MANSA, 20 April 2011 (IRIN) - Three people were burned to death in vicious riots earlier this week in Mansa, provincial capital of northern Zambia's Luapula Province.
Two Zambians and a Congolese national had car tyres and plastic bags hung around their bodies before being set ablaze by irate Mansa residents after a local radio station, Yangeni, broadcast rumours that local business people had hired ritual killers to abduct children and use their body parts to make charms that would boost their wealth.
Police refuted the reports but residents started a manhunt targeting local businesses, some of which were broken into, looted and burned.
"These rich people here have been getting rich because of the blood of our children," said an irate youth wielding a machete. "We don't want them here... We are going to kill all of them and get back all their riches because they are making us poor."
The Congolese man who was burnt to death had owned a number of businesses in Mansa, including one offering high-interest loans, while the Zambians were accused of capturing people and committing the ritual murders for him.
Sanaula Ibrahim, the only Indian businessman in Mansa, was also implicated in the ritual murders and targeted, but managed to escape before protesters broke into and looted his chain of five shops, and set his house on fire.
He later told IRIN: "I am safe now, though with some injuries. I can't say where I am [and] can't comment on those allegations just now."
Francis Kabonde, Inspector General of the Zambia Police Service, dismissed the rumours of ritual killing as unfounded and warned that rioters would be brought to book. The police have since picked up over 70 suspects in connection with the riots.
"This rumour is not true because one of the deceased has been identified as a pupil at one of the schools, while the other is a farmer. What is even sadder is that there is no report of any person murdered for rituals," he told local media.
Real cause unclear
A Mansa-based economic analyst, who declined to be named for fear of being targeted, said the riots had less to do with the rumours of ritual killings and more with the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the region.
"These rumours of ritual murders are just a scapegoat. The people here have been frustrated by years of poverty, the absence of industries, and the lack of jobs," he told IRIN.
"If the reasons for the riots were genuine, these people would have just been burning these properties... but they are always starting by looting," the economist noted.
"This thing of saying the richest people are practicing satanism, black magic, killing people and stuff like that is just a façade. People are just desperate for a solution out of their poverty, and this is why they are now targeting the rich."
Luapula is one of the poorest of Zambia's nine provinces, with some of the gloomiest social indicators: the provincial poverty level is 73 percent compared to the national average of 64 percent, and only three percent of its 800,000 people have access to formal jobs, according to the 2008 Labour Force Survey Report by the Central Statistical Office.
One of Mansa's few large industries, a battery factory, closed in the 1990s, leaving thousands of people jobless and deepening poverty.
"The government would do well to come up with deliberate programmes that would empower the people of Luapula Province and create jobs - then we would stop seeing these kinds of economic-based riots," the economist said.
Other analysts IRIN spoke to disagreed that the riots were motivated by poverty. Oliver Saasa, an economic analyst based in the capital, Lilongwe, pointed out that similar incidents had occurred in Mansa before.
"Anything that's associated with suspected ritual killing, the reaction is instant and almost uncontrollable," he said. While it was common for people in rural areas like Mansa to complain of poverty, he added, they rarely reacted violently.
Simon Kabamba, president of the Luapula Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told IRIN the riots could have far-reaching consequences for the regional economy.
"As it is, the town is shut - completely 100 percent shut. The markets are not working, no shops are working, no banks are working; and this is the provincial headquarters," he said.
"Our biggest businessman [Ibrahim] has had all his properties damaged... Now, which businessman would like to come and do business in Mansa? Every successful person is being suspected, and this is sending a very bad signal to all potential investors."