Lungu to Be Sworn in Sept. 13 as Zambian Poll Dispute Dismissed

  • Court rules that deadline for hearing petition lapsed
  • Lungu faces battle to restore growth as IMF talks loom

Zambian President Edgar Lungu will be inaugurated Sept. 13 after the Constitutional Court dismissed an opposition petition to nullify elections held last month, without hold a hearing, Cabinet Secretary Roland Msiska said.

Three of five judges ruled that a 14-day deadline for hearing the challenge filed Aug. 19 by opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema lapsed by midnight on Sept. 2, contradicting the court’s decision on that day to adjourn proceedings until Monday, when the trial would begin.

“Where the time for hearing a petition is limited, the court is bound,” Judge Anne Mwewa-Sitali said in Lusaka, the capital, reading the ruling. “Our position therefore is, the petition stands dismissed for want of prosecution as at midnight” on Sept. 2.

Lungu was declared the winner of the Aug. 11 presidential election with 50.4 percent of the vote against Hichilema’s 47.6 percent, enough to avoid a run-off. The opposition leader said the ruling Patriotic Front had colluded with the Electoral Commission of Zambia to manipulate the poll, a claim they both denied. Lungu must preside over an economy that’s growing at its slowest pace since 1998 amid a slump in the price of copper, which accounts for more than 70 percent of export earnings.

Credibility Threat

The country’s currency, the kwacha, weakened 1.1 percent to 9.86 per dollar as of 5:27 p.m. in Lusaka. Yields on Zambia’s $1 billion of Eurobonds due April 2024 dropped 2 basis points to 8.95 percent.

While the dismissal will bring short-term stability and certainty, it may damage the credibility of the judiciary in the long run, said Sinethemba Zonke, an analyst at consultancy africapractice. The court should have allowed Hichilema to be fully heard, he said.

“Various stakeholders with interest in Zambia, including local and international investors, had been getting impatient with the impasse,” Zonke said in reply to e-mailed questions from Lusaka. “There is a large section of Zambia who will feel hard done by the court’s decision.”

Hichilema, flanked by his running mate Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba and former Acting President Guy Scott, declined to comment to reporters on the steps outside the court.

Legal Delays

The petitioners only had themselves to blame for the delays that prevented the hearing from starting within the constitutionally stipulated timeframe, Mwewa-Sitali said. Hichilema’s lawyers had repeatedly raised preliminary issues, and took too long to serve the petition on the respondents, she said.

Hildah Chibomba, the president judge at the Constitutional Court, was one of two judges who opposed dismissing the petition, she said. On Friday around midnight she adjourned the hearing to Monday, allowing two days each for the petitioners and respondents to present their arguments. Hichilema won the adjournment after asking for extra time to find new lawyers after his legal representatives left the case at around 8 p.m., saying they would not be able to get a fair trial in the two hours the court said they had to present their case.

Lungu, who first took power in January last year, faces a difficult job in restoring an economy that’s struggling with inflation near 20 percent and a prolonged power shortage. He has already indicated he’s ready to take “painful but necessary measures” to restore growth, including subsidy cuts, as he prepares to negotiate an aid package with the International Monetary Fund.

“The IMF will be speaking with people they have already been working with, which may allow a better relationship to plan a workable solution for Zambia,” Zonke said. “The ball will largely be in the hands of Lungu. If he is unable to put the economy back on its feet, he will struggle mending divisions in the country and creating long-term stability.”

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