JOHANNESBURG - These are worrying times in Zambia, a southern African nation that takes pride in its peaceful, democratic history.
After the president won re-election by what seems like an impossibly narrow margin, the nation's opposition alleged last week's poll was rigged and said it plans to challenge the results in court.
President Edgar Lungu says he will delay his inauguration, scheduled for next week, while the Constitutional Court examines the petition. The court will have two weeks to rule.
On Tuesday, police announced they had arrested more than 150 rowdy opposition supporters around the country who “ran amok” and vandalized property belonging to ruling party supporters.
“They have set fires to vehicles. They have held hostage over 12 people who are supporters of the ruling party. So, they have been arrested for arson. Others have been arrested for public disorder. Others have been arrested for assault," Amos Chanda, spokesman for President Lungu, told VOA Daybreak Africa.
He said more arrests are expected in the Southern Province, an opposition stronghold.
This year's election campaign has been marred with multiple clashes between supporters of the two main parties, prompting the head of the electoral commission to call the violence "unprecedented."
It's worrying, said analyst Dimpho Motsamai of the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies; but, she said, onlookers should be more concerned about what happens next than what is happening right now.
"We should be worried about how the electoral petitions are going to be handled," she told VOA News. "Look, I think people are really worried about the violence that is taking place right now and the protests. It's warranted worry; but, the so-called instability in Zambia that has taken place is localized; it is not nationwide. So I don't see any potential regional spillovers."
She urged leaders to maintain calm and respect the legal processes that allow the results to be challenged in court.
The opposition alleges that Lungu had won by the thinnest of margins and that his 50.35 percent share gave him a margin of just 13,000 votes over the number he needed to win without a runoff.
The ruling party maintains that Lungu won fairly over challenger Hakainde Hichilema.
Parliament member and deputy spokesman for Zambia's main UPND opposition party, Cornelius Mweetwa, told VOA about 40 people were arrested in his constituency in the Southern Province.
“I can confirm that all those who have been arrested had completely nothing to do with the instability or unrest that ensued after the announcement of the election results. People did take to streets in protest against a stolen election,” Mweetwa said.
Vocal opposition supporter Guy Scott told VOA News that this is a key moment for Zambia. Scott is the nation’s former acting president and Lungu’s predecessor. He took the helm shortly after the sudden death of President Michael Sata in 2014.
Scott urged the international community to watch Zambia closely as it works through this impasse.
“I would plead with the world to be a little bit patient but also not absentminded,” he said by phone from Lusaka. “I mean, the trouble with news is that there’s, 'Oh a kerfuffle in Zambia.' If you give us two weeks and we sort it out in two weeks, it’s usually forgotten, and we go on to some other African country that’s having problems with its election.”
The European Union's observer mission pronounced the August 11 poll as being largely peaceful and well-administered.
The non-partisan Christian Churches Monitoring Group also monitored the poll and says the results were credible. The group says its pre-vote estimates are exactly in line with the results. Spokeswoman Chibesa Ngulube urged Zambians to keep calm and carry on.
"We've condemned any manner of violence in the strongest words possible," she said. "We've urged both the person, the president that won and the opposition to just continue urging people to forge ahead, accept the results, whichever side of the results you're on and to just maintain peace; because, at the end of the day, past election day, Zambia must carry on."
"Whatever is happening today, tomorrow, will have repercussions in the future," she added. "So peace must be maintained at all costs, regardless of the side of the coin where you fall."
James Butty contributed to this report from Washington.