Thursday, June 20, 2024

Zambia’s politics of cult personality


By Chimwemwe Mwanza

A cult is defined as a system of religious veneration and devotion often directed towards a particular individual or object. Whether this individual is of questionable virtues is often inconsequential to his horde of followers for all that matters is the unbridled access at the dinner table and by extension, the accruing benefits that come with proximity to power, be it financial or otherwise.

Dissecting Zambia’s body politic through the eye of a needle, provides a sobering assessment. While there exists, a few genuine mass-based political groupings, it’s worth observing the proliferation of of loosely stitched ensembles disguised as political parties. Whether it’s by design or not, nearly all of Zambia’s political formations tend to elevate their leaders to near folklore status.

Need we forget that our history is replete with some of the dumbest political slogans ever created specifically to reinforce this reckless gambit. KK wamuyaya, Sata is PF and PF is Sata, and the hour belongs to Chiluba are just a few that spring to mind. Granted leaders are mortals, it’s conceivable that they will at some point depart the political scene – either while in office or on expiry of their term. Dare we forget that the country has on two occasions lost sitting presidents in untimely circumstances.

What then will become of the Patriotic Front (PF) post – the Edgar Lungu Presidency? Would the United Party for National Development (UPND) survive the demise of – God forbid its leader, Hakainde Hichilema? Beyond Edith Nawakwi, what does the future portend for the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FDD)? Who is the Deputy President of the National Restoration Party (NAREP) – we know the President is Elias Chipimo Jnr.

Has Nason Msoni got a following beyond his inner circle of friends? What makes Harry Kalaba and Chishimba Kambwili believe that their respective parties can outlive them? Did Akashambatwa Lewanika, retire with him, his Agenda for Zambia (AZ). The less we ask about prospects for the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), the better; it’s a party in a comatose. Most important though, is there a specific reason as to why our political parties are devoid of tangible succession strategies?

Succession planning

One of the lesser used but crucial doctrines that provides a health snapshot of the state of a governing or opposition political party, is its ability to manage an orderly transition in the event of death or resignation of its incumbent leader.
Therefore, a diligent succession plan is essential for it provides the electorate with a crystal ball to assessing political stability and continuity – in the process insulating a country from the possibility of earning a leadership by default – a sangwapo Presidency.

Post -the Levy Mwanawasa era, the bruising battle for succession – which was intrinsically linked to the State Presidency, somewhat contributed to sending the MMD into a downward spiral. All that was left was for king Cobra to inflict a fatal bite on a mortally wounded MMD. And the rest as they say is history.

Then why didn’t President Sata learn from Mwanawasa’s untimely passing regarding the need to groom a deputy – for Guy Scott’s ineligibility was a foregone conclusion? Although Sata never pronounced publicly ‘Donchi Kubeba’ regarding his preferred successor, Harry Kalaba, pontificated otherwise. He remained resolute to the claim that King Cobra did in fact have an heir in mind. Now that he Kalaba has been cast into political wilderness, would he still stand by his claim that President Lungu was indeed the anointed one? Truth is, we may never know.

Even if that were the case, fact is, ours is not a monarchy such as that one – in which a mere birth right anointed Prince Charles as the rightful heir to the British throne. Our democracy demands that political power flows from the electorate and the electorate deserve the right to scrutinise those aspiring for the highest office of the land?

For all his good intentions and purpose, it’s difficult to figure out why Hichilema is still at the helm of UPND – this despite suffering a quartet of loses at Presidential polls. What does his continued stranglehold over the party say about the rest of the UPND faithful? Aren’t there enough candidates worth of his ilk to take over the leadership mantle?

Blame it on politics of cult personality or otherwise, lack of mentoring or succession planning, has proved to be one of Zambia’s biggest political dogmas – since independence. For the good man, he is, KK had 27 years to groom a successor yet he missed the shot. The result? UNIP is dead. For almost 10 years, Frederick Chiluba could not identify a worthy leader to take over from him – a factor that nearly prompted him to fiddle with the constitution so he could engineer a lengthy stay. The consequence? MMD is dead. For the sake of a sustainable democracy, you would hope that both PF and UPND have aces up their sleeves.


  1. Dogmatic mentality of thinking that the leader is the best and no one else.Turning him/her into an idol

  2. The problem stems from the way we formulate our constitutions. We are very myopic, as a nation, in designing a constitution that forbids patronage. Individuals become more superior than a sacred document. In the clauses are formulated and created around individuals. This is not only with party constitution. This is even applied to national constitution. Parties are formed around individuals. As a result, intra-party democracy becomes a pipedream. Our friend in South Africa has a blueprint in the constitution they have formed. Individuals who breach constitutional standards are recalled and disciplined. We need a constitution that is built on a strong foundation and not around individuals. Individuals are immortal and should not be treated like demigods.

  3. Politics does not occur independent of culture actually dare I hypothesize: culture influences the political order of a state. Central to Zambian culture is the notion that ‘the leader is always right and therefore is all knowing and supreme.’ In our culture when one rises to the top of the social hierachy he/she is automatically given the title of ‘BIG MAN.’ I will put it in a simple way, we are a chiefdom of 18 million subjects. Psychologically neither the leader nor the people have outgrown the traditional chiefdom, its stark on our DNA hence we fail to question leadership and leadership is not accountable. The current political order has become a means to an end for some but I doubt if they any vision beyond their wallets.

  4. Well written article although I disagree with the author where he says that Chiluba had 10 years in which to identify a successor but he never did. Well, Chiluba in fact did identify a successor who happened to be Levy Mwanawasa. Chiluba actually did a good job when identifying a successor because Mwanawasa ended up being probably the best and only indigenous Zambian president the country ever had. Maybe the only difference is that the public had no idea who the successor to Chiluba would be.

    • @ Kangwa. You have missed it. Chiluba only appointed Mwanawasa at the last minute. I dont know how old you were then but people had to die as he was determined to rule on. Mwanawasa was just an ’emergency’ appointment which turned out to be ‘ a wonderful mistake’.

  5. Are these politics even about a person..a leader. I don’t think so because look at the present leadéship for instance…whats in there. I mean even uneducated people can see there is a vacuum in his leadership. In spite of that the Party still wins some elections. It’s is poverty…everyone wanting to link themselves to the Party in power…ekuli Soup.. umuto. Thinking opposition party patali pakuti bakese mu power tukalya lilali. It’s a terrible situation

  6. How can a person groom someone to take over? Democracy entails people compete for the highest position of the land.

    • @ Lipkwa. In the same democracy, if HH or Sata hints to his followers that should anything hapen to him, he belives in Lipkwa. And then something happens, do you think the followers will lusten to a third party trying to suggest otherwise?

  7. it’s a pity but we shall overcome it one day. we are just a young nation nature will make it difficulty to differentiate us on tribal lines

    • This is a good analitical piece. It seems There is always fear that among others, crafting a successor would somehow weeken the party as some cream members may flee. Its a desease that if eminent among all political parties

  8. The key is to allow intra democracy to flourish both in ruling and opposition parties.For now lets forget about PF cos Edgar has been declared eligible to stand in 2021 cos not even in advanced democracies is an incumbent challenged when s/he still has a term to contest as was the case with Obama in 2012 and now Trump.The question is, are the opposition parties practising intra democracy? The answer is a resounding NO.What we see is patronage and/or cultism.

  9. Good article, actually I have always found the cult mentality disgusting, to the extent that my future voting decisions will be governed by my disgust at perpetrators.

  10. Mr kangwa also has some valid points although I also disagree with him on the fact that chiluba had a successor in mind. It was more of a case of having a puppet to control thn having a successor for a noble cause of giving us a gift of a great leader. How else can u explain the wake up call at midnight. An after thought or some kind of divine revelation in a dream..?

  11. This article has missed the point, in a democratic governance there no successors but the better and popular member take the leadership.

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