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Zambia president blames rivals for state of emergency

Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema remains in detention on treason charges.

Lusaka, Zambia | AFP |  Zambian President Edgar Lungu on Thursday justified imposing a state of emergency by alleging that opposition parties were behind a string of arson attacks intended “to create terror and panic”.

Lungu denied he was establishing a dictatorship in Zambia — until recently a relatively stable country — and said his political rivals were trying to overturn last year’s election results.

Several fires, including one that burnt down the main market in the capital Lusaka on Tuesday, have been at the centre of rising political tensions in Zambia.

The state of emergency — which increases police powers of detention and arrest — is “to curb lawlessness”, Lungu told a press conference at his State House residence.

“The theory (by opposition parties) is that they put pressure so that we begin renegotiating the result of the last elections,” he said.

“There is a deliberate ploy by the opposition… We won the elections and the winner takes it all. Their idea was to create terror and panic.”

Zambia has enjoyed relative stability since its first multi-party election in 1991.

But last year’s election was marked by clashes between rival supporters, and opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema remains in detention on treason charges.

Hichilema was arrested in April after his convoy allegedly refused to give way to the presidential motorcade.

He narrowly lost the elections to Lungu, and has alleged that the result was rigged.

– ‘Sad day for the country’ –

The president, who announced the state of emergency in a televised address late Wednesday, dismissed accusations of growing authoritarianism.

“Zambia is the most accomplished democracy in this region or the whole Africa. If this is dictatorship, then there is no democracy in Africa,” he said.

“I know that people think I am targeting political players, I am not targeting any political player. I am only trying to bring sanity,” he added.

Parliament has suspended 48 lawmakers from Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND), which boycotted an address by Lungu in March.

The government has also increased pressure on media outlets that support the opposition.

“I don’t think there is justification for declaring a state of emergency,” Lusaka-based analyst Neo Simutanyi told AFP. “It will inconvenience people and create more tension.”

He said parliament must approve the measure within seven days otherwise it will lapse, and that lawmakers would be required to renew it every 90 days.

Tobias Simbule, a 43-year-old newspaper vendor in Lusaka, said he feared for Zambia’s future.

“We have gone back to the one-party state which we rejected in 1991. Today is really a sad day for this country,” he told AFP.

The UPND has yet to react to the president’s move, but the smaller MMD opposition party said Lungu should have allowed investigators to probe the cause of the market fire.

“He should reverse his decision and allow Zambians lead normal lives,” party president Nevers Mumba told AFP.

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