JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — An island of calm among its chaotic neighbors, Zambia long seemed a democratic model for Africa: opposition parties won elections, results were largely unchallenged and power transferred peacefully.
That appears to be changing.
A year and a half since the election of Michael Sata as president, opposition politicians have been arrested and accused of corruption as a way of settling scores, they say. Police have broken up political meetings, and journalists and other critics of government face intimidation and arrest.
Opposition leaders and civil society groups have become so nervous about their security that they decamped to Johannesburg for a news conference this week to appeal to South Africa for help.
“The very fact that we were not able to hold this meeting in [the Zambian capital] Lusaka gives you a sense of the situation,” United Liberal Party leader Sakwiba Sikota said.
The briefing was chaired by Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam, who’s represented Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and exiled former Thai President Thaksin Shinawatra.
The opposition leaders hope hiring him will help draw international attention to Zambia’s human rights abuses.
Amsterdam also works for former President Rupiah Banda, who’s faced corruption charges since he lost to Sata in September 2011.
Banda has said he won’t appear before a government anti-graft panel investigating those charges because his status as former president gives him immunity.
Zambia’s “very dramatic” situation, Amsterdam said, has failed to register abroad.
“There clearly has been a disconnect between the activities going on in Zambia and the perception in the rest of the world,” he said. “It took years for people to understand what had actually been happening in Putin’s Russia.”
Copper-rich Zambia had been considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies since the end of one-party rule in 1991, in sharp contrast to neighboring Zimbabwe, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
President Sata, nicknamed the “King Cobra” for his notoriously sharp tongue, and his Patriotic Front Party came to power on a platform of job creation, attracting voters frustrated about the lack of improvement in their daily lives despite Zambia’s mining riches and growing economy.
The Johannesburg news conference didn’t fail to attract attention.
Government spokesman Kennedy Sakeni called it an “act on foreign soil by … disgruntled opposition leaders.” He denied Sata’s administration is guilty of human rights abuses.
Separately, a group of Zambian Catholic bishops has also raised concerns about the political climate.
A letter released last month highlights “the arbitrary use of power by government officials, intimidation and threats of arrest against leaders and individuals who speak against government,” as well as “threats to our own Catholic priests for sermons seen as critical of government.”
The bishops noted a rise in police violence in the breakaway region of Barotseland, in western Zambia, where there are allegations of abductions, arbitrary arrests and torture.
“Despite having instruments and institutions designed to promote and protect human rights, the human rights situation in Zambia is deteriorating in a manner that is causing worry,” the letter said.
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Among those recently arrested — three times in the past two months — is Nevers Mumba, president of the former ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy Party. He warns of early warning signs that the country is being turned back into a one-party state.
“This government wants to reverse the many gains that have been made over the past 20 years of a democratic state,” he said.
Accused of financial impropriety during a diplomatic posting to Canada, Mumba urges change before it’s too late.