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Zambia's President Edgar Lungu attends a signing ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 8, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

It seems like Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu is seeking to consolidate his power.

Just last week, he seized on the fact that an arsonist had torched the capital Lusaka’s main market, to declare a state of threatened emergency. The declaration, among other things, allows police to ban public meetings and impose travel restrictions, actions that suppress dissent.

The parliament voted to approve these emergency powers. But in June, the parliament suspended 48 members of parliament from the opposition United Party for National Development for a month without pay for refusing to attend an address by Lungu. These members had no chance to vote on the emergency powers.

That month, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema – who narrowly lost both the 2015 by-election and 2016 presidential election to Lungu – was arrested and charged with treason. Treason is a non-bailable offense in Zambia, carrying a minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum of a death sentence. The official police statement alleges that Hichilema showed “unreasonable, reckless and criminal” behavior toward the president and caused “unnecessary anarchy.” Yet the charges relate to a traffic violation, at best, as Hichilema’s motorcade failed to ease passage for the presidential motorcade. There was no altercation or collision and no injuries were reported.

The Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council condemned Hichilema’s arrest on “trumped-up charges,” calling it “a recipe to heighten tension in an already volatile economic and political environment.” Harsher criticism came from the traditionally coy Conference of Catholic Bishops and other church leaders, who stated that under Lungu, “Zambia eminently qualifies to be branded a dictatorship.”

Around that time, we were part of a Human Rights Watch team that visited Zambia. Many of the people we met worried about the dark clouds of political intolerance. They feared it could threaten the country’s multi-party politics, introduced in 1991 after nearly three decades of dictatorship, and its legacy of peaceful elections and transitions of power.

Because the government is considering leaving the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Lungu called for popular consultations to decide if the country should make this move. An overwhelming 93.3 percent of people who participated in the consultations said they supported remaining with the ICC. We were there to see that the government officially reported and committed to abiding by the consultation results. We were heartened to see how much the people of Zambia cared about justice.

Lungu should keep in mind that stripping people of their rights will not solve Zambia’s problems. It will only make them worse.

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