“We have been attacked several times, including in this office,” United Party for National Development (UPND) secretary general Stephen Katuka told RFI from party headquarters in Lusaka, where he described police units entering UPND offices, rounding up people, and letting off tear gas in various rooms.
“My own secretary was rounded up and arrested with a number of others. She’s not political. She types letters for me,” says Katuka.
The election on Thursday will include voters selecting the president, members of parliament, councillors, mayors and even casting ballots on a constitutional referendum.
The race for votes has been tight, the violence unprecedented, says Zambia Women’s Lobby (ZWL) executive director Juliet Chibuta.
“Zambia has been known to be a very peaceful country. The issue of violence is a new issue,” she says. Women have been asking ZWL, which also conducts voter education outreach, if it will be safe enough to vote on Thursday.
A media monitoring tally compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Data Project (ACLED) indicates that more than 50 incidents of violence have taken place since January 2016. Campaigning halted for 10 days in Lusaka, the capital, and Namwala, a southern district, last month after a 20-year-old female UPND supporter, Mapenzi Chibulo, was shot and killed by police.
“Yes, of course we had some violence but we are pleased to say that as we approach the polls the violence has drastically reduced within very manageable levels,” says Zambia police spokesman Rae Hamoonga.
“For now all things are under control,” he told RFI.
Beaten, stripped for wearing opposition symbols
But opposition supporters are now afraid to wear anything that says UPND a simple gesture that could provoke a beating, or worse.
“Our members have lost lives for wearing party regalia,” says UPND’s Katuga.
“If you wear it, you risk being attacked, you risk being killed, you risk losing whatever you have on you. You even risk being attacked in your own home,” he says.
One UPND supporter attending the rally in Mandevo Township, Lusaka, on Saturday spoke to RFI about being attacked near Soweto market in Lusaka.
“I’m tired of intimidation. I am one of the victims,” said Virginia. “I was stripped naked, just because of supporting UPND.”
Incidents such as these have sparked an informal movement by supporters dubbed “Operation Watermelon”.
“People have decided to wear (PF) regalia even when they don’t believe in it. This is the concept of the watermelon. The colour of the ruling party is green. Our colour is red. So they say they can wear green outside but inside they are red,” says Katuga.
Female candidates have also been caught up in violence, says Chibuta, who works with female political hopefuls.
“Their supporters can’t campaign for them effectively because when they go in an area which is a stronghold for another party, they are being victimised, they are being intimidated, they are being told, ‘Go away, this is not your stronghold’.’’
Chibuta says that she has met with Lusaka police to discuss violence after women have been beaten while campaigning. She worries that the fear of violence will prevent women, the majority of voters, from coming out to vote.
But Hamoonga says that the police will ensure that Zambian voters can vote in peace.
“We have deployed officers across the country, not necessarily to intimidate anyone but for the sole purpose of ensuring that each person exercises his constitutional right without intimidation or threat from another person,” he adds.