THE UNSOLVED murder of a former finance minister earlier this month has led many Zambians to fear for their country's reputation as an island of relative stability between crumbling Zimbabwe and war-torn Angola and Congo.
Many, including the diplomatic community, privately suspect that the killing of Ronald Penza could be the first major political assassination in post-independence Zambia.
In the early hours of Friday, 6 November, Penza was shot dead in front of his wife in his Lusaka home by two maskedmen, part of a six-man team who had overpowered his security men and his guard dogs. Penza, a former accountant and businessman, was sacked earlier this year after an obscure falling-out with the President, Frederick Chiluba.
Although his killers fled without taking anything, the police immediately announced that robbery was the motive. Later that morning, a large squad of police shot dead five men who they claimed were members of the Penza murder gang as they allegedly tried to rob a petrol station. The police claimed to have been acting in self-defence after the "bandits" fired on them, but only one weapon was recovered and several witnesses told newspapers that at least one man had been shot dead as he tried to surrender.
By the following Monday even the government-controlled Times of Zambia was questioning the police's unusually rapid success against the "robbers". In the independent Post, the columnist Fred M'membe went further: "Over the past three days I have not come across anyone who is not questioning the police's conduct of events following Ronald's death. Most people now strongly believe Ronald was executed by state agents and everything police are doing is cover-up."
Police claims to have ambushed the entire gang as it tried to commit another robbery received a critical blow later in the week when it emerged that one of the dead men was a security guard, whom the police had picked up two hours before the filling station "shoot-out".
Although no one has dared even to whisper it publicly, many in Lusaka suspect that Penza's killing may have been arranged or condoned at the highest level of government.
One Western economist based in Lusaka speculated that Penza may have been killed because he knew too much about government corruption, including its stewardship over the crumbling remains of Zambia's biggest industry, the state-owned Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM). Coincidentally or not, Mr Chiluba's government is this week negotiating with Anglo American Corporation for the final privatisation of the bulk of ZCCM's assets.
Others speculate that Penza may have been planning to throw in his lot with political dissidents both within and without the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy, who are hoping to capitalise on Mr Chiluba's fall-out with his old power base in the trade union movement.
Even the diplomatic community suspects the worst. "There's a deep sense of something going very wrong here," said one senior Western diplomat. "Outright political assassination has not got a tradition in Zambia. It's not part of the culture. That is the disquieting thing. People are saying, where are we going to when that sort of thing happens?"
Mr Chiluba ended almost 20 years of one-party rule when he ousted the veteran president Kenneth Kaunda in 1991's multi-party elections, but in recent years he has resorted to increasingly autocratic methods.
In the run-up to elections in 1996, he gerrymandered Zambia's electoral laws to block an attempted comeback by Mr Kaunda, decreeing that his predecessor was not eligible for office since his parents had been born in what later became Malawi. After a farcical coup attempt by a group of drunken junior army officers last year he had Mr Kaunda and other opposition leaders arrested and held without trial.
Although no evidence of political involvement in the coup came to light, it took several months of intense pressure from regional statesmen, including South Africa's President, Nelson Mandela, and the former Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere to secure the release of Mr Kaunda, 74.
This week Zambia's high court rejected claims that Mr Chiluba was himself not eligible for high office because either he or his parents had been born in Zaire and not Zambia itself.
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