Judging by the local and social media in Zambia, one would think former president Rupiah Banda was running for the presidency in the January 20 poll.
This week, Banda sprang a surprise by openly backing the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), the party that defeated him in the 2011 general elections. The announcement stole the media’s attention from the PF candidate, Edgar Lungu (58), Banda’s own Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) candidate, Nevers Mumba, and the United Party for National Development (UPND) leader, Hakainde Hichilema.
Zambia, Africa’s second-largest copper producer, will elect a president later this month, following the death of the incumbent, 77-year-old Michael Sata, in October last year.
The PF’s choice of Lungu has not been without drama – the party leadership fought a dirty public battle over who would represent it at the polls, which ended with a court endorsing Lungu.
But his campaign has not been exciting as he has promised voters he will follow in Sata’s footsteps.
It is Banda’s controversial appearance in the PF camp that could be a game changer, breathing life into an otherwise lacklustre campaign.
Banda served as vice-president to Levy Mwanawasa, who died in office in 2008, and was then elected as Zambia’s fourth president.
He retired after losing the 2011 election but re-emerged late last year, touting himself as the MMD presidential candidate, trying to oust the party leader Mumba. But Mumba took Banda to court and won the right to represent the MMD.
Banda had embarked on a national campaign in December, criticising the ruling PF for raising the cost of living and bringing misery to Zambians, so the Banda-Lungu alliance has shocked many.
On Sunday, Banda appeared at a press conference alongside Lungu in Chipata, about 500km from the capital Lusaka, and said Lungu was the best choice for the country. He said, after discussions with the PF leader, he understood Lungu’s intentions and believed he could be trusted with the presidency.
“I believe this election is very important. We have no room for error,” Banda said. “It is not a time for egos, arrogance and personal ambitions. This is not about anyone’s personal interests, family, tribe or party.”
Marriage of convenience
But many Zambians are not convinced of Banda’s sincerity and are questioning his unexpected support for Lungu. Some point out that Lungu has a great deal of influence – he holds the defence and justice portfolio and is the party’s secretary general – which could be why Banda is drawn to him.
Banda is in trouble with the law. He was stripped of legal immunity and is appearing before the courts to answer cases of alleged corruption involving oil deals and abuse of office while he served as president.
His eldest son, Andrew, a former diplomat who is supporting Hichilema, was convicted of corruption but has appealed to the high court.
Another of Banda’s sons, Henry, a permanent resident of South Africa, is wanted for alleged involvement in corrupt government deals when his father was president. In 2012, he told the Mail & Guardian that he would never return home because he had legitimate doubts about whether he would receive fair treatment from the Zambian authorities.
There is also growing speculation in local media that Banda is bankrolling Lungu’s campaign through his Nigerian-based connections.
Banda, who is alleged to have gone to Nigeria with Lungu recently, did not respond to questions emailed to his media team. One of his press aides said he was not in Lusaka and could not be reached.
Former Zambian president Rupiah Banda. (Alexander Joe, AFP)
According to the media, Lungu has officially denied being funded by Banda. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Nigerian embassy in Lusaka did not respond to questions about reports that Nigerian money was playing a large role in the poll.
Banda and Lungu are from the east of the country, which cannot be ignored in light of how tribalism still plays a major role in Zambia’s politics.
According to local media reports, Banda has been warmly welcomed by the PF, which is keen to get all the support it can.
Accused of betrayal
But not everyone is pleased about Banda’s links to Lungu. Some MMD party officials have accused him of betrayal, and one described him as Judas Iscariot, the biblical character who betrayed his master, Jesus.
Others have described his move as “despicable” and “treacherous”, because he had led his followers to believe that he was being persecuted by the ruling PF party, and now had joined it.
One aggrieved official is a former ambassador to Japan, Joe Mwale, who has been one of Banda’s closest allies, devotedly accompanying the former president on his duties.
“I feel cheated. I feel used by RB [Rupiah Banda], and I cannot be used further like a tissue paper,” Mwale said.
“Will the people be wrong to call him Judas Iscariot? Because he never told anybody about what he discussed with Lungu.”
The country’s largest private newspaper, the Post, which was seen to favour Sata, described Banda in one of its editorials as someone lacking in political morality.
“Rupiah helped to destroy the little that remained of UNIP [United National Independence Party] in 1991. After finishing UNIP, he moved on to join MMD, and today he is on the road campaigning for PF,” the paper said. “We will see what Rupiah [Banda] gets out of this after Lungu wins.”
Political analysts say Banda’s move will weaken democratic institutions and undermine the integrity of the country’s politics.
But Banda is not alone. Other senior members of the MMD have endorsed candidates from other political parties. The MMD is split into three parts, with senior members supporting the ruling PF, the UPND and Mumba.
The Hichilema factor
Hichilema (52) has emerged as Lungu’s strongest contender. Addressing his first rally in Lusaka, Hichilema, once a cattle herder who became an economist, said his party offered “hope, not falsehood”, and listed education, lowering the cost of living and job creation as some of his priorities.
Of the 11 candidates for the presidency, he is seen as the most likely to be able to deal with the worrying rise in the cost of living, unemployment and mining taxation reforms, following complaints from mining companies.
According to a recent Africa Confidential report, Hichilema, a former managing partner in accounting firm Grant Thornton, is respected by business. He played a key role in the privatisation of the country’s mines. But he is excoriated by the trade unions.
Observers are keen to see how the new government will open up space for opposition parties and civil society groups. Before Sata’s death, the opposition had accused the ruling party of intimidation and harassment, as well as denying them their constitutional rights, such as free assembly.
In particular, they accused it of relying on the Public Order Act, colonial legislation that it used to deny the opposition the right to campaign freely.
Hichilema has been a victim of this law. He has been detained by police on many occasions for offences ranging from defaming the president to instigating violence. The police have also disrupted UPND rallies and meetings. He has accused the government of using the law selectively to create an un-even political playing field.
Hichilema, a business mogul, sees a strong private sector as the foundation for tackling poverty and unemployment. He came third in the 2011 polls.
Although Zambia’s gross domestic product growth has stayed at about 7% for the past five years, more than 70% of Zambians live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank statistics. Unemployment remains high, especially among young people. More than half the country’s 14-million people under the age of 18.
Meanwhile, concerns of possible vote rigging by the PF were raised this week. Several online publications claimed that the electoral commission was deliberately issuing voters with voting cards that had the wrong dates on them, which showed that they had missed the voter registration period.
But the commission said it was an isolated “clerical error”, which had occurred at only two centres in the country’s North-Western Province, which is seen as an opposition stronghold. It said only 430 replacement cards had been issued with incorrect dates and that the mistake had been corrected.
“The wrong date on the voters’ cards, however, does not invalidate the cards,” said the commission spokesperson, Cris Akufuna.
“The commission would like to assure the nation that the holders of such cards will be allowed to exercise their right to vote.”