How decisive is ethnicity and regionalism in Zambian electoral politics?

Results from Zambia’s presidential by-election held on 20th January 2015 are now clear. They do show a very disturbing trend of regionalism in the voting pattern. Since 1964, Zambia has prided itself as a beacon of unity in Southern Africa. Immediately after its founding, Zambia’s first President Kenneth Kaunda (KK) coined the One Zambia One Nation motto as a way to encourage unity and national harmony. In Zambia, over 70 tribes have to co-exist. The One Zambia One Nation motto however has faced its own challenges. For example, there is some disagreement about the extent to which Zambian tribes actually united at independence. Barely two years into independence, Kaunda was quite shocked to find that the nation he thought had put tribal division behind was actually quite divided along tribal lines. In the ruling party’s convention in 1968, an alliance of Bembas (from North) and Tongas (from South) combined to defeat an alliance of Nyanja (East) and Lozi (West) politicians. Realizing that Zambia was in fact quite tribal in its politics, Kaunda went on a very ambitious project to do what he termed as “tribal” balancing. By this, Zambian tribes were going to share political and government positions. At the core of this “tribal balancing” project was Kaunda’s own personal ambiguity as to which “tribe” he belonged. KK was the son of a Christian Tumbuka missionary who migrated from modern day Malawi to settle among the Bembas in Chinsali. However, during the struggle for independence KK presented himself as a Bemba from Chinsali. The Chinsali Bembas nevertheless still had suspicions of his heritage. Kaunda, in spite of some suspicions, was somewhat regarded as a uniting figure among his peers. This helped to have him cement himself as a trans-tribal leader uniting the new nation.

During Kaunda’s long 27-year reign, he followed this tribal balancing mantra to the core. However, in 1991 Kaunda lost power to Frederick Chiluba. Chiluba’s MMD party abandoned the “tribal balancing” cliché and instead emphasized “merit” as the new standard for government leadership. It was rather surprising though that in Chiluba’s government most appointments in government and parastatal companies went to mostly Bemba-speaking citizens. Merit perhaps meant being Bemba. Chiluba’s leadership was characterized by privatization and liberalisation of Zambia’s economy. The IMF’s structural adjustment program meant that ordinary Zambians were going to pay more for goods and services. After Chiluba’s second term in 1996, a new party emerged known as the United Party for National Development (UPND). Anderson Mazoka, a southerner, led this UPND. The UPND grew very quickly and soon commanded a huge following among southerners. In the 2001 elections, Mazoka lost by a very small margin to Levy Mwanawasa, the ruling MMD’s candidate. Mwanawasa was Lenje, which together with the Tongas are known as the Bantu Botatwe grouping. They are some form of a tribal alliance. Nevertheless, this bitter electoral defeat for Mazoka seemed to have cemented the UPND as a party carrying the aspirations of the people of Southern Province. Levy took no time to brand UPND as “tribal”. It is this “tribal” sentiment that seems to have stuck to the UPND to date.

After the passing of Mazoka in 2006, the Tonga block of the UPND sidestepped Mazoka’s deputy Sakwiba Sikota to choose Hakainde Hachilema as its leader. The choice of Hakainde, a Tonga, instead of Sikota, a Lozi, provoked more suspicions that the UPND was indeed a Tonga-tribal party. Hakainde has led the UPND into three elections since 2006. The latest being the one just ended where he has almost certainly lost to Edgar Lungu, the ruling PF party’s candidate.

The ruling Patriotic Front was formed by one of President Chiluba’s close confidantes, Michael Sata. Sata’s motivation for the formation of the PF was to protest Chiluba’s decision to “anoint” Levy Mwanawasa as the MMD’s presidential candidate in the 2002 presidential poll. A populist speaker, his party grew rapidly to overtake the UPND as a formidable opposition. After losing the 2001, 2006 and 2008 presidential elections, Sata handsomely beat incumbent Rupiah Banda in 2011. The PF party started as a populist party feeding off urban discontentment with the ruling MMD. It, however, grew to overtake the MMD in the Bemba speaking areas (In Northern Zambia). Sata himself never apologized about his party’s Bemba appeal. It was this combination of Bemba votes and the urban vote that was decisive in handling him the victory in 2011. After winning, Sata’s cabinet comprised of 90% Northerners most of whom were related to him in one-way or another. This entrenched the view that the PF was in fact a Bemba-tribal party. While the MMD, during its rule, was widely regarded as a “national” party, its successor, the PF was regarded by some to be a “regional-Bemba” party. Interestingly, the same was said of the opposition UPND since it had a huge Tonga (Southern) base.

After the death of Michael Sata in November 2014, the two major parties fighting for the presidency both had the reputation of being “tribal”. But the PF adopted Edgar Lungu an Easterner and quickly shed off the “tribal” tag. They then began to emphasize their national appeal as a uniting trans-tribal party. The PF then contrasted themselves with the UPND and campaigned against the UPND on the basis that it was a Tonga-tribal party. The consequences of such campaigns seem to suggest something disturbing for the January 20 2015 elections. For the first time in history, Zambia’s east and Zambia’s west are divided on their choice for the presidency. The East (that is Nyanja and Bemba areas) has gone with the Patriotic Front while the West (Tonga, Lozi etc) has voted overwhelmingly for the United Party for National Development. For now this leaves the urban areas as the swing vote. In 2015, this swing vote has gone for Edgar Lungu. It is likely to swing to the UPND in the next elections in 2016. The new president will have the burden to try and bridge this East and West divide. Perhaps coming up with Kaunda’s “tribal balancing” idea could work well for Zambia. Zambians want a country united by the One Zambia One Nation motto, but in order to build a nation in unity, they must deal with the regional divisions that have erupted in this year’s presidential election.

Elias Munshya

Elias Munshya holds law and divinity degrees. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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