It’s been six months since I set off on a perilous quest to find the Holy Grail. A grail in this milieu is a nimble personality much sought after to succeed King Cobra in 2021. This is in accordance with the Constitution of Zambia article 35, clause 2, which states that “no person who has twice been elected as President shall be eligible for re-election to that office.”
To search for such a successor in the savannah one has to be presumptuously daring—audaciously bold—an Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the proverbial tropical forest is filled with treacherous lions, cowardly hyenas and venomous snakes. One has to be careful where he or she plods.
In my hunt I urged Zambians to make King Cobra the last of the septuagenarians (70 to 79) to rule our country, rightly so. I challenged qualified progressive quadragenarians (40 to 50) and quinquagenarians (50 to 60) like HH, Mulupi, Tilyenji, Chipimo, Nawakwi, and Mutesa, and other visionaries to succeed the incumbent in 2016 or 2021.
I appealed to the Zambian youth not to be afraid but to respect our leader. I urged them to start now to prepare for a futuristic Zambia in which archaic tenets are discarded and ultra-modern ones embraced. I stressed that it is the youth’s turn to create a Zambia in which politicians are democratically elected based upon their scholastic and professional skills. I did so because the world is changing. We can smell it in the air. Much that once was, is gone. Today, the world has undergone a metamorphosis and technology is in control of all decisions.
Armed with only a pen, I plunged by implication into the dangerous savannah in search of a successor and vicariously came face-to-face with the cobra. Arguably the canniest and most unpredictable of all leaders in modern Africa, King Cobra is like the real cobra. He catches people unaware, and dresses them down indiscriminately; ask our distinguished Sebastian Zulu. Whether you are a lawyer, doctor, or a leader of another country, King Cobra will pounce on you, ask Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Confronting King Cobra in the savannah, I looked him in the eye and understood why he is king, and dreaded he could wear the crown for kingdom come. He is ambitious, ambiguous, caustic, disintegrative, bellicose, yet alluring, just like the Venus Flytrap.
I apply ambiguity because I (we) do not know him—where he grew up, friends he grew up with, the schools he attended, how he performed, and the level which he attained. I know for instance that KK attended Munali Training Center between 1941 and 1943; FTJ went to Kawambwa Secondary School where he was expelled in Form 2 (Grade 9); Levy Mwanawasa obtained his law degree from the University of Zambia; and RB earned a degree in Economics from Lund University in Sweden.
What is King Cobra’s level of education? Where was he between 1963 and 1985? How did he find himself sweeping the rail platforms of London and working as a porter at Victoria railway station? How did he get to England in the first place? When did he join UNIP and what was his first role? Is he so free of scandal he cannot be exposed the way he exposes others? Does he have skeletons in his closet? These are fair questions to ask our king. They are part of a biography of a man who has made history.
How then does such an ambiguous man capture the hearts of countless Zambians? The answer is simple; he understands who we are as a people and knows how to tease out faculties. He has mastered our mentality, naiveté and gullibility. He knows we are a compliant people, ever so submissive and amenable. When we are ecstatic or aflame emotion gets the better of us, we can’t see the edge of the cliff. He has known so since he was a police officer in the days of Sir Roy Welensky.
It is not clear when, but in the 1950s and before 1963, King Cobra joined the Northern Rhodesia police force under Colonel John Patrick Forde who served as Police Commissioner between 1951 and 1962. During this period Zambians, incited by nationalists Kaunda and Nkumbula, came into conflict with the white settlers. With only a handful of white police officers, Fforde recruited 1,720 Zambians, among them our very own King Cobra. The number of officers was increased following a series of strikes by the African Mine Workers Union headed by Lawrence Katilungu.
King Cobra was employed to protect and secure the settlers of Northern Rhodesia and their property and to uphold and enforce the law. He was trained to investigate crime, combat and prevent anything that may threaten their safety and security.
Here is an interesting aspect; Zambian officers of the time operated beyond the conventional police functions of upholding order and solving crime. They received training in the quelling of social and political unrest. Some of them in the “mobile unit” became known for their callousness and penchant for brutality. Fforde used them as counter-insurgents. They received lessons on mob mentality. They reported, intimidated, and exposed critics of the minority white government.
Once a cop, always a cop, so the cliché goes. King Cobra left the force in 1963 and took the cop mentality to his new passion, politics. Up until 1985, he was a little known UNIP apparatchik. The nation never heard of him in the 1960s and 1970s, but he was there, a grass-root organizer simmering in vigilantism and peddling UNIP propaganda.
It was in 1985 that the king emerged from the shadow of Zambian politics. When KK appointed him governor of Lusaka he applied what he had learned as a cop—to engage, control, influence, intimidate, and threaten the aspirations of a person so as to produce a desired result.
At LUDC he came face-to-face with ineptitude. Workers reported for work late and left early; the roads were swept only when KK used them; and countless council workers spent the day sleeping under the Jacaranda tree.
It was at LUDC that his cop mentality kicked in and his presidential aspirations kicked off. Faced with a weakening KK, he took over the city, picked up his old police baton and clobbered the idle, tear-gassed the intelligentsia, side-lined KK, and declared himself “president” of Lusaka right before our own eyes.
We, the meek dropped our jaws when he taunted and threatened to dress down the indomitable KK. To our amazement the old man baulked and we hailed the cobra. It was from here that King Cobra became impregnable. He erected a barbed fence around him and placed a sign “Basopo lo Inja,” (Beware of Dogs) at his gate. He became fiery, more rowdy, insolent, brazen, and threatening, and perhaps the most capricious in the history of Zambian politics. We nick-named him King Cobra and he embraced the moniker.
Remember back as a cop how he had taken lessons in mob mentality. When he chose to become MP for Kabwata, he put that to good use. Bear in mind also that his acquaintances were not the high profile politicians. We never saw him with Elijah Mudenda, Rueben Kamanga, John Mwanakatwe, and Wesley Nyirenda, not even with Rupiah Banda or Vernon Mwaanga. His buddies were cadres and TV personality Charles Mando. He needed both.
First and foremost, he needed cadres more than the first-echelon leaders. He knew cadres were kingmakers. Party cadres are professional revolutionaries who are a vital link between the leader and the masses. King Cobra understood their emotional desire. He had known them since he was a cop. In Northern Rhodesia they were called “Ba mposa mabwe” (stone throwers). He had arrested quite a few and marveled at their tenacity to remove Welensky. Importantly, he saw them as zealots determined to die for their motherland at any cost.
In Kabwata he knew the cadres by name. He knew they were a discontent lot grappling with KK’s high mealie-meal prices and enduring long queues. He knew they were yearning for a populist; someone who spoke their language; someone with a simple message—“money in your pockets.” In King Cobra they found a man who represented their wishes and needs. They adopted him and he used them as his presidio.
As for Charles Mando, the cobra used “Sunday Interview” program, the most watched of the time, to scare away the so-called smart politicians and to consolidate his indispensability.
When his Kabwata uncharismatic opponent flared his body like a porcupine, the grouchy and foxy King Cobra labeled him a “struggling businessman.” To prove it, he gave his cadres money to buy all the goods in his opponent’s shop, then invited the press to film the empty shelves.
By 2001, King Cobra had fully grasped the Zambian mentality. He knew that out of desperation we had given the presidency to FTJ on a silver platter. He had seen how the Young Turks (Zambia’s intelligentsia) lost their heads and rallied behind a wooly-learned FTJ, just to rid of KK.
We didn’t care whether FTJ was born in Zambia or not, or whether he was Fred Titus Mpundu Kafupi or Frederick Titus Jacob Chiluba. We didn’t bother to dig into his background. It did not matter. With this attitude King Cobra’s presidential aspiration was etched in stone.
When FTJ tried to hoodwink us into a third term, King Cobra calculated his benefits and saw himself as heir. He began to behave like one until FTJ threw sand in his eyes and the cobra retaliated with a pint of venom. With FTJ out of the way, King Cobra mobilized his foot soldiers and for ten years they marched on.
The cobra is now king of the land, coroneted in the same manner as FTJ, by blind-folded emotionally charged combatants. They did not care whether he went to school or not; or swept the London train platforms. They just wanted RB out.
King Cobra deserves credit though. For years he worked himself to exhaustion, in good and bad health. He persevered until he triumphed. That’s what cobras do. They are not like some of the fake opposition leaders who are totally amphibian—who when the elections are over they dive to the bottom of the river, afraid to face the heat, and then start croaking a few months before another election.
As king, the cobra is determined to defend his kingdom for eternity. The writing is on the wall. Unlike his predecessors – FTJ, LM, and RB who did not drop a sweat, King Cobra, for ten years fought bloody verbal battles with his opponents, coming close to blows with some. Guerillas like him never relinquish power. Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni are a good example.
Signs that King Cobra was building a kingdom began barely twelve hours into his presidency when he crippled the notorious and unapologetic Fred Mmembe and rendered his tabloid redundant. Intending to keep Mmembe under anesthesia, the state quashed his contempt case in a clear abuse of the legal process. As I write, the cobra has coiled Mmembe in a Kumbayah grip, applying a squeeze ever so slight each day.
King Cobra is now on his way to creating a one party state. He has gone after the MMD full throttle. For the time he was MMD National Secretary he forgot or ignored to remind his subordinates to comply with the Societies Act. In a “wag the dog” fashion he has managed to shift the blame entirely on the current disjointed and dispirited MMD. Things are happening so fast, our gullibility will yet again leave us awed. We should not allow this to happen, not we the champions of democracy.
To all political cadres and Kaponyas in our country, who in the past have helped to usher in two presidents, I say you are true heroes. You have done your work. Now look in the eyes of your children and look back at the suffering you have endured under false promises. You should not allow your children to experience the same. Please give them a chance to take you out of poverty. You may not get there, but they will be glad you gave them an opportunity to make Zambia a force to reckon with. You, the Kaponyas would have put real money in the pockets of your children in ninety days.
This article must not raise condemnation and threats. I have written it on behalf of all Zambians who dwell in a democratic nation in which all citizens have an equal opportunity to express their opinion. There are many who may disagree with me, but there are many more who agree. They agree that politics of 2021 must be spearheaded by the youth. Our next president must take the entire country into the world of innovation and invention and King Cobra must pave the way.
Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and an adjunct professor (lecturer). © Ruwe2012