By Field Ruwe EdD
Hakainde Hichilema – leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND)
Before I got down to pen this article, I took a knee in protest against tribalism in Zambian politics. This was after reading comments made by PF member Davies Chama back in 2015: “If at all they (UPND) will ever be in power, maybe a 100 years from now, not in my generation, maybe a 1000 years from now. They [Tongas] are polygamous by nature, so maybe as they have more children, they can be history and in power.”
The above abusive and prejudicial language is no different from that of racism, neither is the one uttered by Bizwell Mutale: “Zambia is not ready for a Tonga president in 2021 and beyond. It will never happen;” nor the one by Chishimba Kambwili: “Tongas cannot vote for Jesus if he stood in that part of Zambia on the basis of his tribe.” Kambwili was later linked to a statement in social media that alleged he would eliminate Tongas given the opportunity.
Before I proceed, I must state that in writing this article I assume the air of impartiality. I am not here to endorse or disapprove the candidature of Hakainde Hichilema. I am not a member of UPND, and have never met Hichilema. For certain, I am a citizen of Zambia concerned with the pervasive negative effects of tribalism and the toll it is exacting on Hichilema, a man, who in his own right, dreams of becoming the first Tonga to preside over this beautiful land.
This coming August will be unprecedented. The man who lost in 2016 by 27,757, and who has since made efforts to break out of the tribal circumscribed politics, will be trying to navigate the murky road to State House like he has done the three times he has tried. This time it’s different, his supporters are certain they have exceeded the 2016 deficit and UPND has grown by leaps and bounds. Still, what stands between Hichilema and State House is not so much Edgar Lungu, but the word “Tonga.”
A Tonga Will Never Rule Zambia
Behind this well orchestrated tribalism scheme is President Edgar Lungu and the Patriotic Front. Asked if a Tonga will ever become president, Lungu responded: “One day, a Tonga will rule Zambia, but certainly not the one that’s aspiring now.” The evocation of the word “Tonga” is a euphemism for “A Tonga will never rule Zambia.” A judicious head of state would have put it simply: “I’m above tribal politics. Any Zambian who aspires to be president and wins the hearts of the majority of Zambian voters certainly becomes one.” Lungu, who throughout his reign has not bothered to rekindle the country’s motto “One Zambia, One Nation,” is upholding the long-held maxim that Tongas are unfit to rule Zambia.
Let me ask a couple of questions that are at the heart of this article? Why do Tongas have to endure such abuse with each presidential election? What wrong have Tonga’s done that warrants such mistreatment? How can we allow a head of state to perpetuate politics of divide and rule? How have we come to a point where the head of state tolerates hate mongering and lends a blind eye to the dangers of tribal politics? Does President Edgar Lungu fully understand the dire repercussion of tribalism? One more question: How did we get here?
Kenneth Kaunda and the Seeds of Tribalism
Currently, Zambians are witnessing the worst negative branding and persecution of a presidential candidate in a country that claims to be democratic. Opportunistic political failures Edith Nawakwi and Chilufya Tayali have labeled Hichilema a fraud in their bid to derail his candidacy. In doing so, they have created a vintage recipe for civic chaos, to speak less of a civil war. The explosive accusations have come at a time when UPND members and their leader think they have in the past five years worked tirelessly to capture the hearts of Zambians in their 72 ethnic groups.
Let me dip into a very delicate piece of history that will provide a clue to why tribalism remains Hakainde Hichilema’s Achilles’ heel. Please be advised that I do not mean any disrespect to former President Kenneth Kaunda, this serious matter calls for historical facts. I have taken time to excavate facts shared by historians around the world, some credited at the bottom of this article.
Historical records show that Kaunda contributed to sowing the seeds of tribalism and caused estrangement between Bembas and Tongas. In November, 1953, the visionary and radical Kaunda, a Bemba by birth, accompanied by the Chinsali boys led by the militant Simon Kapwepwe, arrived in Lusaka from Lubwa to assume the post of Secretary General of the ANC led by Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, a Tonga.
The Kaunda cabal arrived with a sense of entitlement emanating from a feel of incontestable Bemba ethnic supremacy, and Kaunda let Nkumbula know that. When Nkumbula referred to Kaunda as a “Nyasalander meddling in the politics of Northern Rhodesia,” Kaunda quit ANC in 1958 and formed the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC), taking the Bemba militants with him. Henceforth, Tongas and Bembas were at daggers drawn and tribalism became a major factor when Kaunda became president of UNIP in 1959, and also a factor in the outcome of Zambia’s independence.
Although Kaunda preached non-violence, he did not shy away from a bloody fight. Using inflammatory language he attacked Nkumbula full throttle and portrayed him as a womanizer and an alcoholic wreck and his supporters as “idiots,” “simple souls” and “Tonga peasants “whom [Nkumbula] robbed of their money to squander on beer and other immoral ways.” Nkumbula punched back, describing Kaunda and his followers as “poor thieves whose political objective of positioning Bembas in power was to colonize Tongaland.”
As expected the exchange resulted in inter-party bloody clashes between UNIP and ANC. Growing up in Chililabombwe and Chingola before independence, this writer is aware of the frequent clashes between the two parties, involving stoning, beatings, arson, pipe bombs and murders. A UNIP militant was seen as “a person who would inflict harm on a political opponent or rival. Hence the origin of the slogan ‘UNIP is fire and anyone who plays with it gets burnt.’”
Before and after independence, militant Bembas within UNIP vowed never to allow a Tonga become president. Realizing the precarious tribalistic situation he found himself in, Kaunda begun to steer the country toward unity using his slogan “One Zambia, One Nation” as “the basic principle to national construction.” But the die was cast. Tribalism remains latent 57 years later.
Up to this day, non-Tonga politicians continue to whip up long-held animosities and stereotypes against Zambia’s indigenous people. The typical pattern has been to continue to give the Tonga people the undesirable label of tribalist and therefore unworthy of presidential leadership. This year, a desperate president who could lose an election devoid of rigging, is doing just that to cling to power. The question is: For how long can the Tongas tolerate such humiliation? Another: For how long can UPND watch their leader tortured? One more question: For how long will UPND members watch their efforts thwarted?
The Power of the Kneeling
Tribalism is a dangerous system that has caused millions of deaths across Africa and beyond. Tribalism fosters intense hatred for a fellow being. The Rwanda genocide is a case in point. Power, greed, heartlessness, foolishness, pride, and ignorance of one man can torch the entire country.
When a 29-year-old American quarterback knelt during the national anthem, he sparked a non-violent protest against racism. That’s the power of the knee. Kneeling is the most effective and powerful way of protest. No stones are hauled; no gas is used; no gun is fired, no fires are set; no buildings are destroyed; no one is hurt; and no one is killed. Maybe it’s time for Hakainde Hichilema, the man trapped in the web of tribalism to lead all loving Zambians regardless of their tribe and political affiliation to taking a knee. If not Hichilema, someone should take a knee for mother Zambia, Edgar Lungu perhaps?
Credit is due to the following historians: Giacomo Macola; Chiponde Mushingeh; Stephen McLaughlin & Maarje Weerdesteijin.