Zambia’s Tribalist Politics

The results of the presidential and parliamentary elections that took place in Zambia on 27 December can only be analysed in terms of the prevailing ethnic and tribal prejudices that came to translate themselves in the voting pattern.

The heavily contested elections took place over four days instead of the stipulated one day. This was partly due to the large number of voters who had turned up to vote. The elections took place in the rain season and many roads and bridges were rendered inoperative and thus caused delays in the transportation of ballot boxes and personnel.

This time more than ever before the Zambian electorate was subjected to intense political propaganda coming from no less than twelve political parties, but the elections were held under a mood of cynicism consequent upon the nullification of the constitutional referendum that would have paved the way for a third term for outgoing President Frederick Chiluba.

Voting was heavily determined by ethnic and tribal loyalties rather than the intellectual and political integrity of the presidential aspirants. The strength of political parties has come to depend upon the degree of ethnic and tribal loyalties they can command. Tribalism in Zambia is politically motivated—a political contest among the Tonga, Lozi and Bemba for ethnic domination.

A brief resumé of Zambia’s political history may help to clarify this predominance and the pattern of ethnic and tribal loyalties. The beginning of political agitation that paved the way to the achievement of Zambia’s independence saw the emergence on the political scene of the most assertive tribes. Disenchanted with racial segregation, the nationalist movements manipulated the entrenched ethnic and tribal prejudices to win political loyalty.

Historically the Bemba tribe is regarded as being the most culturally and politically assertive in Zambia. The Bemba originated from the Lunda-Luba multi-ethnic empire that had once flourished in the 7th century in the Congo bassin. Demographically Zambia is heavily populated by the Lunda-Luba tribal offshoots, scattered across Luapula, Northern and Central Provinces. There still exist cultural and linguistic affinities among the diverse tribes found in these regions. In terms of lingua franca the Bemba vernacular has come to supplement English as Zambia’s second language, showing that language itself can be used as a vehicle of tribal domination

The first nationalist party in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) was formed by Godwin Mbikusita Lewanika, a Lozi tribesman, in 1948, the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress. Later, in 1951, the party was re-named the African National Congress under the charismatic leadership of Harry Nkumbula, a Tonga by tribe.

Historically the Lozi and Tonga are not related. The Lozi were an offshoot of the Makololo invaders who came from Basutoland (Botswana) and settled in Western Province around 1800. The Tonga have a long ancestral record compared to other Zambian tribes. Traditionally, they are politically non-militant, with political leadership being restricted within clans and village headmen. Tonga and Lozi politicians come into open alliances whenever there is a presidential election.

It can now be vindicated that Kenneth Kaunda’s resignation from the ANC in 1962 was mainly motivated by the entrenched ethnic and tribal loyalties, less so than on the alleged corrupt leadership of Harry Nkumbula. Kaunda himself is not a Zambian. His parents came from Malawi (Nyasaland) with a white missionary society. But it was his early upbringing under a Bemba traditional society that came to play a major role in his political career. The emergence of the UNIP in 1962 under his leadership witnessed the growth of militant political demonstrations in Luapula, Copperbelt and Northern Provinces where the Bemba are concentrated.

In 1963 Nalumino Mundia, a prominent Lozi politician, resigned from ANC and formed his own political party, the United Party. This was essentially Lozi in outlook and derived a mass following in Western Province. The United Party formed a coalition with Nkumbula’s ANC during the 1968 general elections and managed to win 34 percent of the votes.

This voting pattern that emerged from the 1968 general elections emphasised the presence of ethnic and tribal loyalties that have continued to this day.

The inauguration of a one-party (UNIP) state by Kaunda in 1972 was made in order to arrest the trends perceived towards ethnic and provincial parochialism. The UNIP government under Kaunda believed that it had succeeded in containing ethnic and tribal parochialism in Zambia by fabricating the philosophy of Humanism, duly implemented in 1974 as the official political ideology of the party and government. The philosophy of Humanism was spasmodically enunciated by Kaunda in order to enhance the false image of tribal homogeneity under a single party dictatorship.

Throughout his beleaguered political career Kaunda, took account of the prevalence of ethnic and tribal allegiances and allocated political portfolios according to the relative strengths of tribal and ethnic loyalties. The rank of Prime Minister was always reserved to a Lozi tribesman. Thus it can be inferred that the defeat of the UNIP government in 1991 by Chiluba’s MMD was a defeat for the Lozi who had come to comprise the majority in the civil service.

The election victory achieved in December by the ruling MMD presidential aspirant, Levy Mwanawasa, can only be attributed to the large number of votes received from the Bemba-speaking tribes in Copperbelt, Luapula and Northern Provinces. In terms of tribal and ethnic groupings, we can see that the Bemba-speaking areas voted for the ruling MMD whereas the Tonga and Lozi speaking areas voted for the UPND leader, Anderson Mazoka (a Tonga tribesman). Mazoka’s routing in the Copperbelt, Luapala and Northern provinces was compensated by the huge victories scored by the UPND in Lusaka, Southern and Western Provinces. The UPND lost to the ruling MMD by a margin of 30,000 votes but increased its seats in parliament to 44 compared to the MMD’s 68. The UPND’s dissatisfaction with the election results reflects the ingrained ethnic and tribal allegiances that underlies multi-party politics in Zambia.

Our message to the people of Zambia remains the same. The real cause behind unemployment, inflation and poverty is capitalism, the social system based on class domination, competition and selfishness. We repeat: in countries subjected to foreign domination and wage-slavery capitalism feeds and grows by enabling ethnic and tribal prejudices. It encourages voter apathy in societies where political patronage is based on tribal identities. It bedevils political stability through encouraging expediency based upon strengthening tribal domination and ill-feeling.

Socialism can bring to an end all this rot. A classless, moneyless and stateless society will end the ethnic, racial and sectarian antagonisms. The struggle before you remains the same—a class struggle on an international scale.