By Jeff Kapembwa
Lusaka - Over 10 people have died and an estimated 50 have been arrested in connection with cases of instant mob justice meted out on people suspected of orchestrating widespread gassing of people, fueling concerns of violence in Zambia.
The covert acts started in Chingola, a mining town in Zambia near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo some months ago. It then spread to other parts of the country, targeting schools, health institutions, business premises and households. An unknown chemical is being used to immobilise victims who are then attacked.
Police spokeswoman, Esther Katongo, said several deaths involving people suspected to be part of the group carrying out the clandestine activities have been recorded with some burnt to ashes. Over 50 people allegedly involved in instant mob justice were arrested.
"These are unruly groupings arming themselves with offensive weapons moving around communities on the pretext of patrolling, but they end up harassing innocent people, some of which have died in instances of mob justice," Katongo said in Lusaka.
"Police have instituted investigations in all cases of murder recorded as a result of recent mob justice as well as those of malicious damage to property. All those involved in these crimes should know that their days are numbered because as police, we shall not leave any stone unturned."
Embassies accredited to Zambia say they are living in fear and have sent security alerts to their nationals seeking to travel to Zambia to be cautious and wary of being waylaid.
The United States embassy has issued an alert over rumours of ritualistic killings and residential gassings.
In its alert, it cites rioting and civil disturbances as being on the increase in some provinces, to include Lusaka.
Citizen groups are targeting individuals suspected of being involved in the rituals, gassings, or any other criminal activity.
“Additional reactive actions include assault and severe injury of suspects, destruction of vehicles and buildings, impromptu protests, roadblocks, and road closures, and retaliation against police forces. Criminal elements may also take advantage of the unrest and utilize these regional instabilities to further their unlawful behaviour,” the US posted on its website.
Zambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other players are worried of the prospects of economic decline. The chamber’s past president, Michael Nyirenda, said they are worried that the ongoing gassing of people by unknown individuals has a negative impact on businesses in the country and should be redressed because of its disastrous potential to inhibit economic growth as businesses are struggling amid chaos.
However, President Edgar Lungu has since deployed defence and security personnel to restore order in the countryside, following recurring gassing and mob justice incidents and warns perpetrators.
"We are coming for you whether from the ruling or opposition party, church, or NGO. We are coming for you regardless of who you are or what you are,” he said, and allayed claims by the opposition of the state masterminding the gassing as a ploy to implicate the former.
“It’s warped thinking to imagine that the government can turn against its own people, just because of efforts to incarcerate one Zambia.”
Minister of Interior, Stephen Kampyongo, warned the perpetrators to desist from the acts, saying it could be perceived as terrorism if it continues.
Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), urged the government to investigate the covert acts, failure of which there would be a need to engage international investigators.
“Let’s seek help from international investigative wings if we are failing to deal with perpetrators of terror attacks. Zambia is faced with events that may plunge the country into serious chaos if not handled properly.
“These events involve criminal gangs or individuals spraying chemicals in the homes of citizens, that several media reports have indicated have an effect similar to clinical chemicals used in theatres during surgical procedures,” Hichilema said.
The church is concerned too. It condemned the uncouth gassing and instant justice acts being meted on suspects. It called for three days of national prayer to exorcise the demonic acts that have buffeted Zambia.