from ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA, (CAJ News) – THE ban on public gatherings and political rallies is widening the rift between the Zambia’s main rivals, stokes up the fires and escalates fears the upcoming election could plunge the country into conflict.
Elections are scheduled for August 12 but the atmosphere was already tense before incumbent, President Edgar Lungu, imposed the statutory ban, apparently in line with coronavirus (COVID-19) health guidelines.
Lungu, the candidate of the Patriotic Front (PF), directed the Zambia Police Service and health authorities to enforce the prohibition “without fear or favour.”
“What will it benefit you to be holding rallies, but then sacrifice the lives of our citizens and voters to COVID-19 and death?” the incumbent asked.
His directive has triggered a war of words between the main contestants.
The United Party for National Development (UPND) Alliance, led by Lungu’s long-time nemesis, Haikande Hichilema, has hit back at the order, which it claims is a ploy by the incumbent to maintain his grip on power.
Lungu has led Zambia since 2015 and his critics accuse him of running the minerals-rich Southern African nation with an iron fist.
Hichilema argued Lungu’s directive was aimed at disadvantaging his rivals from freely selling their message to the electorate.
The opposition leader lampooned the order as a “Mickey Mouse” decision.
“What our colleague did yesterday (Wednesday) was to take away the rights of the people. This is the people’s campaign,” Hichilema said.
Ernest Mwansa, the UPND Alliance co-chairman, said PF was “afraid” that if rallies were to go ahead, PF’s attendances would be “dwarfed” by those of the UPND Alliance.
“Lungu is afraid of the huge number of people that are likely to turn out at our rallies. He knows too well that if we are to hold rallies, the PF’s political gatherings would be dwarfed,” he said.
Mwansa is also the president of the Zambians for Empowerment and Development, one of a number of parties that have joined an alliance to challenge the PF.
Antonio Mwanza, the PF media director, retorted.
“To claim that the President’s directive is meant to stop the opposition from campaigning is mischievous and gross misinformation,” he responded.
Mwanza said the ban on huge gatherings had been in place since last year and it affected all political parties, including the PF.
“No one is at an advantage. In fact, the PF has already taken the lead in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 by banning all its public campaign rallies,” the ruling party spokesman said.
He urged parties to utilise social and mass media as well as small gatherings and door to door events to campaign.
“Rallies are not the only mode of campaigns. Moreover, life and public health is more important than public rallies,” Mwanza reasoned.
Zambia has recorded 95 821 cases of COVID-19.
These include 1 282 deaths.
Lungu won the last poll in 2016 by 50,35 percent. Lungu secured 47,3 percent of the vote.
Some 6,698 million participated in the election, representing a voter turnout of 56,45 percent.
Claims of vote rigging marred the exercise.
Riots took place in most parts of the country.
Hichilema was arrested and spent a lengthy period in detention on treason charges critics said were spurious.
The country’s main market in the capital, Lusaka, was burnt down. Lungu’s government pointed a finger at the opposition.
Some 16 candidates are to contest the polls projected to be the fiercest since independence in 1964.
Poverty, unemployment and spiralling debt are among issues of concern in the country of 18,8 million people.
Hanna Tetteh, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General to the African Union (AU) and Head of the United Nations Office to the AU, this week embarked on a six-day visit to Zambia.
“The purpose of Madame Tetteh’s visit is to consult with the Government and other stakeholders on the United Nations’ continuing assistance to Zambia in addressing all national priorities and maintaining a peaceful national environment during this period and beyond,” Coumba Mar Gadio, UN Resident Coordinator in Zambia, stated.
– CAJ News