By Isaac Makashini
I love reading, and it is a habit I have grown up with from my childhood days in my father’s house in Luanshya.
My father was a teacher, and our living room had two big bookshelves packed full with books. Titles with far a ranging diversity – from religious, political, medical topics to novels, autobiographies and biographies.
I do not need to swear that by the time I was in grade 10, and I was only fifteen then, I had read more close to half of those books. That reading habit and culture has never left me. I always intentionally budget for good books.
And I thank God for my wife who is no less intellectually stimulated by books than I am, and together, we have built a very big and rich library by Zambian standards over our nearly two decades in marriage. So when I learnt that the former Zambia Daily Mail managing editor, and now Zambia’s deputy ambassador to Sweden, his excellency Anthony Mukwita had penned a book about the current Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, I was naturally excited at the prospect of something new to read and to add to the family library from a Zambian author. The book is entitled, Against All Odds: Zambia’s President Edgar Chagwa Lungu’s Rough Journey to State House.
I can’t wait to lay my hands on the book, or is it my eyes since I might not end up buying a hardcopy. I probably would settle for an electronic copy once it’s made available on Amazon.com because it will be more affordable. The hardcover and paperback formats are already on sale on Amazon.com for around $36 and $16 respectively. I hope to do a full review of the book once I have read it in its entirety.
However, in his blurb, this is what the author says about the subject of his book:
Edgar Lungu has been known for many things but humility for a man of influence in a country where people often get over-consumed by their own self-importance sets him several paces apart from other politicians or national leaders. Observers have sometimes described his humility as his most admirable quality and, to many people – especially the common folk who make up the largest part of Zambia’s population – his most endearing attribute.
If there was one word to describe Edgar Lungu as a late-blooming politician facing a vicious power struggle to replace Zambia’s fifth President Michael Sata, tenacious would be that word. He needed bags of it, first, to survive the bitterly fought internal war to win the Patriotic Front’s nomination to stand as its candidate in the 2015 Presidential election occasioned by Sata’s death and, later, to fend off arch-rival Hakainde Hichilema of the opposition UPND in another closely contested Presidential poll.
Politicians make their names for any number of reasons or actions. Some for their ruthlessness, others for their brashness, cunning or indeed kindness. Edgar Lungu seems to have crafted a name for himself simply by cleverly playing the role of the political tyro who knew little about the game…the ‘green horn’ the opposition made the fatal mistake of underrating.
It is hard to imagine any other Zambian politician would so willingly have yielded to another the instruments of power left with them in accordance with the law by a sitting president, as Michael Sata did when he left Edgar Lungu to serve in his place the night he left for the UK to seek medical help in 2014. When Sata died in hospital, there were many ‘expert’ voices advising Lungu to keep hold onto the instruments of power, rather than decline to the incumbent Vice-President Guy Scott. Lungu happily handed over the instruments to a man who would then go on to do almost all in his powers to hinder his ambition to win the subsequent Presidential election. This is because he sought peace.
Being somewhat a biographical book (although the book is not biographical in the strictest sense of the term), and written by an author who is presently serving in president Lungu’s government, my immediate concern is the level of objectivity that we can expect from Mr. Mukwita. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the man too soon, but there is enough that I have heard him say and write in promoting his book that leaves little to your imagination as to how scanty objectivity one should expect from him. This is definitely a propaganda project intended to prop up the political fortunes of the current president. The book will have a hard time to establish itself as a political master-piece, as the author hopes. And these are my reasons why I think so:
A biography is simply an account of someone’s life written by someone else. Mr. Mukwita’s subject is not only alive, but he is the president of Zambia, and the one who appointed the author to his current diplomatic office in February 2015. So the author owes so much to his subject. The subject pervades the author’s life and is very much there looking over the writer’s shoulder, so to say. Immediately, you can sense that the author, who is not a stranger to government-media censorship, would not have the courage to dare to enter what we might describe as terrain “where even angels dare not tread.”
The foreboding eye of the appointing authority naturally would compel the author to write with a particular object in mind, and any attempt to say anything negative about the subject, no matter how factually correct, would not rank high on his goal for this book. Honestly, as a political appointee whose bread and butter is dependent on the goodwill of the subject, we would be asking too much to expect to see red-hot objectivity that reminds you of the late Charles Mando, Patu Simoko or the legendary Kapelwa Musonda.
Agreeably, there is always an interpersonal dynamic involved in a literary work on a living subject. It is sometimes unavoidable to experience an undue attachment or subjective attitudes towards the subject. This is perfectly appropriate, but conflicting feelings, if not admitted and honestly explored, may harm the quality of the writing. It takes extra mental effort to develop a critical perspective, and that’s a real test of the emotional resilience of the biographer.
To a large extent, all those who keenly followed the succession fights in the Patriotic Front are at least well aware of what the author refers to as “the bitterly fought internal war to win the Patriotic Front’s nomination to stand as its candidate in the 2015 Presidential election occasioned by Sata’s death.” That it was a bitterly fought internal war is not an understatement. In fact, one would add that it was a violent war. It would be interesting to see who the protagonists actually were in that war, although the blurb doesn’t leave us guessing. But it is how the author will factually narrate that which will either build or destroy his literary credentials.
Hannah Arendt, in an essay entitled Truth and Politics, first published in the New Yorker on February 25, 1967, wrote:
“Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute. In other words, factual truth informs political thought just as rational truth informs philosophical speculation.”
Will Mr. Mukwita give us factual information with facts that no one can dispute? Yes, it’s true that history is subjective and open to different interpretations. I am waiting to see what view of this recent historical bitter rivalry in the PF that the author will present to us. Will he toe the partisan view to further his or the subject’s political ends? As citizens of this country, we all have to deal with our own past, but this should not be done by promoting myths or by using politically motivated interpretations of history to achieve our selfish goals. On this score, we all share the collective memory that the recent past has bequeathed to us, and we are under a strong obligation to use this appropriately and honestly. How will Mr. Mukwita fare on this? I can’t wait to discover the answer to this question soon.
Historians and biographers sometimes succumb to the temptation to alter or rewrite history. There is the overarching inclination, depending on the motive for writing, to engage in self-deception. The self-deceived deceiver often evacuates himself from reality and loses all contact, not only with his readers, but also with the real world. This is fallacical thinking which still will catch up with the author, because though he removes his mind from reality, he cannot remove his body.
There is a kind of denial which is often used by many of us as a defence mechanism, that helps us to deal with circumstances in life that make us feel uncomfortable or anxious. We tell ourselves and others that things are fine when they aren’t, and it is these self-deceptive white lies of denial that keep us going. As someone has indicated, denial becomes troublesome when the defence mechanism turns into a self-deceptive refusal to accept significant, life-affecting realities that are obvious to the world at large.
When significant misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods are constructed to meet political needs, you are actually rewriting history. At the risk of sounding like one who has already indicted Mr. Mukwita for this, allow me to state, nonetheless that as one who occupies a senior civil service position, and previously ascended to a very senior management position of one of the government owned media outlets, the author has a powerful political tool and holds all the cards in his hands to play the game according to his rules. And his previous writing as a civil servant in foreign service, has clearly exposed his partisan inclinations that are sadly inimical to the civil service code of conduct.
Any attempt in the book to engage in historical denial and a self-deceiving fantasy about facts that are fully known concerning our immediate past, will not only make readers angry, but also provoke astonishment from bemused and exasperated readers who already know enough to be fooled. The single most significant word in current denialist vocabulary is ‘revisionism’, generally the rewriting of history either using new evidence or re-interpreting existing evidence.
Like you, I wait with bated breath to read what Mr. Mukwita has packed in his book. It is always encouraging to see new writers emerging in our country, and I do hope that what we have in the book are not deadly or dangerous falsifications of reality, but distortions which are simply innocent and innocuous differences of perspective.