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May 14, 2013

Priest in Politician’s Clothing Eyes Top Seat in Zambia

by Anita Powell

Zambia’s government is not delivering on its promises, says a prominent critic who used to support President Michael Sata. The Rev. Frank Bwalya, a Catholic priest, says Sata’s administration is cracking down on the opposition and on critics - and he says the public outrage is prompting him to trade in his clerical collar for a politician’s suit.

Bwalya pulls from the Bible to describe his home country of Zambia and the president he once supported, but now vigorously opposes.

“The promised land is still there. The problem is that Moses is refusing to step aside. And while he is resisting to step aside, he is becoming destructive," said Bwalya. "That is the problem. If he had not become destructive, we would have been patient, to say, let him go all the way and take him to the point where somebody else is supposed to take over. But now that he has become destructive we can not wait, to stop him. And by stopping him I do not mean to remove him by force. I do not mean that.”

Running for office

That is Bwalya’s way of saying he plans to run against Sata in 2016. He said his new party does not yet have a platform. In fact, it still has no name. But he said he wants to bring in new ideas and get rid of old ones, to reduce corruption and cut politicians’ perks, and to use experts to solve problems in the copper-rich nation.

In this way, he fits the mold of many African opposition movements, defined more by their opposition than by their positions.

Bwalya supported Sata when he ran in 2011. Bwalya recently joined a growing number of critics, however, who say the president has reneged on his promises to bring development and fight corruption, and has instead cracked down on the opposition.

Bwalya is not alone in making such allegations. Last year, the U.S. State Department documented unlawful killings, torture, arrests of critics and restrictions of freedoms in Zambia.

Why Sata changed his tune, said Bwalya, he does not know.

“It is a question that every Zambian is asking: ‘What has happened to the president? Is he hijacked or has hijacked himself?’ But we all do not know, to be very honest, why he has turned around like this," he said. "Why he has started doing the same things that made us support him to become president, those same things we condemned."

Taking exception

Zambia's Vice President Guy Scott said Bwalya is being overdramatic.  

“I mean, it is a little bit overwrought, overplayed, this argument. I mean, he is the president, he is supposed to govern the country. And we have a parliament, which is supposed to pass laws and so on and so forth," said Scott. "So, where you draw the line between authority and I suppose what you would call abuse of authority is really the question. And I do not think I see a very concrete definition of authority abused by our side, by our government or our president.”

Scott acknowledged that the southern African nation has human-rights issues to address, but said few can be attributed to Sata’s Patriotic Front.

“These are human-rights issues going way back before the election that brought us to power. Some of them have said, 'Yes, somebody should not have been locked up for two nights in jail, in police cells and so forth.' But the majority of these violations are two things: first of all, the majority of these violations are ongoing problems, like the conditions of police cells are a violation of human rights because it’s been 40 years, or nearly 50 years, since anyone maintained the water system in police stations. I mean, it is not us who suddenly created all the conditions that people are saying are abusive of human rights,” said Scott.

Bwalya's combination of being a politician in priest's clothing might unsettle some international-rights campaigners. He said that if he is elected president, he has no plans to change the country’s laws that criminalize homosexuality. He said he fully supports the church’s positions on birth control, but added that he will follow his Cabinet ministers’ policies on such issues even if they conflict with his faith.