from ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA, (CAJ News) – AN alleged assassination attempt on the main opposition leader, purportedly by police, and the outburst of political violence that has landed activists in hospital, Zambia is on a precipice with elections on the horizon.
It is hailed as one of the most peaceful countries in Africa but stakes are so high for the next polls that such a reputation is in tatters.
Reports that the poll would be cancelled has added to the volatility plaguing the country that while praised as a model of peace and stability in the continent, is degenerating into chaos preceding elections on August 12.
Things came to a head this past weekend as the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) alleged an attempt on the life of its leader, Hakainde Hichilema, the main rival of the incumbent Edgar Chagwa Lungu, the candidate of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF).
The paramilitary police, ever accused to be partisan and an appendage to the governing party, are accused of firing live ammunition at the convoy of Hichilema in Chingola is the second largest city in Zambia, as he readied for a church service.
The UPND Alliance denounced this as an assassination attempt.
Perhaps daring the armed forces, the alliance vowed it would not “sit idle and watch” as Lungu continued to “toy around Mr Hichilema’s life.”’
Charles Milupi, the UPND Alliance chairperson, accused the officers working on strict instructions from Lungu to discharge live ammunition and teargas canisters on Hichilema’s convoy.
“What happened in Chiwempala in Chingola is clearly an assassination attempt,” he said.
“For some time now, the PF has played HH (Hakainde Hichilema) like a toy. Maybe it is because we, Zambians have conducted ourselves in a peaceful manner. Let me send this warning that any harm that would be done on Mr Hichilema won’t be allowed this time around,” Milupi said.
The salvo is testament to the escalating political temperatures in what is degenerating into the upcoming elections, set to be the most closely-contested in the country’s 57-year history.
“Should Mr Lungu continue to threaten the life of Mr Hichilema, the UPND Alliance will be left with no option but to call for widespread demonstrations across the country,” Milupi said.
The arranged rally in the epicentre of the violence was a rally that Hichilema was scheduled to address.
UPND has vowed to defy a ban by Lungu on rallies, apparently to curb the coronavirus third wave.
Police, under Inspector General Stephen Kampyongo, have initiated a crackdown.
Opposition parties have denounced this as an affront to their liberties by the ruling party.
“We can’t sit and watch while Lungu continues to rape the Constitution,” Mutale Nalumango, Hichilema’s running mate, said.
The PF has reacted in kind, lambasting the opposition of “seeking public sympathy” by alleging an assassination attempt.
“This is not only reckless and inflammatory but has the potential to create anarchy and civil unrest in the country and fits so well in the UPND strategy which is anchored on, one, a desperate attempt to solicit public sympathy and, two, a scheme to cause civil strife and public despondency,” Antonio Mwanza PF Media Director, said.
“The UPND have no message to convince the people to vote for them so they have resorted to a very dangerous strategy of trying to cause anarchy and division in the country by always claiming that the state wants to kill Mr. Hichilema.”
The PF spokesperson asked Zambians to “rise and condemn this irresponsible and very dangerous path that UPND has taken.”
“We should never allow their desperation for power to lead this country on a path of civil war. We must guard this peace jealousy,” Mwanza said.
The police chief, Kanganja, accused the UPND of “lying.”
He dispelled “irresponsible” statements circulating on social media that the police shot at Hichilema’s convoy.
“At no point did the police fire live ammunition to disperse crowds during the time when the UPND leader was conducting the illegal activities as all the officers were only armed with tear smoke canisters,” the police head said.
Police reported three supporters of the ruling PF were injured during the scuffles in the Copperbelt.
One activist was reportedly in the intensive care unit at a local hospital.
Esther Katongo, the Zambia police spokeswoman, issued a warning against perpetrators of violence.
“It has become evident from the reports received so far that some cadres have resorted to using catapults with the aim of causing harm on other persons, the conduct which the police shall not allow,” she said.
Police have intensified checks on all motor vehicles to curb the carrying offensive weapons.
“Any conduct that is antagonistic in nature shall be received with an equal repelling force from the police. None should label the police of using force. All political parties have been advised to conduct themselves peacefully and responsibly. Any conduct to the contrary will be dealt with accordingly,” Katongo said.
Reports that polls could be postponed amid the COVID-19 crisis have added to the tensions in the country of 18 million people have added to the hostilities.
Critics have criticised this as a ploy for the PF to retain power. It has ruled Zambia since 2011, ten years after its formation as a breakaway party of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), then under the leadership of the reigning Frederick Chiluba (now late).
The Ndola-born Lungu, a former Justice and Defence Minister, has been in power since 2015, succeeding Michael Sata.
Critics accuse him of turning the Southern African country into an autocratic state.
He won slightly over 50 percent of the poll amid vote rigging claims.
Lungu’s government reacted with a crackdown on Hichilema and his supporters.
– CAJ News