Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was released from prison Wednesday and treason charges against him dropped.
Hichilema, who was beaten narrowly by President Edgar Lungu last year in an election, had been in jail since April for allegedly failing to give way to Lungu’s motorcade.
Zambia probably became the first country to charge its president’s main rival with treason over a traffic incident.
Over the past year Zambia, which had seemed to have taken a big democracy step forward, has slid alarmingly back into authoritarianism as Lungu swung the hammer against the opposition and civil society.
But what are we missing? It seems Zambia is part of an emerging African phenomenon — the “climate change dictatorship.”
Like most of southern Africa and the Horn, in 2015 and 2016 Zambia was ravaged mercilessly by a drought.
The Kariba Dam that supplies Zambia and Zimbabwe with their electricity all but dried out. Factories and mines closed or cut back sharply. A country that a few months earlier was known for food surplus was staring at empty plates.
Added to other policy missteps, Zambia was faced with an economic crisis and restless citizens. Droughts are dangerous, as Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and the military junta Mengistu Haile Mariam that overthrew him later found out. They lead to ouster of regimes.
In Zambia, Lungu was left without the resources that his predecessors had to dole out patronage and appease restless constituencies. Lacking political imagination, he resorted to the boot.
Lungu is only one in a long chain of future climate change autocrats. With climate change making it difficult for many cities to get enough water, as in Ethiopia, conflicts are sharpening with neighbouring communities.
Because of shortage of water, you can’t expand a city just by building more skyscrapers. You have to expand horizontally too, which means more land. In Ethiopia, it ended in bloody confrontation with the Oromia community in 2016.
Virtually everywhere in Africa, we are seeing this conflict in some form.
Nature of rebellion is changing
However, what should even be more alarming is how it is altering insurgent politics. With farmlands degrading and water sources drying out, the nature of rebellion is changing.
In northern Nigeria and the Sahel, we are witnessing cases where militants are successful mobilising water and pasture-poor communities to attack those that have more of these things. Call it “climate change ideology.”
But it is also bringing conflict closer to urban areas.
Previously, a rebel group could hide out in a remote forest or valley, because it could get water, and food. But now the water is reduced, the hillsides are deforested, and the wild animals in the bushes have all been hunted and eaten or poached.
The best hiding place is now in cities. Cities also provide more opportunities for rebels to forage for food, and to find water.
However you can’t maintain the large rebel formations that are possible in a forest, in urban areas. You can only get away with small groups organised in cells, which also changes the nature of warfare. You can’t carry out a protracted bush war. Terrorism is your best option.
Therefore, thanks to climate change, the future of armed rebellion in Africa could be urban terrorism.
We should never have annoyed the rain gods.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]