Zambia corruption crackdown nets ex-ministers

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Hotel and helicopters seized, a string of arrests: Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema came to power last year promising to eradicate corruption, and he is fighting an all-out battle to live up to his ambitious commitments, while also drawing criticism.

His first targets were members of the government of his predecessor, Edgar Lungu. The former head of state is accused of having lost his way in heavy infrastructure projects by over-indebting the country, and was also at the head of a government riddled with "serious" corruption, Hichilema said in an interview with AFP in January.

In less than 48 hours this week, two former ministers were arrested. Among them was Given Lubinda, former justice minister and head of the former ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party.

Authorities also seized two helicopters and a hotel belonging to former foreign minister Joseph Malanji. The purchase of these assets is suspected to have been financed with public funds.

The former Minister of the Interior, Stephen Kampyongo, had already been arrested a few months earlier. Not for corruption, but for attempting to crash a helicopter with stones during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a bankrupt Zambia, plagued by unsustainable debt, per capita GDP is less than 1,000 euros. Four times lower than in neighboring Namibia. But in this country, ranked among the least developed in the world by the United Nations, the fight against corruption involves dizzying amounts of money.

"Archaic"

Mr. Lubinda is accused of pocketing nearly half a million euros. Mr. Malanji is accused of embezzling more than one million.

According to investigators, he spent nearly 640,000 euros on a helicopter for an election campaign. Zambia is twice the size of Germany and has few paved roads. The former minister had already been accused last year in another case of having got his hands on more than eight million euros.

These are only the most prominent figures to have been concerned since Hichilema's election in August. A multitude of investigations have been opened. The former head of the postal service, for example, is accused of stealing more than 18 million euros from a fund intended to support the fight against poverty.

The Patriotic Front has repeatedly denounced "persecution."

"As public officers, we must account for every penny we hold. This is not about persecution but about fighting corruption," government spokeswoman Chushi Kasanda told AFP.

According to Zambian rights activist Brebner Changala, some of the proceedings may have been rushed through: "The authorities are arresting these officials because they want to please the powers that be, that is, President Hichilema," he told AFP.

Transparency International's representative in Zambia, Sampa Kalunga, recently decried on a local radio station a government anti-corruption program that is "disjointed, archaic and does not show results.

Many arrests have ended in bail, with defendants denying the charges and investigations not always well-founded.

3.3 million, found in cash during a search of the home of former national radio journalist Faith Musonda. The money was used to fund scholarships for more than two thousand Zambian students.

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