Zambia’s president Edgar Lungu on Friday denied stifling the rights of opposition leaders, saying authorities who refused them permits to assemble and meet supporters were working within the law.
Lungu, in power since 2015, faces mounting complaints that he is cracking down on dissent and seeking to consolidate power ahead of elections in 2021.
Police have been dispersing gatherings by opposition leaders and last week they fire teargas when Harry Kalaba addressed his supporters in Luapula province.
Kalaba is former Foreign Affairs minister in Lungu’s government who resigned last year claiming “swelling” levels of corruption by government officials.
But Lungu defended the police action, saying that parties “cannot be galvanizing for political support from 2016 to 2021”.
“If the police feel it’s not in order to have a meeting they are perfectly right to stop it,” he told journalists at State House.
Lungu also said that he was ready to be the Patriotic Front (PF) candidate for the 2021 polls. He however said that if the party wishes to go to a convention to endorse him he would allow the general membership to do so.
“I am a democrat and we will go to the conference if that is the wish of the people. In short I am game,” he said.
Lungu also said that he would continue with austerity measures to maintain the country’s debt within sustainable levels.
Among the measures he outlined were to limit financing to projects that were 80% complete, reduce travel for senior government officials and clean up the public service wage bill among others.
Zambia has enjoyed relative stability since its first multi-party election in 1991, which ousted the country’s long-running post-independence leader, Kenneth Kaunda.
Lungu initially replaced president Michel Sata who died unexpectedly in 2014.
He then won the presidency in his own right in 2016 but the polls were marked by clashes between PF supporters and those of the rival United Party for National Development (UPND).
The president has since taken an increasingly authoritarian stance against his rivals, critics say.
Election runner-up Hakainde Hichilema, who refused to accept the results, was jailed for four months in 2017 for allegedly refusing to give way to a motorcade transporting Lungu.
Tensions rose again last year, when the president successfully asked the constitutional court to allow him to run again so as not to “plunge the country into chaos”.
The opposition and civil society figures say this breaches the constitution which limits the president to two terms while Lungu, if re-elected in 2021, would in effect have served three times.