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Zambian musician and activist “Pilato” arrested for speaking out on government graft

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Popular Zambian musician Chama Fumba, known by his stage name Pilato, who had fled Zambia and sought the help of Amnesty International to obtain asylum in South Africa after speaking out on corruption in his country, returned only to be arrested at Lusaka airport

Pilato left Zambia after receiving threats from supporters of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front, because of his hit song “Koswe Mumpoto”. In the local Bemba dialect, this means “rat in the pot”. Supporters claimed the song accuses President Edgar Lungu and his ministers of corruption.

In the song, Pilato mocks a man named Lungu who, the lyrics say, has no ideas but is carrying a suitcase full of whisky bottles. “We should be careful with these rats… They want kickbacks in everything in the search for cheese,” says a line in the song. “A rat has entered our house. It is busy stealing, thinking we will not question it,” the song continues.

In addition to threats from its supporters, the Patriotic Front demanded that Pilato apologise for lacking respect for the office of the president. The musician declined, stating that he was exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Pilato fled to South Africa, where he was in self-imposed exile for about four months. During this time, an arrest warrant was issued for the musician’s failure to appear in court. Pilato, along with five other activists, was to appear in court for protesting against the government’s 2017 procurement of 42 fire-fighting vehicles at a cost of US$1 million (850,000 euros) each. However, the court date and resultant arrest warrant occurred while Pilato was abroad.

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In a statement, Amnesty International insisted that Pilato is an activist and artist, not a criminal. The organisation’s regional director for Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, called Pilato’s arrest a “shocking affront to justice”. Muchena said: “It shows the lengths to which Zambian authorities are prepared to go to stifle dissent.”

Upon his return from his four-month banishment in South Africa, Pilato was arrested at the airport in Lusaka.

In an uncompromising statement, which should be seen as indicative of the government’s thoughts on the matter, Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, told the Mail and Guardian newspaper that the Zambian embassy is surprised by Amnesty International’s statement, saying that it is based on “falsehood”.

“Pilato fled the country and jumped his bail conditions. A bench warrant was issued against him and later an Interpol arresting warrant was also issued,” Mwamba said. “So, upon [Pilato’s] arrival at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, there was an obligation on any law enforcement agency to effect the arrest.”

Charity Katanga, the commanding officer of the Lusaka police, said the musician would appear in court and could face a penalty of up to six months in prison or a fine if convicted.

“The song is a recipe for public disorder, because the people who play the song are being attacked by those who feel it is an insult to the presidency,” Katanga told Reuters. “He has been charged with conduct likely to cause a breach of peace.”

However, the activist and his supporters remain unbowed. One of the accused activists, Laura Miti, told reporters that the struggle against government graft will continue. “Despite this arrest, we will continue to demand accountability from our leaders. Every other day there are new revelations of corruption. We have just heard of the president acquiring land in Swaziland. So we will continue to demand accountability.”

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