Zambia’s forthcoming elections have been marked by heightened political violence and police harassment, intimidation and the arrest of opposition party members and leaders.
The polls are a multipronged process, combining presidential, parliamentary and local government polls and a constitutional referendum on proposed amendments to the Bill of Rights.
In one corner of the political ring is the incumbent, President Edgar Lungu (59), spearheading his governing Patriotic Front’s (PF) bid for a second term.
Lungu’s main rival and challenger is economist and leader of the main opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainde Hichilema (55).
These elections can be seen as the most fiercely contested since the early 1990s, when Frederick Chiluba squared up to the towering figure that had led the country over 27 years since independence, Kenneth Kaunda.
August 11 will determine the fortunes not only of the parties but also of their leaders.
For Lungu, the opportunity beckons to cement his hold on Zambian politics after the narrowest of victories 18 months ago, in the wake of Michael Sata’s death.
His victory margin, less than 1%, reflected popular disenchantment with worsening economic conditions and infighting in his party.
Hichilema came tantalisingly close last time around, and is now buoyed by an economy on the back foot, citizens up in arms over increased living costs, low copper prices and the loss of jobs in the Copperbelt, electricity blackouts and support from former political adversaries from the PF.
Functioning more like a close-knit political family bonded by ties of blood, kinship and close personal friendships rather than political ideology, the PF rapidly crumbled after Sata’s unexpected death in 2014 into a vicious political dogfight.
The departure of the strongman who had held everything together sparked a poisonous cocktail of naked ambition and political skulduggery, which saw many of the PF’s original band of leaders sidelined or expelled from the party they had helped to build.
Many of Lungu’s party colleagues have defected to the UPND. Old PF grandees, such as Guy Scott, who served as vice-president under Sata and as acting president in the transition leading up to Lungu’s ascendancy in January last year, and others, such as Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba, the former PF defence minister, have joined Hichilema’s campaign, crisscrossing the country on the hustings and bolstering the UPND’s appeal.
This, and the fact that the PF seems to be heading for electoral defeat, has lent the contest an intensely personal dynamic. It is a fight to the death, with much blood on the floor – more Cain versus Abel than David versus Goliath.
The personal antagonism underpins unprecedented levels of pre-election violence and harassment, mainly directed at opponents of the PF. Frequent attacks on campaigners, largely in UPND red, have resulted in a number of deaths and serious injuries.
On July 28, 28 UPND members appeared in court charged with being in possession of petrol bombs and other dangerous weapons.
The police, who are quick to detain suspects if they are opposition supporters, have not shown a similar enthusiasm for acting against ruling party members.
Opposition members have also been sorely provoked. In one case in late July a PF campaign helicopter trailing a “Vote Edgar Lungu” banner hovered above a UPND rally in Lusaka for about 30 minutes before flying off.
In the midst of the fear and uncertainty, Zambians have been grappling with an economic meltdown caused by lower copper prices, erratic economic policy shifts – especially in the key mining sector – electricity shortages and poor rainfall, suppressing economic activity and raising inflation.
All indications suggest the International Monetary Fund will have returned to Zambia by October with a rescue package of economic reforms, after targets were agreed in talks earlier year this between the IMF and government representatives.
Accusations and counteraccusations have flown thick and fast in the election campaign. There have been repeated claims of election rigging, including the listing of ghost voters on the electoral roll, revelations of the PF’s recruitment of close to half a million voters from neighbouring Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and questions about the costly printing of ballot papers in Dubai.
The combined opposition and civil society objected strongly to the decision by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to award the tender for printing ballot papers to Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing Company, accusing it of being in cahoots with Lungu’s government.
It was alleged that in February 2016 Al Ghurair printed ballot papers for the Ugandan elections, which were marred by allegations of irregularity.
Deepening suspicions was the cost of the work. Of the 13 companies vying for the printing contract, the Johannesburg-based Ren-Form cc printing company – which had won the contract on three previous occasions – lodged the cheapest bid, $1.7 million, with Al Ghurair coming in at $3.6m.
Jan Pierre du Sart, Ren-Form’s sales director, said ECZ rejected his company’s tender “despite having gone through all the correct procedures. We did everything correctly and our price was right.”
He said the company had printed 30-million ballot papers for South Africa’s local government elections – one of “more than 50 electoral projects in 22 African countries”.
Following an appeal by Ren-Form to the Zambia Public Procurement Authority, the authority directed the ECZ to re-evaluate the Ren-Form tender, but to no avail.
Of all the allegations against the government, the most damning has been the appearance of large numbers of foreign voters on the electoral roll. The ECZ dismissed the concerns, despite compelling evidence published by The Post of the names and identity numbers of Malawians.
The commission insisted that voters are registered on the presumption that they meet the prescribed voting age, based on their national registration card.
The card is issued by the government, not the commission, argued the ECZ’s media relations manager Chris Akufuna, who added that the police are investigating claims of fraud in the registration process.
So far, the police have remained tight-lipped.
Extraordinarily, given the liaison and collaboration between the region’s various electoral bodies, the electoral commission’s Sangwani Mwafulirwa told amaBhungane that he was “not aware of the list” of Malawians published by The Post.
“We cannot take a position on the list, about whether the people mentioned are registered voters in Malawi, because we do not have the particulars of the persons on the list,” he said.
But in interviews with The Post, several Malawians said it was not the first time they had registered to vote in Zambian elections and that Zambians had similarly previously registered to vote in Malawi.
Questioned on the allegations, Mwafulirwa said: “There is no substantive proof … that Zambians have been registering to vote in Malawi.”
He said Malawi is embarking on a national registration exercise to enhance the voter identification system. He added: “We believe ECZ is a professional body that has put in place strict measures to deter illegal voter registrations.”