From the archives: Barotseland Betrayed?

By Jowie Mwinga (late) 1993 writing for BBC Focus on Africa

The British Protectorate of Barotseland joined Zambia nearly 30 years ago. Now, with President Chiluba fighting accusations of tribalism, the Barotse want their freedom back. Jowie Mwiinga in Lusaka reports.

‘ONE ZAMBIA – ONE NATION!’ The rallying cry of enthusiastic nationalists of the Kenneth Kaunda era is not heard too often these days.

What one hears instead are growing ethnic rumblings and isolated but persistent calls for secession. Since Zambia changed governments in November 1991, the homogeneity of her politics has given way to incessant tribal bickering and increasingly divisive tensions.

The growing ethnic problems are partly a result of the political naivety of the new president Frederick Chiluba. Whereas Kaunda kept such tensions in check through a system of none too subtle but nevertheless effective tribal appeasement, Chiluba has unwittingly ruffled tribal sensibilities to the point where confrontation has become inevitable. Either by accident or design, for example, he appointed a government dominated by his fellow Bemba-speakers.

In no tribal grouping is the simmering discontent more evident than amongst the Lozi of Western Zambia. The Lozi certainly have grounds for discontent, for if any tribal grouping was ever short-changed in Zambia’s 29 year history, it is them. And while Chiluba may have inherited their problem, his clumsy handling of their grievances may have made it worse.

The Lozi are a relatively new people to Zambia. Until independence, they lived apart in Barotseland, a British protectorate neighbouring the then Northern Rhodesia. At independence, the two territories merged with the signing of an agreement between the Zambian government, London and the Barotse royal establishment.

Barotseland agreement, while merging the two former colonies, kept local government authority with the Litunga, the Lozi paramount chief, guaranteeing him control over the land and natural resources of his empire. It also allowed him to retain a traditional judicial system, an independent treasury, and powers of taxation over his people.

The arrangement worked well in the immediate post-independence period, according to members of the Barotse royal family- until Kaunda, through a series of subtle constitutional amendments, began to erode the Litunga’s powers. By the time he was through, the Litunga’s role had been reduced to the merely symbolic.

A proud and culturally exclusive people, the Lozi ganged up in a lobby to challenge the government’s actions. Charging that the Barotseland agreement had been abrogated, they demanded the restoration of the Litunga’s powers-and the return of an estimated 78.5 million pounds sterling that had inexplicably disappeared from the Barotse treasury. However, they might as well have been chasing their figurative tails around the baobab tree.

Shrewd politician that Kaunda was, he pulled the carpet from right under their feet by appointing the Litunga to his prestigious central committee, thus silencing dissent.

Then he appointed Malimba Masheke, a Lozi, as Prime Minister. Appeased, Barotseland rested its case. But not for long.

Enter Frederick Chiluba, with his disdain for tribal balancing. Only days after he assumed the presidency, he outraged even some of his own supporters with his predominantly Bemba speaking government.

For the Lozi, however, the last straw probably came with the departure last year of Arthur Wina and Akashambatwa-Mbikusita Lewanika, two of the more revered Lozi politicians from the cabinet. Lewanika, incidentally, is a nephew to Mwanawina Lewanika, the Litunga that actually signed the Barotseland agreement.

Recently, the Lozi demands for the restoration of the agreement assumed a new pace. President Chiluba and his deputy, Levy Mwanawasa, have met Indunas from the royal establishment to discuss the issue. But little, if anything, has been resolved.

The Barotse National Council is presently trying to bring the government to the Internationl Court of Justice over its refusal to restore the agreement. Meanwhile, segments of Barotseland are calling for secession.

“I believe the perception of President Chiluba as a tribalist may have fuelled the calls for secession,” Richard Ngenda, advocate for the Barotse National Council, says.

Earlier this year, President Chiluba went on national television with a warning to secessionists: “Any person who prepares for or advocates secession commits a capital offence and the consequences are grave.”

[“Chiluba has failed as a national leader. That is what is causing ethnic problems.”]

That aside from the bluster, Chiluba seems unable to provide an answer to the sensitive Barotse question.

“The real problem with Chiluba,” a member of Barotseland’s royal family says, “is that he has failed to signal to the people that he is a national leader. That is what is causing the ethnic problems, not only in Barotseland, but in the country as a whole.”  #

Jowie Mwiinga reports for Focus on Africa from Lusaka

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