Zambia deployed the military to curb escalating political violence ahead of elections on 12 August, President Edgar Lungu said last Sunday. Pockets of violence have been reported in the capital Lusaka and northern, southern and Muchinga provinces where supporters of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) and the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) have clashed using machetes, axes, slashers, catapults and other objects.

Two supporters of the governing party were hacked to death with machetes on 30 July by attackers suspected to be members of the main opposition party, police said. Four people were arrested in connection with the killings. “In order to curb the political violence we have witnessed in the past two days, I have allowed the Zambia Army, Zambia Air Force and Zambia National Service to help the Zambia police in dealing with the security situation,” Lungu said.

Even though the Electoral Commission has banned rallies because of the coronavirus, clashes between opposing political parties have overwhelmed the police. “Maintaining law and order is a daily chore of the police but sometimes they need help from other security wings,” Lungu said. Lungu said the military would also ensure that the work of the Electoral Commission, which would conduct the polls, was not interfered with. The UPND said it was studying Lungu’s statement.

The government of the Southern African nation has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent since Lungu replaced Michael Sata after his death in 2014, rights watchdog Amnesty International has said in a report. Lungu, 64, is running for a second term in the 12 August election as the copper-rich country battles economic woes. Lungu’s main rival Hakainde Hichilema has been detained several times since he started contesting the top job.

“One Zambia, One Nation”, a motto coined by the country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, is surely a mirage on the back of rising political violence ahead of the country’s elections this month. As Zambians head to the polls next week, the stakes are high, as voters would have to choose one of the 16 candidates competing in the presidential race alone.

However, the real contest appears to be between the incumbent President Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) and his long-time billionaire rival Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). In 2016, Mr Lungu won a tightly contested election over Hichilema by only 100,000 votes. Coupled with the harsh economic reality and failures of the current administration, this year’s election is shaping out to be as fiercely contested as the last.

We are also likely to see the electoral process extend beyond 12 August, if no presidential candidate receives at least 50% of the vote in the first round of the polls. In light of this reality, the opposition parties find the deployment of the military across the country suspect, a ploy by President Lungu to tacitly suppress voters. This claim is hard to challenge following the introduction of a new voters’ register by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), which rather than operating as an update to the earlier one, required a fresh registration process; an activity that is said to disenfranchise the opposition stronghold.

As the elections edge closer, there are fears of voter apathy, as the usually peaceful southern African country is now submerged in a fiscal crisis, rising corruption, runaway inflation, political violence and a weak currency. Earlier this year, the country became Africa’s first pandemic-era sovereign defaulter. Although Zambia’s current fiscal situation is largely the result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, its finances were already in dire straits before the pandemic as it was buckling under an unsustainable debt load of about $6 billion – half of which were in the form of Eurobonds with the other half owed to China and Chinese entities.

At the moment, Zambia’s debt to GDP increased from 91.9% in 2019 to 119.5% in early 2021, and without a properly structured repayment plan, it is likely to still remain above the 100 percentile by 2025. The economic crisis makes this election all the more consequential and we expect Zambians to show up to the polls to decide the country’s future. Barring any more violence, we expect a close-run election with the sceptre of more political violence on the horizon.