AK47s, troops and a border stand-off…Biti’s dramatic escape

Tendai Biti

OPPOSITION politician Tendai Biti escaped the clutches of Zimbabwean law enforcement on Wednesday morning, skipping into Zambia after a dramatic stand-off involving the neighbouring countries’ security agents.

The police accuse Biti, a top ally of Nelson Chamisa, of violating electoral law by declaring the presidential aspirant winner of the contested July 30 election. Earlier reports, quoting his lawyer, had suggested that Zimbabwean authorities, on the hunt for Biti for days, had taken him into custody.

Zambian authorities confirmed that Biti had sought asylum in that country, with Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Malanji telling the BBC Lusaka turned his bid down, saying “his grounds are not meritorious.”

Zambian Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Malanji with Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa during the latter’s visit to Lusaka in January, 2018

But this was not before a dramatic showdown at Chirundu, when Zambian authorities had threatened their Zimbabwean counterparts with arrest.

According to a dispatch by Zimbabwe’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) stationed in Chirundu, Biti arrived at the border around 6am on Wednesday, the time the post opens for business. Biti arrived in a Toyota truck and in the company of three men.

He went straight to the Zambian immigration section of the one-stop border, which is on Zambian soil, avoiding Zimbabwean officials.

A Zambian immigration official took Biti and his fellow travellers’ passports and alerted his Zimbabwean immigration counterpart of the opposition politician’s presence.

Members of the CID, who man the vehicle clearance desk at the border, were also alerted. They quickly called their station for reinforcements.

A team made up of police and officers from the Central Intelligence Organisation rushed to the border post, where they confronted Biti.

The belligerent Biti, a lawyer, reportedly resisted arrest citing international law. He argued that he was on Zambian soil, beyond Zimbabwean authorities’ jurisdiction.

While engaging the Zimbabwean operatives, Biti called out for help from hundreds of Zimbabwean travellers, at the border en route to Zambia.

Hazy images of Biti at the centre of a melee at the Chirundu border emerged on Wednesday

Many sprang to Biti’s help and stopped the police and intelligence officers from effecting arrest.

The Zambian authorities then took Biti and his associates to their immigration offices, ordering the Zimbabwean operatives not to enter.

As tensions rose between the two security agents, the Zambians threatened their Zimbabwean counterparts with arrest if they tried to seize Biti.

In the meantime, the Zambians were consulting their superiors in Lusaka over how to deal with Biti, who had told them he was fleeing political persecution.

The Zambians also refused to entertain pleas by the Zimbabwean officers to convene an urgent joint security meeting to discuss the situation.

Once Lusaka had given the green light, a Zambian paramilitary troop, armed with AK47 rifles, descended on the border post to escort a relieved Biti as he proceeded to Lusaka.

Upon arrival in Lusaka, Biti sought asylum, according to Malanji. But the Zambians turned him down.

“We are just keeping him for safe custody before he heads back to Harare,” Malanji told the BBC.