Lusaka, Zambia — A bizarre plot to topple President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, uncovered and crushed at the last moment, raises compelling questions about the stability of one of the oldest surviving administration in Africa.
Although the full details of the plot are not likely to emerge until the trial of those alleged to have been involved begins in a few weeks, available evidence suggests that it was well coordinated.
A well-armed gang of Zairean dissidents recruited by the Zambian principals was to have struck at key installations in this capital city two weeks ago. That would have been as the country prepared for celebrations marking the 16th anniversary of independence.
The President Kaunda sees a South African connection with the plot, but that seems a tenuous link, despite Pretoria's past record of destabilization attempts in Central Africa.
What should be of more concern to the President, particularly given his admission this week that external parties can only succeed witt the help of internal dissidents, is that such opposition has been proved to exist.
Nearly all of those detained so far are from the disaffected Bemba tribe, whose longtime political leader, Simon Kapwepwe, died last year after a 10-year struggle against Mr. Kaunda's administration.
But it is perhaps more significant that the detainees belong to an informal opposition group whose support crosses tribal lines. The group use the parious state of Zambia's economy as its rallying standard.
This shadowy opposition grouping, led by former government figures now in private business, argues with some justification that President Kaunda's policies over the past decade and a half have been a disaster.
Those involved would like to end the state's continuing incursion into industry and commerce and see Kenya, which allows a private enterprise considerable freedom, as a model for Zambia.
In cold statistical terms, Zambia's state-dominated economy has never been in a worse mess. With copper prices low again and the mining companies having difficulty selling cobalt, external debt is rising rapidly.
Bankers reprot an 18-month backlog in payments for imports and, following the second poor harvest in succession, there is growing anxiety about the need to find about $350 million to pay for maize imports over the next six months.
While details of the state's fiscal problems probably are beyond the average Zambian, he feels the pinch at a more prosaic level. For example, in 1980 a peasant farmer will have to grow three times as much maize to buy the same shirt that he bought at independence.
And, due largely to the inefficiency of state-run industry, the average urban housewife now spends twice as much time queuing for basics such as salt and sugar is she did five years ago.
But in spite of the growing evidence that the state's grip on the productive sector is an economic disaster, President Kaunda seems determined to push ahead with new plans for state involvement in the economy.
He is planning to set up 50,000-acre state farms in a bid to overcome the food production problems Zamiba faces. Even the East Germans, who are helping on some of the projects, are said to be unconvinced of the practicality of the scheme.
At the same time, he is continually extending the powers of the ruling and only political party, particularly its central committee, to make Parliament irrelevant to decisionmaking.
All this has sown considerable discontent, and the country's powerful Congress of Trade Unions, representing most of Zambia's work force, is currently attempting to force a showdown with the government.
While ostensibly on industrial grounds, the challenge is, in fact, political in nature and reflects an attempt to curb the administration's powers.
Against this background, the abortive attempt to overthrow the administration has no come as a complete surprise.
The most important questions it raises are whether it has brought home to the President the level of popular discontent and whether he will now act to remove the causes rather than simply punishing the guilty.