa (Mr.)
Secretary… Morgan Ngona (Mr.)
Member……Robert Chabinga (Mr)
Member……Ali Mohamed Zulu (Mr.)
Member……Brian Kangwa Kasonde (Mr.)
Member……Petronella Nkumbula (Mrs.)
Member……Joan Miyanda Kumalo (Mrs)
Member……..Lameck Njobvu (Mr.)
Member……Darius Chisanga (Mr)
Member…. ..Florence Mwanza (Mrs).
Kindly note that the office will give official notification of complete change as soon as the process is finalised.
Submitted for your information.
Thandiwe S. P. MHENDE (Mrs) Chief Registrar of Societies Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security.
This letter, obtained from a source in the clerk’s office, was never made public. But, on the same date, 30 October, the public relations officer of the home affairs ministry, Collins Hikalinda, told state-run ZNBC TV evening prime news that, “We did receive a submission from the Patriotic Front, which ushered in honourable Miles Sampa as its new president. It is not a secret. We received the submission for new office bearers. And for now, it remains with the ministry through the office of the Registrar of Societies to do administrative work.”
Complicity of the National Assembly speaker
The following day, 1 November, the speaker, ignoring Mhende’s response and overlooking the constitutional provision that provides for the election, rather than appointment, of the leader of the opposition, accepted the proposed changes to the PF’s parliamentary leadership. The decision sparked protests from at least 40 PF MPs who, alongside several independent lawmakers, notified the clerk of the National Assembly on 3 November about their intention to impeach the speaker for, among other charges, abrogating the Constitution. In a move that was widely seen as aimed at frustrating the impeachment motion, Mutti responded on 7 November by issuing 30-day suspensions to 19 of these MPs from parliament for alleged lawlessness.
Amid intense public criticism that the speaker had “gone rogue” and acted prematurely since the Registrar of Societies was yet to formally accept Sampa’s faction, the clerk of the National Assembly released a carefully-worded press statement on 7 November, stating that: “Before the announcement of the changes were made, the office of the clerk wrote to the Registrar of Societies to confirm the office bearers of the Patriotic Front. In the response to the clerk, the Registrar of Societies confirmed being in receipt of the new office bearers of the Patriotic Front, among whom was Mr Morgan Ng’ona as secretary general.”
This statement, misleading by intention, represented the first official attempt to cover the misconduct of the speaker. The second occurred about a week later when, on 13 November, Mhende, in fulfilment of a court order granted to a law firm working on the PF wrangles, issued a printout of the electronic registration records showing that the office bearers of the PF had not been changed. This official document was printed at 09.15am the same day.
Publicised, this revelation exposed the speaker’s lack of proper basis for changing the PF’s leadership in parliament and resuscitated public criticism of her decision to accept instructions from Sampa’s faction even before the Registrar of Societies had completed the verification process of the legality of its “convention”. As well as placing Mutti in an awkward position, this situation risked collapsing the UPND’s strategy of killing the PF.
High price of principle
The government’s response was as swift as it was incriminating. First, Mhende was removed from her position on 13 November, less than three hours after she had complied with the court order. The letter of transfer, written by the home affairs ministry’s permanent secretary, Dickson Matembo, and which soon found its way into the public domain, bore an enlightening handwritten acknowledgement of receipt: “Received [at] 12.00hrs [on] 13/11/23.” As well as justifying her sudden transfer to cabinet office for redeployment on the ground that “she had become inimical to the requirement of her office”, government spokesperson Cornelius Mweetwa revealed that Mhende “did release certain documents to a lawyer of the Patriotic Front, which documents, as a party in the court transactions, she was not supposed to release because the attorney general was not involved. So, on the determination of the permanent secretary, he felt it necessary to transfer her, given the fact that there are court proceedings where the Registrar of Societies is supposed to go and produce documents before the courts of law. As a party in legal proceedings, she opts to arm those documents to a lawyer of a contesting party without [following] procedure.”
In making these revelations, Mweetwa not only confirmed the authenticity of the printout but also contradicted the home affairs minister, who had earlier attempted to discredit it as flawed. Here, it is important to pause and explain that to secure legitimacy, Sampa’s faction needed Mhende to formally accept its “election” and replace the PF’s substantive office bearers with the officials it submitted. But parliamentary sources disclosed that Mhende expressed hesitancy to do so in the absence of evidence that Sampa had complied with the PF constitution on the holding of a general conference or extraordinary general conference. The Registrar’s office keeps custody of the PF constitution, as it does with the constitutions of other registered parties. Article 46 of the PF constitution explicitly provides that a convention shall only be legal if it is attended by “up to 500 delegates from each province selected in accordance with rules made by the Central Committee” and “all members of the National Council”.
According to Article 50 (1), the National Council, which is also required to approve candidates for election to the office of party president prior to the convention, consists of “(a) Members of the Central Committee; (b) Members of the National Assembly; (c) Provincial Secretaries; (d) District Chairmen; District Secretaries; (f) District Chairmen and Committee members of the Women’s and Youth Leagues; (g) Senior officers from the Party’s National Headquarters.” Furthermore, Article 55 (c) of the PF constitution stipulates that the national chairperson of the party must be the one to preside over the party convention. None of these mandatory requirements were complied with by Sampa’s faction. The absence of documentary evidence that the group had conformed to the PF’s own rules placed significant constraints on the capacity of the Registrar of Societies to accept the list of office bearers submitted by Sampa’s faction.
In addition, the secretive nature of Sampa’s “convention” effectively excluded the other seven candidates who had expressed interest in standing for the PF presidency whenever it would be held. This exclusion violated Article 60 of the amended Constitution of Zambia which obliges political parties to “respect the right of its members to participate in the affairs of the political party” by standing as candidates and taking part in voting. It was this steadfast adherence to the law and refusal to cooperate with the demands of the Sampa faction that cost the Registrar of Societies her job. By hounding Mhende out of office, Hichilema’s group wished to install in her position someone who would implement the very changes that the ousted official had declined to quickly effect. This is exactly what happened next.
High-level government fraud
Well-placed parliamentary sources revealed that on 14 November 2023, Hichilema’s group took advantage of Mhende’s hasty removal from her office to start manufacturing evidence indicating that the office of the Registrar of Societies had completed the verification process two weeks earlier and cleared the speaker to effect the changes she made to the PF’s parliamentary leadership. For a start, the contents of the earlier-cited letter that Mhende had written to the clerk of the National Assembly and signed on 30 October were illegally altered. The original sentence stating that the “verification of the submission and attachments has not yet been completed” was amended to delete the words “not yet” from it. Also deleted was the final paragraph stating that “Kindly note that the office will give official notification of complete change as soon as the process is finalised.”
Then, to complete the alterations, Mhende’s deputy, Jason Mwambazi, was made to sign the distorted letter — which retained the 30 October 2023 date — on behalf of the Registrar of Societies. Yet Mhende was still in her position at the time and, as confirmed by the original letter, clearly working on the day Mwambazi is supposed to have acted on behalf. Addressed to the Clerk of the National Assembly, the altered letter was also referenced MHA/ORS/101/11/8.
Re: Request fro (sic) information on office bearers and membership of the Patriotic Front party
Reference is made to your letter dated 30th October, 2023 regarding the above subject matter.
Following the convention that was held on 24th October, 2023 by the Patriotic Front Party, the following names were submitted as Office Bearers of the Party arising out of the convention.
You may wish to note that, verification of the submission and attachments has been completed (emphasis mine). However, find attached the list [that] was submitted as new Office Bearers for the Patriotic Front Party.
President…. Miles Bwalya Sampa (Mr.)
Secretary… Morgan Ngona (Mr.)
Member……Robert Chabinga (Mr)
Member……Ali Mohamed Zulu (Mr.)
Member……Brian Kangwa Kasonde (Mr.)
Member……Petronella Nkumbula (Mrs.)
Member……Joan Miyanda Kumalo (Mrs)
Member……..Lameck Njobvu (Mr.)
Member……Darius Chisanga (Mr)
Member…. ..Florence Mwanza (Mrs).
Submitted for your information.
Jason Mwambazi (Mr.) For/Chief Registrar of Societies Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security.
In what appears to have been a clumsily orchestrated move, this letter, unlike any before it, was leaked and widely publicised on UPND-aligned platforms for two possible reasons.
The first was to cast doubt on the professional integrity of the removed Mhende since, by implication, she must have been aware of this letter when she printed the electronic record of PF office bearers. In the eyes of the public who do not know that this letter was an illegally and fraudulently altered version of the original, Mhende was effectively presented as the villain. Yet two days after her removal, on 15 November, Matembo publicly admitted that his ministry had had challenges completing the process of verifying Sampa’s submissions, pledging that “once the process is completed, the nation will be informed”.
The second was to misdirect public criticism and blame from the speaker by suggesting that Mutti had effected the changes to the PF’s parliamentary leadership based on credible and legitimate information that was provided to the National Assembly by the office of the Registrar of Societies. One of the biggest publicists of the altered letter was Laura Miti, a civic leader and commissioner on Zambia’s Human Rights Commission but also a vociferous supporter of Hichilema, who was one of the earliest to advertise it.
Writing on her Facebook page minutes after it was leaked, Miti claimed that she had confirmed the authenticity of the letter and exonerated Mutti from blame. “Just seen this letter from the Registrar of Societies to parliament on the list of PF office holders. It releases the speaker from any blame. She is the only one in this matter who can ask — so what was I supposed to do?”
When the governing party chooses opposition leaders
To formalise these illegal alterations, the government then appointed Mariah Mulenga, a junior legal officer under the home affairs ministry, to act as Registrar of Societies. A well-placed source in the Cabinet Office told a leading private newspaper that Mulenga was only considered for this dirty work after the three senior officers that immediately follow the position of Chief Registrar of Societies in hierarchy declined to perform it.
“The structure is that there is the position of Chief Registrar, which is at director level. Then follows Deputy Chief Registrar (Jason Mwambazi), then Principal Registrar who is followed by M & E Registrar (Ms Cecilia Malawo). After this, there is a level of support staff. But the powers that be have appointed a legal counsel, Maria Mulenga, who is at level four of the Registrar to act as Chief Registrar of Societies. Her job description has quickly been amended to include functions of Chief Registrar for purposes of effecting the changes which all the other senior officers refused to effect”, The Mast newspaper quoted an unnamed government source on 20 November.
About a week later, on 30 November, the acting Registrar of Societies wrote to Sampa’s lawyers, Messrs J & M Advocates, confirming that the record of PF office bearers had finally been changed.
“Re: Request to conduct search – office bearers of the Patriotic Front PARTY
Reference is made to the above captioned matter and a letter dated 29th November, 2023 wherein your Client, Hon. Miles Bwalya Sampa requested to conduct a search for the list of Office Bearers of the Patriotic Front Party.
Find herein enclosed the list of Office Bearers of the Patriotic Front Party as requested.
Kindly acknowledge safe receipt of this letter by signing and dating the attached copy hereto.
Mariah Mulenga Acting Chief Registrar of Societies Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security.
Enclosed in the letter, publicised by Sampa and the state media, was the list of office bearers in the form of an official electronic record, printed at 5.43pm on 29 November 2023, showing the same names that his faction had submitted to Mhende in October. This time, government spokesperson Cornelius Mweetwa did not protest that the Registrar of Societies “did release certain documents to a lawyer of [Sampa’s faction]”. The “acceptance” of Sampa’s illegitimate convention by Mulenga marked the conclusion of Hichilema’s capture of the PF and the installation of a pliant leadership.
Judicial complicity and its consequences
Meanwhile, when PF leaders moved to challenge the legality of Sampa’s convention, the decisions that his faction keeps making in the name of the party, and the speaker’s actions in parliament, the judiciary sat on the cases, constantly postponing them whenever they are due. Even when Sampa was sued for criminal perjury and forgery of PF documents, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Gilbert Phiri, Hichilema’s former lawyer, moved quickly to block his prosecution. This defence for Sampa, who now moves with state security, by the authorities has given him ample time to further weaken the main opposition party.
Emboldened by the support it is receiving from Hichilema and those around him, Sampa’s faction has since moved to expel nine PF MPs for alleged gross indiscipline and insubordination. Those targeted in this first round of expulsions are individuals considered as presidential hopefuls, leading the legal and political opposition to the takeover of the PF, and vulnerable to defeat in possible by-elections. The expelled MPs were carefully chosen to intimidate them into submission and send a warning to the remaining lawmakers about what awaits them if they do not conform. Sampa has since asked Mutti to declare the seats vacant and pave the way for by-elections in the affected constituencies.
In case the nine MPs challenge the expulsions in the courts, the UPND has reportedly already lined up a few friendly judges to promptly confirm the dismissals. If the courts do not confirm the expulsion, Article 72 (6) of Zambia’s Constitution allows the victorious MP to either remain a member of the political party that expelled them and retain their seat or resign from the party and retain the seat as an independent member. If, as expected, the expulsion is confirmed, a new election will be held. The Electoral Commission of Zambia, led by another former UPND lawyer, is then expected to only accept the nomination of PF candidates who belong to Sampa’s faction. Pitted against legitimacy-lacking PF contestants who would likely be seen as stooges of the ruling party, poorly funded opposition parties, and even the expelled figures — should they try to defend their seats as independent candidates or on a separate party ticket — the UPND is expected to emerge victorious in all the nine constituencies.
Why Hichilema is out to grab opposition seats
Hichilema is desperate to win the seats for several reasons. First, the UPND has no parliamentary representation in one or two of the provinces where the expelled MPs come from. Winning a few seats would cure this unwanted record and give the ruling party a cosmetic but important national character. Second, Hichilema’s party lacks a two-third majority in the 167-member parliament required to make changes to the Constitution that would consolidate his stay in power or enable the ruling party to lift the immunity of former president Edgar Lungu from prosecution. The UPND has 92 seats in parliament (out of which 84 are elected while the remaining eight are nominations) and enjoys the additional support of up to 12 Independent and PF MPs.
This means the UPND would be able to achieve a clear majority if it wins at least seven of the forthcoming by-elections. Civil society and the opposition are alleging that Hichilema feels politically insecure and wants to not only extend the presidential term of office but also remove from the Constitution any provisions that might make it difficult for him to secure a second term, such as the requirement that a winning presidential candidate must obtain more than 50% of the total votes cast. Third, winning the soon-to-be declared vacant seats — and those to follow — would represent a significant step forward in what the highly regarded retired Archbishop of Lusaka Telesphore Mpundu calls the “state-orchestrated murder of the PF”. In short, once the by-elections are called, the UPND, as they have previously shown, will do anything and everything to win them.
The push for a one-party state
I was an opponent of the PF’s undemocratic actions when it was in power and a regular critic of then president Lungu, but one does not have to be a supporter of the PF to see that the absence of a viable opposition party will be a terrible development for Zambia’s multiparty democracy. Over the last decade, the country has evolved into a two-party system. For instance, out of the 156 parliamentary seats directly elected based on a simple majority vote under the first-past-the-post system, the UPND and PF share a combined total of 142. (Thirteen of the remaining seats are held by independents while one seat belongs to a smaller opposition party.) If one of these parties disappears or if Hichilema succeeds in his efforts to obliterate the PF, Zambia will be, except in designation, a one-party state. The president, increasingly authoritarian and bidding for absolute power, does not seem to care. If anything, he has already done much to weaken the usual sources of resistance. For instance, the president has co-opted into government bodies most of the critical voices from civil society that challenged Lungu’s authoritarian tendencies, packed the courts and the electoral body with his own appointees, and secured the silence of Western actors who have traditionally condemned attacks on democracy.
The UPND and its supporters like arguing that Hichilema will easily retain power in the 2026 election not because he has delivered on his many campaign promises, but because “there is no credible opposition” to unseat him. What is clear, though, is how his administration is systemically and ruthlessly crushing any semblance of opposition to his rule. Such is the sustained assault on human rights and democracy, recently condemned by the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, that since the 2021 election, police have blocked all public rallies called by opposition parties outside by-elections, always citing unspecified security concerns or inadequate manpower.
In addition to the ongoing theft of the PF, many of its presidential hopefuls have been saddled with court cases, while one of Hichilema’s supporters has petitioned the constitutional court to declare Lungu ineligible to stand in the 2026 election. Another promising candidate, Fred M’membe of the Socialist Party, has been targeted for electoral exclusion with multiple court cases out of which the UPND hopes to secure a dubious criminal conviction that would disqualify him from running in the next election. So committed to this outcome is Hichilema’s group that the DPP has personally travelled for M’membe’s court hearings outside Lusaka.
Zambia is a tinderbox
Lungu left weak formal institutions such as the judiciary, electoral commission, and the police. Hichilema is weakening them even further by sapping any semblance of remaining professionalism. Herein lies the real danger. Once public trust in these and other institutions is totally eroded, opposition to the UPND may find expression in undemocratic means or informal outlets. Already, growing levels of frustration with the government’s failure to address the escalating cost-of-living crisis have left many areas, especially in towns and cities, teetering on the brink of social unrest. It may not take much to torch this simmering discontent. Not even Hichilema may survive the potential consequences of what he is, in effect, brewing.
Who, or what, will stop Hichilema?
Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian writer, historian, and Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University