JOHANNESBURG – These are edgy times in Zambia, once considered one of Africa's most stable democracies.
President Edgar Lungu this week announced extra police powers to deal with what he says are growing security challenges, including a fire that destroyed the biggest market in the capital, Lusaka.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, leading critics to accuse Lungu and the ruling Patriotic Front party of intensifying a purported crackdown on political opposition. Lungu was re-elected in a closely contested vote last year that was marred by campaign violence and opposition allegations of polling irregularities, undermining the southern African nation's record of peaceful transitions of power.
Lungu has said he is not targeting "political players," though his detractors believe a recent treason charge against Hakainde Hichilema, the main opposition leader, is politically motivated. Hichilema, head of the United Party for National Development, was accused of obstructing Lungu's motorcade with his own convoy earlier this year.
Following Lungu's proclamation this week, police have more power to stop and search suspects, hold detainees for longer periods and impose curfews in some areas. Parliament will debate whether the measures are valid and if they should be extended for several months, according to the president.
Last month, the parliamentary speaker suspended 48 opposition lawmakers for 30 days for boycotting Lungu's speech about the nation in March.
The United Nations has said it is following developments in Zambia.
"We believe that tensions and differences in the country are better addressed through constructive and inclusive dialogue among all stakeholders, including with the opposition," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
A team from the International Monetary Fund recently visited Zambia, a major copper producer that has struggled with the global fall in commodity prices and has asked the IMF for a loan. The IMF team concluded that good rains, a bumper harvest and more foreign investment have improved Zambia's economic prospects and predicted GDP growth this year of about 4 percent.
Lungu said increased security measures will help to safeguard the stability required for any IMF program, adding that the international lender is "free to go" if it believes he has trampled on Zambian democracy.
This version corrects to say the suspension of opposition lawmakers was last month.
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