Zambia was among the vanguard of countries in southern Africa to jettison one-party rule and allow the opposition to come to power. Now it is the first to reverse the trend.
The government of President Frederick Chiluba, worried about a comeback by his predecessor Kenneth Kaunda in elections due this October, is doing everything it possibly can to make sure opponents can't take part.
Over the past few weeks, the government has charged with treason nine political opponents, including senior aides of Mr. Kaunda, and has rewritten the Constitution so that top rivals can't qualify as candidates. The moves run counter to democratization in southern Africa since the start of the decade and reverse the reforms that brought Mr. Chiluba to power in October 1991.
The constitutional amendment has sparked outrage internationally and threats of an aid freeze by major donors, including the United States, which provides $20 million a year in bilateral development assistance and contributes further to multilateral aid.
But so far the Zambian government seems indifferent to any suggestion that it is in the wrong.
"The government is solely focused on getting itself elected," said one Western diplomat in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. "Here there is this attitude of 'Let's eliminate the opposition by any means we can.' "
Mr. Kaunda, himself no democrat, ruled Zambia with an autocratic hand since its 1964 independence from Britain. Only in 1991 was he persuaded by international pressure to hold legitimate elections. He is indignant that Chiluba has effectively ended his career in mainstream politics.
He and contenders from other opposition parties are now unable to stand as candidates under the constitutional amendments passed by Parliament last month that disqualify traditional chiefs, anyone who lived or studied abroad for 20 years prior to his nomination, or anyone whose grandparents were not Zambians.
This not only rules out Kaunda, whose parents were immigrants from Malawi, but also his United National Independence Party deputy Chief Inyambo Yeta, and Zambian Democratic Congress leader Dean Mungomba, who spent a lengthy period abroad.
Kaunda is also enraged by the charges against the nine, who are accused of masterminding the Black Mamba, a shadowy group that the government blames for several recent bomb blasts and death threats against journalists and officials. Kaunda denies any connection to the group, saying the government is plotting to discredit him. "This situation is filthy politically, it is undemocratic," he said in a telephone interview from Lusaka. "We are dealing with little frightened men, who rose to power on promises of good governance, transparency, and accountability. They've done the opposite."
Unwilling to sit back quietly in the role of elder statesman, the septuagenarian Kaunda now plans to pursue civil disobedience including rallies, which are illegal without police permission. At best, he'll gain publicity and more supporters, he says. At the worst, he'll be thrown into jail.
In making the move, diplomats believe the president was worried about the big crowds that Kaunda draws and about the possibility that discontent over the poor economy could rob him of reelection.
Under Kaunda's rule, the mineral-rich country was reduced to economic ruin and corruption flourished. Food riots were the harbinger of his overwhelming electoral defeat by the trade unionist Chiluba and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy.
But partly because of a privatization program and austerity measures tailored to meet the demands of foreign donors, many of the country's 9 million people are worse off today. Gone are the days of free education, food subsidies, and protected employment in the state sector. Since Chiluba came to power, tens of thousands of jobs have been axed and basics are unaffordable for many.
An abrupt rise earlier this year in the price of mealie meal - the starchy cornmeal porridge that is Zambia's staple food - provoked fears of renewed popular discontent. The price hike was reversed.
But, diplomats say Chiluba could probably have won without resorting to dirty tricks like these. Now, he has eroded his own image and integrity and erased many Zambians' bad memories of the Kaunda days.
"There is a certain African logic to this, which is getting rid of your opposition no matter what it takes," said the Western diplomat.