The government has begun demolishing illegal houses in Lusaka, in a move aimed at ending corruption in the distribution of plots of land, police said.
Officials say the demolitions will gradually be rolled out across the country, raising the prospect of millions of people being made homeless.
Bonny Kapeso said police moved in to raze houses in an exercise which started late on Friday night and ended in the early hours of Saturday.
“We carried out a successful operation with the council and a number of houses were demolished. The police officers were involved in the operation in order to safeguard the security of council officers,” Kapeso told Reuters.
Witnesses said council officers using sledgehammers knocked down about 100 houses under construction in an area where some people had seized plots without official approval.
Most of the houses were still under construction and not yet inhabited.
“We saw about 450 state police officers and policemen from the Lusaka City Council destroying houses from about midnight on Friday until the early hours of today,” one resident told Reuters news agency.
Opposition parties often accuse senior members of the ruling MMD party of taking bribes from people in exchange for land. Opposition Patriotic Front (PF) party leader Michael Sata, pledged to demolish illegal houses to pave the way for new ones during last year’s presidential elections.
President Levy Mwanawasa sacked Gladys Nyirongo, the lands minister, two weeks ago, after accusing her of handing out plots of land to her family. Nyirongo, who is currently under investigation, has declined to comment on the matter, saying she wanted investigations to be concluded first.
Several senior ministry officials have been suspended on corruption charges involving land distribution.
The government has said it intends to destroy all illegal and unplanned homes and shops, starting in Lusaka where many impoverished informal settlements infringe on roads, railways, power lines and government-owned land.
Henry Nachina, co-ordinator of the Land Alliance, a Zambian non-governmental organisation that deals with land issues, told The Associated Press earlier this week that the situation was “scary” because people do not know how the government is going to proceed.
Nachina said he was hopeful that the government would avoid a “Zimbabwe-type” demolition where thousands are made homeless.
Nachina said that the government should not be punishing the people who build illegal settlements, but rather target politicians who hand out land to supporters without following city guidelines.
“We know very well the reason why we have illegal structures: Because local politicians are the ones who are giving that land illegally,” he said.
However, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Associated Press that “the (demolition) process is not meant to be done indiscriminately,” and added that in some cases the government may allow families living in illegal housing to remain in their homes, while “formalising” the arrangements.
“It’s nothing like what happened in Zimbabwe,” the official added.