Zambia opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema accused President Edgar Lungu’s government of political killings, rights abuses and rampant corruption, calling on South Africa to intervene to restore calm.
Hichilema, who spent four months in jail last year on a treason charge, said regional allies needed to apply pressure on Lungu or risk Zambia descending into the economic disarray seen in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe.
Zambia, Africa’s second largest copper producer, has been criticised by rights groups for an increase in political arrests under Lungu and concerns about corruption following reports of billions of dollars in undisclosed borrowing.
Lungu denies there is a government corruption problem or that police are used to stifle dissent.
“I am asking the region to open its eyes to a brutal regime and to do all it can to restore the rule of law, or the world will be looking at the next Zimbabwe,” Hichilema said in an interview in Johannesburg.
“It is in South Africa’s interest as the regional powerhouse to act now or it will suffer from economic collapse of its neighbour and mass migration.”
South Africa is the commercial gateway to the region and has influence over its neighbours.
Pretoria intervened to bring together a unity government in Zimbabwe after scores were killed in post-election violence in 2008 and swiftly brought an end to an attempted coup in Lesotho in 2014.
Zambia is due to hold elections in 2021 but Hichilema said it was impossible to hold a free and fair vote in the current environment because Lungu controlled the electoral commission.
Rights groups and diplomats have not reported a crackdown on dissent on the scale described by Hichilema.
“It is much, much worse than the world thinks,” he said.
Hichilema, an economist and businessman widely known as HH, was arrested in April last year and charged with treason after his convoy failed to make way for Lungu’s motorcade.
He was released in August after state prosecutors dropped charges.
Former South African President Jacob Zuma did not publicly call for Hichilema’s release, drawing criticism from South African opposition parties who said Zuma was failing to uphold regional democracy.
Hichilema said he had more faith in new South African President Cyril Ramaphosa a successful businessman who came to power in February after Zuma was forced out by his own party.
“We’ve been encouraged by what we’ve seen in South Africa and we now want it to have a positive impact regionally.”