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Zambia - Whether by coincidence or design, the Zambian president's political foes are systematically being detained and brushed aside, raising fears of creeping authoritarianism in the copper-rich nation.

When perennial presidential candidate Michael Sata came to power in September 2011, there were vocal concerns about how “King Cobra” would rule the country.

Zambians, having dodged the worst excesses of Africa's lost decades, were keen to ensure a new generation of rapacious politicos did not steal the fruits gleaned from sustained economic growth.

Thankfully, the worst fears about Sata - who has publicly said he admires Robert Mugabe - have so far proven unfounded.

But some say a recent spate of government sackings and opposition arrests bear the hallmarks of a witch hunt against his critics and of backsliding on democracy.

The latest arrest came on Thursday, when police picked up Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the country's second largest opposition party.

He was charged with defaming the president.

Earlier this month, another opposition leader, Nevers Mumba, was arrested and rearrested for graft which he allegedly committed when he was ambassador to Canada.

Two critical journalists and a media consultant have been arrested, as well as a former information minister and his permanent secretary who were detained for abuse of authority.

Sata's allies - including spokesman Kennedy Sakeni - insist those arrested had committed wrongs.

“This perception that the government is authoritarian and is persecuting opposition leaders is neither here nor there,” he said.

“The police are working independently and there is no political persecution… we will not allow citizens to violate the laws and think they will get away with it.”

Few believe Sata's foes to be squeaky clean, but the government's arguments prompt frowns from Zambia analysts.

“These people that he is arresting are paying for being over critical of him when he was in the opposition, they are arrested following instructions from Sata,” said Obby Chibuluma of civil society organisation Saccord.

“While we admit that they might have done something wrong, the targeting of individuals previously critical of him leaves sceptics to conclude that the system is all out to punish such individuals.”

The opposition is more forthright in its accusations.

“The truth of the matter is that Sata wants to create a state of intimidation in us and he is determined to ensure that opposition leaders disappear from this country,” Nevers Mumba said.

“Whichever way we disappear the president will be happy. He wants to annihilate the opposition.”

Saccord would like to see the rest of the world take notice.

“The international community should get interested in what is going on in Zambia,” he said.

“We are moving at a supersonic speed towards dictatorship,” said Chibuluma. - AFP