On Saturday, April 8, members of the Socialist Party of Zambia (SP) were targets of a violent attack by alleged cadres of the ruling United Party for National Development (UPND) in the district of Serenje, Central Province. Shortly after, Zambian police arrested SP president Dr. Fred M’membe, even as the attackers remained at large.
According to the Zambian police and local media, violence had been reported in the district’s Mwalilima and Kamalamba areas on Saturday as political parties campaigned ahead of a by-election for the Muchinda ward on April 20.
Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, M’membe described how SP members had been attacked in Kamalamba on Saturday afternoon. As per the timetable prepared by the Electoral Commission of Zambia, April 8 had been allocated to the SP for campaigning in the area.
However, just as SP members were about to begin their public meeting, two vehicles with UPND cadres pulled up, “they descended upon us with stones and sticks. At least one person was carrying a catapult. We tried to evade the situation, and eventually the police arrived. We were being attacked, kicked, and punched in front of the police, they were incapable of doing anything,” M’membe said.
He added that eventually the police fired tear gas and it was then that SP members managed to reach a police post. The attack by UPND cadres left Preston Chinyama, a political advisor to M’membe, badly injured.
SP spokesperson Frank Bwalya also stated that other officials and residents had been injured, and that vehicles had been damaged.
In the statement shared with Peoples Dispatch, M’membe added that UPND cadres carried out a second attack against the SP on Saturday at midnight, this time at the party’s main campaign camp in Mwalilima, looting campaigning materials and foodstuffs.
‘The attacked have been framed as the attackers’
On Sunday, the Zambia Police Service announced that police in Serenje had charged 64-year-old M’membe with “Unlawful discharge of a Firearm”. He was also jointly charged with “Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm” along with two other “suspected” members of the SP, 62-year-old Saili Chita, and 41-year-old Daniel Mumba who is a part of M’membe’s security detail.
They were arrested for allegedly having assaulted nine suspected members of the UPND. Chita had been a former local deputy campaign manager for the UPND before quitting the party to join the SP.
The police statement also noted that two members of the SP had been injured. While members of the party were immediately remanded in custody, the police said a “manhunt” was launched to find the suspected UPND members behind the assault.
Though M’membe, Chita, and Mumba were released on police bond on Sunday pending court appearance, the police had allegedly been under pressure not to release them, with the senior police command, UPND cadres, and the District Commissioner locked in a meeting “for hours” at the Serenje police station, M’membe said on Twitter.
In an audio message shared on his Facebook page, M’membe said, “Let us not allow ourselves to be deceived that political violence ended with the removal of the PF [Patriotic Front] from government [following the 2021 elections]…Today we were attacked, and after being attacked we have been framed as the attackers.”
“I am being accused of assaulting someone, a UPND cadre, when I was nowhere near [the scene]. I saved a situation that could have ended in the death of a UPND cadre or a Socialist Party cadre.”
He explained that he had fired a few shots to disperse the crowd, and that many had run away, but that “no one was aimed at, nobody was assaulted. But today, I am being framed and [there is an] attempt to make me out to be a violent person, which I am not. It won’t work.”
M’membe added that he had been the first one to go to the police to complain about the violence. “The UPND cadres who attacked us are not being arrested, they are not in any way being questioned…I was myself assaulted in front of police officers, I was threatened in front of police officers at the police station. This is the type of policing we are seeing today, when we complain about the structure of the police leadership…we were seen as being malicious, but this is what happens when you run the police in this way.”
Meanwhile, Serenje Radio 89.5 FM also reported that three members of its staff had been attacked by suspected UPND cadres while on duty outside the Serenje police station on April 8. It added that the cadres had been “imported from outside” and attacked a journalist for filming their protest at the scene.
Zambia’s Green Party strongly condemned the attacks and arrest of M’Membe. Speaking to News Central TV, the party’s president Peter Sinkamba said that M’membe had been framed, “We have a situation where the police in this country have always wanted to side with the political party in government during elections. Because of this kind of behavior we have ended up having political violence reoccur every time there are elections.”
He added, “Dr M’membe had a lawful permit to run the campaign yesterday but unfortunately they were confronted by members of the ruling party, the UPND.”
Sinkamba emphasized that the major problem in the incident was the failure of the police to discharge their duties under the Electoral Processes Act, “We have an electoral code of conduct which mandates the police to be impartial in their conduct.” He added that it was also the responsibility of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to ensure that police do act in a partial manner.
The ECZ condemned the violence in Serenje in a statement, warning all participating political parties that they may face disqualification “should these acts of violence continue”.
The SP has held UPND leaders responsible for the attacks, and denounced their failure to condemn or stop the violence — “Don’t believe or trust whatever UPND leadership says about them being against political violence. They support, encourage, and sponsor the violence of their cadres and supporters”, M’membe said.
“Violence is used as a tool to stop, paralyze, slow down or frustrate the campaigns of their opponents.”
The 2021 presidential elections in Zambia had witnessed bouts of political violence including attacks on members of the SP. While president Hichilema has continued the neoliberal policies of his predecessors, with a new wave of austerity-driven measures being imposed at the direction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the SP has forged an alternative political path for the people in Zambia, one that is grounded in addressing issues including poverty and access to education.