Zambian President Edgar Lungu declared a state of emergency on Wednesday after a series of apparent arson attacks, in a move likely to trigger fresh accusations of government authoritarianism.
“My government has decided to invoke article 31 (leading) to a state of public emergency,” Lungu said in a nationally televised address.
“Practical measures as outlined tonight have had to be invoked.”
Several fires, including one that burnt down the main market in the capital Lusaka on Tuesday, were described by Lungu as “premeditated acts which if left unchecked could have serious socio-economic consequences”.
Political tensions have been high in Zambia this year after the arrest and continued detention of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, a wealthy businessman who has run for president five times.
Hichilema narrowly lost elections last year to Lungu, and has alleged that the result was rigged.
In April Hichilema was arrested on treason charges after his convoy allegedly refused to give way to the presidential motorcade.
He has since been moved to a maximum security prison and it is unclear when he will return to court.
Amnesty International has said Hichilema and five others arrested from his United Party for National Development (UPND) are victims of a “cynical ploy to silence all political opposition in Zambia”.
Treason suspects are not eligible for bail in Zambia and could theoretically face the death penalty if found guilty.
The fire in Lusaka on Tuesday immediately led to accusations between Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party and Hichilema’s UPND.
Lungu said in his speech that “there is no doubt in my mind that the intentions of the perpetrators of these irresponsible actions is to make the country ungovernable.
“As president of this nation, it is my responsibility to respond accordingly to forestall this planned chaos and I will therefore not tolerate this lawlessness.”