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Corruption Accusations Fly as the Power Struggle within Zambia's Ruling Party Escalates

As figures within the Patriotic Front vie to succeed President Sata, corruption allegations made against rivals have become a weapon of choice.
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An anti-corruption billboard in Zambia. Photograph by Lars Plougmann.

Corruption is often cited as one of Africa’s greatest ills, but it is also often used as a tool of intimidation in domestic political disputes.

Although Zambia’s next presidential election is not expected for another four years, intense infighting has broken out within the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party, bringing with it a slew of corruption accusations exchanged among officials vying to become the successor of 75-year-old President Michael Sata. Whether or not there is substance to the allegations is sometimes secondary to the politics.

Oil deals and party leadership

At the centre of the infighting stands Minister of Justice Wynter Kabimba, who also serves as the PF’s secretary-general. The internal disputes in the ruling party date back to September when the Post newspaper began publishing attacks against Minister of Defence Geoffrey Bwayla Mwamba, accusing him of pressuring the public utility ZESCO to award contracts to his company.

The defence minister allegedly responded by leaking stories of Kabimba benefitting from an oil supply deal, leading to the opening of probes against both officials. And just when it seemed that the fight had calmed down, by the end of last week Kabimba began calling for the ouster of Foreign Minister Given Lubinda.

Foreign Minister Given Lubinda is seen to take strong anti-corruption positions and was described by one PF insider as having a reputation for “telling it like it is”. According to the insider, some senior PF members were concerned Lubinda was using his diplomatic connections to pass information on alleged corruption activities to the British High Commission. Just this past week, Kabimba began attacking Lubinda, accusing him of leaking stories to opposition media, alleging that he was still loyal to his former party, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND).

International observers have taken note of the tense climate in Lusaka, raising questions over Zambia’s commitment to the anti-corruption fight. Reuters published an updated political risk profile on November 12, while the Guardian followed up on December 3 with a story detailing allegations against Kabimba relating to a tender to oil supplier Trafigura (the article quotes a statement from Trafigura denying “any allegation of corruption at any stage before, during or after the award of this tender”). On December 10, UK High Commissioner to Zambia James Thornton offered a rare comment criticising the PF’s inconsistent record on corruption.

According to party sources interviewed for this article, these corruption issues have surfaced in the media only because of the infighting, which has allegedly been tolerated, or at least not prevented, by President Sata.

Cases fail to advance

“You are either with Kabimba, or against Kabimba,” one person close to the ruling party speaking on the condition of anonymity told Think Africa Press. Allegedly, there are other corruption cases and instances of questionable single-sourcing of public tenders in other ministries, but the only cases that have come forward relate to officials seen to be competing for party leadership.

According to the source, “If you are an enemy [of Kabimba], then chances are high that your scandals will be revealed in the media. If you are a friend, chances are high that the cases will die a natural death.”

Indeed, not all corruption investigations advance to formal charges. On Friday, December 14, the Daily Nation reported that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had closed its investigation into Midland Energy Zambia Limited, a company partly owned by Kabimba, which was alleged to have been involved in a transaction with Trafigura.

It appears that the prosecutors were placed under significant political pressure by the government. On December 3, when Kabimba was scheduled to be interviewed by the ACC, he arrived to the meeting with an unruly mob of youth cadres, intimidating the investigators and forcing them to delay the interview. Then, during a December 6 press conference, President Sata personally addressed Rosewin Wandi, director general of the ACC, warning her against “embarrassing” his ministers, and telling her that anti-corruption authorities must obtain permission from the government before investigating officials.

“We wish to inform the public that no such provisions of the law exist”, responded James Banda, President of the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ), in statement referring to President Sata’s orders to the ACC. “We implore the Executive, for the sake of justice and good order, to observe the rule of law and allow the investigative processes and procedures to reach their natural conclusions without any explicit or implied undue influence from the executive.”

Kabimba rapid rise

Kabimba’s rise to the top of the PF has been meteoric and, according to some, artificially imposed by President Sata given the ethnic dimensions of Zambian politics. Kabimba has only been with the party for some five or six years, having worked on the Lusaka City Council after an earlier career in law. As secretary-general, he effectively runs the party but lacks a constituency or independent power base that many of the members of parliament have. As a political party predominantly made up of people of the Bemba tribe from Northern Province, Kabimba, who is from Central Province, is seen as a minority by some of the traditional PF camps, raising concerns that he may not be able to win the Bemba vote.

Since the PF came into power in September 2011, Kabimba’s promotions have been swift. President Sata would read his name first during protocols, despite the lack of a formal cabinet position. Kabimba would later be promoted to justice minister when Sebastian Zulu was dismissed following a failed effort to institute a judicial review tribunal that would have allowed the PF to dismiss members of the judiciary. Most recently, President Sata named Kabimba acting vice-president despite the corruption investigation and his conduct at the ACC.

“What is happening with the PF is both a tribal struggle and a power struggle”, said Dora Siliya, an MP from the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). “The public support given by President Sata to Kabimba as well as his numerous appointments has created some problems within the party.”

Zero-sum game

It is very difficult to say with certainty whether the infighting within the ruling party will amount to any meaningful action. Defence Minister Mwamba has already steered clear of further direct confrontation with Kabimba, while others point out that Lubinda has little chance of securing the party leadership due to the foreign parentage clause in the current constitution.

Normally, the opposition would find opportunities for advancement during such infighting, but this is a particularly weak moment for both the MMD and UPND. Nevers Mumba, President of the MMD, was recently arrested and jailed for two days under the Public Order Act during a visit to the Copperbelt where food shortages are being experienced. UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema is still fighting several court cases, while his party’s youth cadres frequently face pressure from authorities.

However, the PF will face increasing pressure from civil society groups to get the power struggle under control and allow the ACC to independently prosecute real cases. The strongly worded statement by the Law Association of Zambia, as well as other statements from Oasis Forum, a civil society group that was once instrumental in blocking the third term attempt by President Frederick Chiluba, indicates that many Zambian institutions are preparing for a confrontation with the PF government over these issues.

There may come a point when President Sata is forced to take a more active role in settling the disputes within the party, before Zambia risks heading towards destabilisation.

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