As Africa's top brass streamed into Lusaka yesterday for a summit its host could ill afford, Zambians were reeling at the news that a prominent politician had been murdered in his bed – hours before he was due to give key evidence to an anti-corruption tribunal.
Early yesterday morning, gunmen burst into the bedroom of Paul Tembo, a government stalwart who recently defected to the opposition, molested his wife and shot him in the head.
A chorus of shocked friends, colleagues and civic groups said they suspected a political assasination. His lawyer, Sakwiba Sikota, said: "Tembo had a wealth of information which was going to guarantee that a good number of powerful people would be locked away."
The killing provided a stark reminder of the ruthlessness of African politics, coming as President Frederick Chiluba prepares for next week's annual summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The event is costing the Zambia government in excess of $20m (£14m)– almost one third of last year's health spending – and over 60 Mercedes Benz cars have been flown in from Europe for the event.
Mr Tembo, a former campaign manager for the ruling MMD, split from the party in April following an acrimonious national conference in which several cabinet ministers also left.
When it later emerged that the Finance Minister, Dr Katele Kalumba, financed the conference with $540,000 of government funds, a tribunal was convened and Mr Tembo was called to testify yesterday morning. But he never made it.
Many Zambians voiced suspicions that the shooting, which initially appeared to be a robbery, bore the hallmarks of a political assassination. "His wallet was still by the bedside, as well as an expensive watch," said Dipak Patel, who visited the Tembo house. "What a coincidence, just seven hours before the tribunal."
The Zambian police promised to fully investigate the death but many Zambians are sceptical. The Oasis Forum, an alliance of church leaders, lawyers and NGOs which is campaigning to force President Chiluba from office later this year, said in a statement yesterday that it was "horrified" at the insecurity in the once-peaceful nation.
Mr Tembo was murdered in a climate of mounting political tension ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections expected in October.
President Chiluba is only Zambia's second leader since independence in 1964, and although the country has avoided civil war it has become one of the world's poorest nations.