Zambian politics: From 1968 – Putting the country first

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Kenneth Kaunda

“It’s clear — our leaders (both in government and in opposition) “must put Zambia first and help build [the economy sustainably].” I suppose we share that vision, which is precisely why we are compelled to share our opinions as we both do.

I have pondered at length on what it really means “to put Zambia first.” Whilst it remains a question for which I have not found a definitively conclusive answer, I have looked back at our history. I have found it rich with examples of Zambians whose contributions to our country, in my view, stand out as examples of patriotism, selflessness and “putting Zambia first.” I will share a few examples that reflect my personal observations.

1964 Cabinet

In February 1968, at the height of post independence tribal divisions within UNIP, a history defining moment unfolded. Two rival groups — fashioned on tribal pacts — emerged within UNIP: Easterners and Westerners on one side (led by then Vice President Reuben Kamanga), and Northerners and Southerners (led by Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe) on the other. So toxic was the jostling for positions within UNIP that Kenneth Kaunda resigned from the office of president (the episode is beautifully narrated by Sikota Wina in his book, “Night Without A President”). Many present at the time noted that KK’s decision to resign was driven by his despair at the growing specter of tribalism, and the consequent departure by his fellow freedom fighters cum post independence leaders to put Zambia first.

Simon M. Kapwepwe

KK was persuaded to rescind his decision by Grey Zulu — a decision which was hailed by Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe (who was to emerge victorious at the UNIP congress that followed as Vice President of UNIP). As history has recorded, the North/South alliance prevailed over the East/West pact. Naturally, Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe was appointed Vice President following the 1968 general elections. Naturally, Kapwepwe hoped to succeed KK as president in 1972. However, given the seeds of tribalism that had been sown in 1968, a Kapwepwe presidency presented a threat for the East/West alliance — and by then the fledgling hero worshiping of KK as an indispensable and singular unifier ensured that KK centralized power to himself [power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely]. Kapwepwe’s aspirations were thwarted. Tellingly, however, on resigning the office of Vice President, Kapwepwe lamented in very specific terms what he perceived was the systemic marginalization of “Bembas to be exact” from government appointments. His statement, as has been noted in another book authored by Vernon Mwanga (I forget the title) was perceived as stoking the flames of tribalism, since he has singled out his tribe as a target of political victimization and for whom he sought to fight for. This was the immediate precursor to the declaration of a one party state.

Whilst it has been loosely argued that KK desired to be dictator, commentators present at the time have pointed out that he perhaps was motivated by a higher goal — that of unifying Zambia and keeping the peace (political violence had emerged between UNIP and Kapwepwe’s supporters after Kapwepwe resigned and formed the UPP). The fact KK had resigned less than 4 years earlier lends credibility to this view i.e., he acted selflessly in declaring a one party state by “putting Zambia first” with the singular aim of preserving peace and unity. At the height of those political tensions, Kapwepwe was arrested and spent 9 months in jail or what may be described as trumped up politically motivated charges (one may be tempted to draw comparisons with other incidents such as the current incarceration of HH on charges of treason).

For his part, Kapwepwe resigned from active politics upon his release — undoubtedly as weighty an act of selflessness and “putting Zambia first” as that of KK in declaring a one party state. Kapwepwe’s departure from active politics was incisive in ending political violence, and putting a lid on political tensions in Zambia (those of a tribal nature) for nearly two decades. Although he emerged to challenge KK for the presidency of UNIP one last time in 1978 albeit unsuccessfully, the specter of tribalism (and the accompanying divisiveness) had seemingly been contained. In my opinion, both KK and Kapwepwe had put Zambia first and Kapwepwe more so.

Gen Miyanda

Kapwepwe’s galant act especially stands out given the routes that others opposed to KK took. Specifically, the failed coup attempt in 1980 in which the likes of General Miyanda, Valentine Musakanya, Edward Sharmwana, et al, were implicated and convicted. Whilst there is no objective basis upon which to compare one act of patriotism against another, an assessment of countries across the continent where coups succeeded, may suggest the failure of the attempted coup in 1980 was a saving grace for Zambia. There is no telling what would have transpired and the course Zambia would have taken had power been usurped from KK forcefully. So too the failed coup attempt of 1988 for which Christon Tembo and his accomplices were convicted and sentenced to death (it was during that trial that Levy Mwanawasa made his name as a defense lawyer). In this column of examples, it is worth including the failed coup attempt in 1990 spearheaded by Mwamba Luchembe. I include these examples for completeness of our history, but more specifically to ponder on what would have become of Zambia had these attempts at forcefully, and perhaps violently, depose KK succeeded.

FTJ at a campaign rally, on the left is VJ Mwaanga

Incredibly, however, each of these incidents may have contributed in compelling KK’s selfless act of re-introducing multiparty politics and ultimately conceded defeat to FTJ following the 1991 elections. Unlike 1980, 1988 and 1990, the agitators of multiparty democracy stand out as brave patriots of Zambia who “put Zambia first” and agitated for the reintroduction of multiparty politics, which culminated in the peaceful transfer of power. The likes of Arthur Wina, Sikota Wina, Vernon Mwanga, and FTJ,especially stand out for special mention as having contributed significantly to maintaining the peace and unity in Zambia, whilst setting a new course for Zambia. They put Zambia first, so too KK for conceding defeat and facilitating an unprecedented (in Africa at least) peaceful transfer of power. To be fair, his 27 year grip on power afforded him other selfish options which, fortunately for Zambia, he did not pursue.

Frederick Chiluba

In 2001, FTJ attempted to hang on to power — in a failed third term bid that was championed by Michael Sata. Perhaps in one of the most paradoxical periods in the history of Zambia, the galant patriots sternly resisted FTJ’s bid. Christon Tembo resigned as Vice President (to form the FDD), along with about a dozen cabinet ministers, in a bid to preserve the democracy for which many brave man and women had selflessly fought for 10 years earlier. Of course, in was within this same context that the UPND was formed led by Anderson Mazoka. So concerted was the opposition to FTJ’s third-term that he was compelled to abandon it, recall Levy Mwanawasa back to active politics, and have him stand as the MMD candidate for president in the 2001 general elections.

Worth recalling is that it was during the FTJ presidency that Zambians were introduced to the phenomena of electoral fraud. The introduction of a company called NIKUV in 1996 and their contentious role as ECZ contractors (responsible for preparing the voter register) ahead of the 1996 general elections brought with it suspicions that FTJ planned to supposedly rig the elections. The cloud around NIKUV’s involvement in voter registration, allegation of voting irregularities, as well as the implications of a hasty amendment to the constitution to include a parentage clause — aimed at barring KK from contesting the presidential elections — formed the crux of the presidential election petition of 1996 (the first ever electoral petition filed in Zambia).


The petitioners included Dean Mung’omba and Akashambatwa Mbikusita Lewanika — both of whom had lost in their bid to be elected president in 1996

The petitioners of the 1996 presidential elections exercised their rights as afforded by the constitution at that time. What followed was a lengthy court case which was concluded in 1999 — three years after the contested elections — with the Supreme Court dismissing the petition as lacking the requisite legal merits to succeed. Evidently, it turned out to be an expensive exercise in futility however legal it may have been. By contrast, and whilst the presidential petition was being heard by the Supreme Court, a Capt Solo (Stephen Lungu) attempted to overthrow the FTJ government in a failed military coup. It’s worth highlighting the two approaches — one group (the petitioners) placed their faith in Zambia’s justice system in their prayer to declare FTJ’s 1996 electoral victory as invalid, whilst Capt Solo and his co-conspirators elected (pun intended) to forcefully gain power. Irrespective of one’s views on the 1996 elections, the merits of the presidential election petition or lack thereof notwithstanding, the failure of that 1997 coup attempt was overwhelmingly celebrated by all Zambians who had at heart a desire to “put Zambia first.” It mattered little whether the allegations of irregularities in the 1996 presidential elections — as presented in court by such formidable lawyers as Sakwiba Sikota and Prof. Mvunga — were compelling, or rang it was the evidence presented in court that may have spurred Capt Solo to act as he did, what mattered to most patriotic Zambians was their resolve to sustain peace and unity in Zambia. A coup, therefore, was simply unacceptable.

Levy Mwanawasa

Back to the failure of FTJ’s third term bid attempt and subsequent general elections of 2001, and the allegations of electoral fraud resurfaced once again. Given the extraordinarily narrow margin of victory by Levy Mwanawasa (personally selected by FTJ) in an election characterized by delayed delivery of voting materials and consequent voting beyond the legally sanctioned election date, severe delays in announcing results, and countless claims of electoral fraud; the 2001 elections were even more contentious than the elections of 1996. The toxic environment of an unpopular FTJ — and the loss of the popular vote in crucial urban constituencies — set the stage for a very controversial election outcome. To this day, one may be hard pressed to find anyone who believes Mwanawasa won that election fair and square. The evidence seemed to suggest, to a rather overwhelming degree, that UPND’s Anderson Mazoka was robbed of his victory.

Anderson Mazoka showing election results to the press in 2002. He claimed his victory had been robbed by the ruling party

Although skirmishes broke out protesting the election results, Mazoka followed the legal route and lodged an election petition. That petition, much like the petition of 1996 before it, proved to be nothing more than a lengthy and expensive exercise. The seemingly endless list of what appeared to be foolproof evidence of electoral fraud proved insufficient in swaying the Supreme Court justices on the merits of the case. That petition too was ultimately dismissed in 2005 as lacking in merit to overturn the election of Mwanawasa as president.

levy Mwanawasa

A year later, and riding a popular wave of his anti corruption campaign, he won re-election by an incontestable margin. By now, Michael Sara’s PF had emerged as the most formidable opposition party. Although Mwanawasa’s 2006 victory at the polls was a convincing one, it did little to dispel suspicions of electoral fraud. Although a presidential petition was lodged following the 2006 elections, it was quietly abandoned — with Sata pointing out that elections should be won convincingly at the ballot and not in the chambers of judges.

Rupiah Banda

Indeed, 2 years later, in the 2008 presidential by-election those suspicions were amplified even further. Sata’s narrow defeat to Rupiah Banda, amidst glaring evidence of improbable voting patterns, once again brought raised the now “expected” claims of vote rigging. Consistent with his position on 2 years earlier, Sata resisted attempts at actively pursuing an election petition to contest the results. Instead, he focused his energies on mounting a spirited campaign to win hearts and minds for the 2011 general elections. Who’s to say whether, and perhaps, Sata’s acceptance of electoral defeat in 2008 — albeit grudgingly — forestalled and allayed the type of anger amongst his supporters that may have driven Capt Solo to attempt to usurp power illegally and forcefully 11 years earlier? His decision to focus on drumming up support towards his message ahead of the 2011 elections, when he could have instead invested his energies on seeking “justice” to recover an alleged stolen election may well be viewed as an act of “putting Zambia first.”

More accusations of electoral fraud in the 2011 elections notwithstanding, Sata defeated Banda with an insurmountable and incontestable margin of victory.

Justice Mambilima

Reports of Banda’s attempts to hold on to power may be exaggerated as, in the end, Judge Mambilima declared Sata the winner — and Banda acted graciously in public by tearfully conceding defeat and facilitating a peaceful transfer of power. It may have been painful for Banda, but what’s clear is that when it mattered he “put Zambia first” albeit with a nudge from the security forces (as the word in the grapevine claimed had transpired).

Former president Rupiah Banda with President Lungu at one of the campaign rallies

What the history above suggests, in my opinion, is a consistent pattern of how events relating to contested political competition have unfolded:
1. Tribalism, rather unfortunately, has a history as long as our independence, yet politicians have jealously guarded the overriding and shared obligation to sustain peace and unity over their own individual political aspirations.
2. Suspicions of electoral fraud and stolen elections have been a constant fixture in Zambian political contests since 1996. However, and irrespective of the weight of the evidence presented, presidential election petitions have historically had no chance of success. None have succeeded — but this in itself should not be seen as indicative of a flawed judicial system (as such a determination would require a detailed and objective analysis of the cases).
3. Notwithstanding allegations of vote rigging, electoral malpractice, biased media coverage in favor of the ruling party, or use of state resources to campaign, opposition presidential candidates can win elections in Zambia. However, it appears what definitively cements the victory is a convincing margin at the polls. Where the margin is thin, the outcomes have exclusively tilted in favor of the ruling party candidate.
4. When political contestations have been closely fought, the burden of maintaining peace and unity has heavily weighed on the losing — even if aggrieved — candidate.

Whilst I have applied my interpretation to Zambia’s history — as they relate to the current political impasse — I remain cognizant that I do not have a monopoly of interpretation. Given the same facts, someone else may well arrive at a different view (and opinion) by applying a different interpretation. Where such differences in opinion arise, we will do well to recognize them as mere differences in interpretation and opinion, and not a determination of right or wrong. Perhaps it is within the context of sharing these differences that answers may be gleaned to resolving our current unfortunate political predicament.”


3 Responses to Zambian politics: From 1968 – Putting the country first

  1. Great article. Very rich.
    But I would add the selfless act of patriotism by the gallant Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, when he accepted to disband the ANC and join Kenneth Kaunda’s government. That was equally an exception act of patriotism just as you have eloquently put it in the case of great Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe.
    On a lighter note, you should have put your names as the author.
    Well done.

    July 3, 2017 at 10:13 am

  2. Very well articulated and really refreshing.

    July 5, 2017 at 12:56 pm

  3. African societies are extremely diverse from a tribal and cultural point of view. in most countries tribal affiliations have acted as an Achilles heel for non-partisan political governance. this has further been compounded by the colonial legacy of tribal divide and rule tactics imposed by colonial regimes. Tribal divisions and disaggregation for example, Hutu/Tutsi, shona/ndebele and Sotho/Xhosa which are essentially products of the colonial system continue to simmer and form the basis of contesting power. given this toxic threat posed by ethnic/tribal politics it is extremely difficult and problematic to achieve the ” put Zambia first” practice. I guess after reading this article l now understand KKs rallying slogan “one Zambia, one Nation” which it sought to unite all Zambians from different tribes and ethnic groups behind a single unitary nationhood. The major lesson learnt is that as Africans we are certainly capable of building greater unified nations based on the ideal of putting nationhood first . For this to happen there is need for selfless political cadres who are disassociated from the urge to put tribe over nation first .

    May 19, 2018 at 6:47 am

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