Zimbabwe lawmaker Job Sikhala, vice-chairman of the opposition MDC party, was on Tuesday charged with treason after allegedly saying the party would overthrow the government before the next election, his lawyer said.

“He has been formerly charged with attempting to overthrow the government unconstitutionally,” his lawyer Obey Shava told AFP, saying his client denied the charges.

Sikhala, an often outspoken senior official in the Movement for Democratic Change party, allegedly said in a speech at a rally on Saturday that the party would unseat President Emmerson Mnangagwa before the next election.

“We are going to overthrow him (Mnangagwa) before 2023,” Sikhala was quoted as saying.

Some Zimbabweans hoped that the ousting of long-time autocrat Robert Mugabe in 2017 would usher in a more tolerant political scene as Mnangagwa sought to attract foreign investment.

But government critics have been frequently targeted by the police and security forces as the country’s economy tips into crisis.

The ZANU-PF government reacted furiously to the remarks, with information secretary Nick Mangwana describing the speech as an “insurgent rant”.

Mnangagwa promised a fresh start for Zimbabwe after decades of repression and economic decline under Mugabe.

But his presidency has been marked by brutal security crackdowns and rocketing inflation.