PRESIDENT Hakainde Hichilema took office last year with the kind of anti-corruption promises that Zambians have learned to take with a grain of salt. This week, those promises became more real.
Two former ministers were arrested within 48 hours of each other, including ex-justice minister Given Lubinda, who now leads the party that lost to Hichilema’s.
Authorities also moved to seize two helicopters and a hotel belonging to former foreign minister Joseph Malanji, on suspicion he bought them with embezzled state funds.
A third ex-minister, Stephen Kampyongo, was arrested not for corruption but for attempting to bring down a plane by stoning it during the 2016 election campaign.
The sums involved are staggering for a country that the United Nations ranks among the least developed in the world.
Zambia’s GDP per person is only about $1,000. In neighbouring Namibia, the figure is four times higher.
Lubinda is accused of pocketing $530,000, Malanji of embezzling $1.2 million.
Investigators said Malanji used $700,000 to buy a Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, ostensibly to help his Patriotic Front campaign around a country twice the size of Germany but with few paved roads.
He had already been charged last year with pilfering $8.8 million in a separate case.
‘Archaic’ anti-graft drive
They are the highest-ranking officials charged since Hichilema’s election in August, but far from the only ones. They have both denied any wrongdoing.
A slate of other officials are under investigation. The former postal boss is charged with stealing $20 million from a social fund meant to support the poorest Zambians.
Hichilema came to power pledging ‘zero tolerance’ of corruption.
In January he told AFP the levels of corruption under the former Zambian government were ‘serious,’ and led to a ‘sense of shame.’
The Patriotic Front has repeatedly claimed the new government is persecuting the former leaders, an allegation government spokeswoman Chushi Kasanda denies.
‘As public officers, we need to account for every penny that we have. It’s not persecution as they want to claim, but corruption and we will fight it,’ she told AFP.
So far, the government has reclaimed $3.6 million in cash when authorities raided the home of former state radio journalist Faith Musonda.
The money is now being used for scholarships for 2,232 students at the University of Zambia.
Rights activists Brebner Changala told AFP he worries whether prosecutors have assembled enough evidence to win convictions.
‘They are arresting those officials because they want to please the powers that be, and in this case President Hichilema,’ Changala said.
‘I am not sure if they fully investigated these matters and have convincing evidence before arresting any of the former ministers.’
They have been released on police bond and denied the allegations.
Last week, Transparency International Zambia president Sampa Kalunga told privately owned Radio Phoenix the government’s fight against corruption was ‘disjointed, archaic and lacking results.’
That feeling could change if more high flyers are brought to book.