Hichilema and Lusaka Archbishop Alick Banda are publicly known as adversaries. Neither of the two men attempted to disguise this perception or showed any willingness to bury the hatchet.
During a church service on 21 May, Fr. Anthony Salangeta, a Catholic priest of Chawama, mocked Hichilema’s use of graphs during a press briefing to illustrate how Zambia’s economy has deteriorated over time due to uncontrolled borrowing.
“People here don’t understand graphs. The people want food on the table… so you go and tell them that we don’t need graphs,” Salangeta, an ally of former president Edgar Lungu, told a cheering packed congregation that he addressed in the native language in Chawama, a sprawling low-income slum south of Lusaka.
Lungu is the former legislator for Chawama, and currently, his daughter, Tasila is the MP.
Salangeta’s short clip went viral on many social media platforms, reflecting the daily struggles ordinary Zambians endure at the hands of a debt-stressed economy.
However, Salangeta’s jibe unnerved Hichilema.
“If you don’t want graphs, go and sleep, you’re a joker because you can’t run a country without knowing that if you borrow too much and you consume that money, you’ll get into a debt trap,” Hichilema retorted at a public gathering in Lusaka.
In response, Banda, a strong ally of former president Edgar Lungu, defended Salangeta with almost equal venom.
“Who is a joker between a priest and a liar,” Banda told a church youth gathering in Lusaka.
Riding on many Church sermons, Banda, frequently and unflinchingly accuses Hichilema of a myriad of misdeeds which range from unfulfilled election campaign promises to abuse of authority of the office and constant harassing Zambia’s past president.
The virulent exchanges between the two ‘warring parties’ escalated with the UPND secretary general Batuke Imenda, in a statement widely circulated on social media on 29 May, labelled Banda as someone who wants “to take advantage of citizens by promoting the PF.”
The mighty Catholic Church
In an attempt to calm the storm, the head of the Zambia Conference for Catholic Bishops (ZCCB) Archbishop Ignatius Chama called on all Catholic members to refrain from commenting on the rift as the Church sought “engagement and dialogue” with the government “over recent happenings”.
“The status quo, if not managed well, has the potential to strain this relationship with undesirable repercussions on the general populace,” Chama, a moderately independent Bishop, said in a letter after meeting five government ministers sent as emissaries of Hichilema.
Technology Minister Felix Mutati, who led Hichilema’s delegation of cabinet ministers to meet Chama “in search of peace,” tells The Africa Report that the rift “is now water under the bridge”.
“The directive to all our members to cease fire is still in force… We want to give peace a chance,” Mutati says.
But retired Catholic priest and former PF member Frank Bwalya says the feud is far from over.
“I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Hon. Mutati, but this is a little too late and falls short of condemning those insults that were levelled against the Catholics,” Bwalya tells The Africa Report.
“You cannot insult one chief and go to the next chief to say ‘it is not you I insulted… They should have engaged Bishop Banda, but they cannot do that because they have a problem with him,” Bwalya adds.
I don’t think this rift will escalate into making the government unpopular unless it is mishandled by those in government.
According to official statistics, of the 95%-strong Christian population in Zambia, about 20%are Catholics. Catholicism is the single-most influential religious grouping as it runs social amenities such as schools and churches, only second to the government, and its active participation in politics is well-documented.
In a highly religious Zambia, Christianity is a potent political tool dearly cherished by politicians.
Religious fervour for politics
Over the years, Catholicism has played a crucial role in the Zambian political landscape through its social teaching, which often influences the outcome of general elections.
The former ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has the strongest Catholic influence with its founding president Michael Sata who ruled Zambia between 2011 and 2014 and was known to be the first practising Catholic to rule Zambia.
Sata galvanised some Catholic priests, especially from the influential Bemba-speaking region, and their pulpits delivered sermons that helped propel his journey to the presidency.
Although Sata’s successor, Lungu, has a hazy religious affiliation, he managed to worm his way into the heart of the Church, essentially maintaining Sata’s religious legacy.
The PF’s shock-heavy defeat in 2011 was partly blamed on the disenchantment of some Catholic clergy led by former Lusaka Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu, who spoke against Lungu’s increasingly autocratic rule and impunity of the former ruling party.
Mpundu, whose sharp criticism of Lungu’s PF often drew the ire of the former ruling party, suddenly resigned in January 2018 and was immediately replaced with Banda, who was presiding over the restive Copperbelt diocese at the time.
“We know the role the Catholic Church played to have Hichilema released from prison and for UPND to get into power, but when his members speak about the Catholic, it is as if the Church has no role in the governance of this country. The UPND has for some time been digging its own grave,” said Bwalya.
As president of the ZCCB in 2017, Mpundu demonstrated enormous fervour and pressure that helped Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland to rescue Hichilema from a 127-day incarceration for treason charges over a traffic offence.
That single act by Mpundu was seen by many in Zambia as a crucial key that unlocked the influential Catholic and Bemba-speaking vote for Hichilema, who is a known member of the Seventh Day Adventists, which is seldom politically vocal.
Hichilema appears to be trying to avoid stepping on the Catholic landmine and suffering the fate of his predecessor.
“I don’t think this rift will escalate into making the government unpopular unless it is mishandled by those in government,” University of Zambia historian Euston Chiputa tells The Africa Report.
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