The leader of Zambia’s main opposition party called on supporters this week to avoid political violence despite what the party said was extreme provocation by the ruling Patriotic Front ahead of the August 11 general election.
Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development, also urged the international community to monitor what he called human rights abuses by Zambian state institutions, like the police.
His remarks came after Geoffrey Mwamba, a leading member of the UPND, was arrested and charged Wednesday with unlawful milita training. Police spokesperson Charity Chanda said officers recovered weapons, including machetes, a spear, eight rounds of ammunition and a gun, at Mwamba’s premises in the capital, Lusaka.
The UPND had been accused of training militias ahead of the polls. President Edgar Lungu was recently quoted by local media as saying he had intelligence reports that the UPND was training about 250 youths to engage in violence during the elections.
But Hichilema said that by arresting Mwamba and 21 other opposition party supporters, the PF was using state institutions to harass and intimidate UPND followers. He said Lungu appeared to have been unable to stop the violence, which he said could escalate if not readily addressed.
“We have done this against the brutal and suppressive behavior of the ruling party, the PF, and the president, who has taken a decision to suppress citizens and unleash the police force on harmless and armless citizens,” Hichilema said.
“I’m aware that our citizens are in a position ... to retaliate," he said. "That’s why I called [on] them not to do that, because what President Lungu is trying to do is to instigate violence and then try to justify a call for a state of emergency, the consequence of which [is] to avoid the 11 August elections, and we don’t want him to create that environment.”
Hichilema, UPND criticized
PF backers dismissed Hichilema’s accusation. Frank Bwalya, deputy PF spokesman, told VOA the president wants to maintain peace, and that Hichilema and his supporters should stop creating confusion that could tear at the country's social fabric.
PF supporters also said the UPND had yet to come up with measures comparable to those the government has been implementing to improve citizens' lives.
Critics said Hichilema’s businesses have not been good to Zambians. Some of his employees said they have been threatened with being fired if they ask for better pay. Hichilema disagreed.
“They are aware between their president and myself, that I am the better economic and business manager," he said. "They know I am a business person; they know I understand the economy. I’m trained in that area, and we have demonstrated what our capabilities are. We created jobs when the president hasn’t created any jobs."
“The point is that if you are paying an agricultural worker, salaries [are] not the same as [for] a worker who works in an asset management business. The two are different. ... We pay much better" than the average wage, Hichilema added.
In the presidential election, Lungu will face a stiff challenge from Hichilema and Nevers Mumba of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy.
“Our challenge is to have free, fair, transparent, credible elections. ... We are expecting nothing short of that. And that is what we are asking the international community to do — to pay attention to the elections in Zambia, because Zambians have decided to deliver change,” Hichilema said.