Ethnic conflict and identity in Zambia

Ethnic conflict and ethnic identity – A critical perspective of Zambia’s identity politics: issues and problems

By Chali Nondo
Communications Strategist and International Development affairs analyst
Toronto, Canada
Formerly, Journalist in Lusaka; Zambia (1998 – 2004)

This article is a follow-up to my recent article on ethnic tension on the Zambian political landscape in which I criticized the governing Patriotic Front (PF) for fueling the potentially deadliest ethnic violence across the nation. In that paper, I critically stated that the PF government has not only enabled the ethnic tension, it has also lamentably failed to use its privileged political power to quell the violence that has so far deepened along ethnic groups in various parts of the country. Where the state police was deployed to put down the wrecking violence, a brutal force was apparently selectively unleashed on the opposition supporters while ruling party cadres were shielded and treated as victims and later on given an exit route to flee the epicenter without facing consequences. This is one of harshest hardline taken by the PF government to justify its use of police brutality on the opposition supporters that has ignited a near civil strife. Tension in the country is high and so is frustration and anxiety almost reaching a breaking point.
In this article I will strictly address the core arguments about how ethnic identity and identity politics have manifested into a flurry of political violence along ethnic identity. In order to qualify my arguments, the article will attempt to outline the characteristics, origins as well as effects of ethnic violence within the context of identity politics. A great deal of this analysis will be devoted to formulate a conceptual framework of ethnicity within a political paradigm that is characterised by rage and divide. The notion that a state is obligated to provide security and protection to the governed has remained unchallenged, thus it will be one of my core arguments to justify state failure, economic stagnation, human suffering resulting from geographical dislocation and gross human rights violation that constitute crimes against humanity for which the governing PF is squarely guilty as charged. When a government fails to provide security and protection to its people and worse still as in the case of PF government, unleashes violence on the very people it is supposed to protect, it loses legitimacy to govern. The only option available to such a government is to stand down. This is exactly what the PF government is expected to do in the best interest of national security. Its relevance in politics is fast fading and its continued existence in political power is deepening the societal divide.
Since the Patriotic Front came into power in 2011, the nation has witnessed the erosion of our democratic tenets that made Zambia a beacon of political civilisation. On this premise, it will be illogical to heap all the blame on Edgar Lungu even though his presidency has not escaped controversy and troubling questions. Before, I give a detailed elaboration on this score, it is necessary to point out that Edgar came to power at the back of violence that characterised his nomination at the Mulungushi University situated near Kabwe in 2015 following the demise of President Michael Sata. A horde of hired savages ferried from the streets of Lusaka invaded the venue and violently dislodged legitimate PF delegates in a militant style brandishing machetes, knives and fire arms to secure a victory for Edgar. After the militias had successfully dislodged all the legitimate delegates, Edgar was the only candidate at the venue to be nominated by the invaders by raising machetes, legs and firing live ammunition in the air. This is the origin of PF’s current violence that has since degenerated into ethnic turmoil and seems to be sitting well with the PF controlled state apparatus. Not too long ago, a plane carrying Miles Sampa was prevented from landing at Ndola Airport after a multitude of heavily armed PF cadres on pick-up trucks depicting ISIS fighters breached the airport security and seized the runway in what could be described as the country’s worst security threat since independence. In this dramatic scenario, no one was arrested or questioned by the authorities because the project was sanctioned and financed by the PF government.
There are several incidents of state enabled violence such as the Shiwang’andu at which a helicopter carrying a UPND campaign team came into a firing range from a multitude of PF militias and the Chawama shooting incident of an unarmed UPND supporter, Mapenzi Chibulo and many more shocking and humiliating scenarios that are too difficult to comprehend. Again, in all these incidents, no arrests were made and no inquiry was set up to bring the culprits to book. It is apparently in the PF “dununa” philosophy that assumes that violence unleashed on the opposition is a demonstration of power and political strength.
We have so far witnessed a notorious and a violent campaign that is targeting the people of southern and to a certain degree western and north western provinces for their association with UPND. Let me be clear on this point once more; ethnic identity is deeply rooted in our politics and associations because often times people tend to share common characteristics in terms of values, traditions, language, race, feelings and experience in such a way that they extend their solidarity towards a common cause in order to defend their identity which is at risk or undermined. This conceptual framework of ethnicity takes root in our character and finds solace in a political organisation that promulgates causes that are so close to our experiences not necessarily to the exclusion of others. It is not uncommon for a group of people to pledge solidarity towards a leader or an entity that is perceived to have elements similar to their religion, customs, laws, values, language and heritage. For instance, a political leader who wants to woo votes from the easterners would strive to conduct their campaign in the local language that identifies that ethnic group. This assumption forms the basis of my argument I introduced in the beginning of this article that explains that ethnic identity and political identity are not far from each other. Where there is an ethnic identity, identity politics come into play so unequivocally. With such, ethnicity is loosely politicized at the indiscretion of the minority tribes. That said, I stick to my earlier argument that there is no such a thing as a superior tribe because our cultural traits that differentiate us from others cannot be measured by any rule.
It’s a pity that other tribes, precisely my tribe Bemba has promoted the notion of tribal dominance and often relegates others as either primitive, unwise and second class citizens. We have unashamedly disparaged and treated other tribes with despicable contempt as if we have the monopoly of wisdom. Truth be told, most of the tribes we have shunted to the bottom are in fact the best of all in terms of their character and personality. In fact from practical experience, my tribe cannot even be trusted with public resources. It is also in the theory of this analysis that criminal activities specifically burglary, pickpocketing, fraud and robbery have found a fertile ground in the northern region and on the Copperbelt where the perceived dominant language is a medium of communication. Why do people travelling from the south and west on a bus or train would tighten safety measures to their personal effects once they cross the Kafue river ? My life experience at Canisius Secondary school in Monze district in southern province was a marvelous one. I hope to dedicate an article on this subject to highlight a social interaction in what should be seen as “a foreign community”.
The failure by the PF government to promote ethnic inclusion and tolerance has halted economic development as evident in the weakening of the currency, deteriorating of quality of human life and social programs such as health and educational services. In its place, a sophisticated administrative incompetence of state and non-state institutions and the breakdown of law and order is holding a grip on the horizon and so is institutionalised corruption, plunder and other forms of thuggery – from State House to the bottom ladder of the civil service have characterised the PF administration. It is common knowledge that the populist “don’t kubeba” administration of Michael Sata was heavily loaded up with the president’s family members and friends both in public service at home and foreign mission.
That said, the PF administration has triggered both a security and national crisis that has rendered the once vibrant nation, a failed state under its watch.

Chali N. Nondo
Toronto, Canada

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