Tribalism: A Failure of Leadership

By Mabuti Ng’andu
Say what you will and in fact, think what you will about Zambia’s founding father Kenneth David Kaunda, but one thing you could never accuse him of is negligence in managing the tribal sentiment of the country.
His mantra of “One Zambia, One Nation” was the opening line of almost all of his speeches, as well as an epilogue of the same. When he travelled across the country, he made it a point to primarily speak in English, but to also fluently pepper his speech with lines from the local language. While all will likely agree that tribalism still existed in the Kaunda era, one cannot deny that it did not daily confront the national psyche, which brings us into our current situation.
Granted, I am a distant observer 20+ years removed from the local Zambian scene, save for the occasional visits that many of us in the Diaspora make. That disclaimer being acknowledged, my reading of newspapers both national and private, as well as generally following Zambian bloggers whether it be on Facebook, or on the numerous email subscription lists such as the one to which I send this opinion seems to suggest that the nation has now become consumed with the issue of “tribe”.
Politicians appear more preoccupied with tribal affiliations, accusations and counter-accusations while real issues affecting the development of the country take the back-seat. Most significantly, and disappointingly so, regular Zambians also seem to be going along with this imprudence, siding with one group or the other, or feeling the need to express neutrality in language that often suggests the exact opposite.
But what prompted me to put my thoughts in writing is the latest in this travesty of tribal outbursts – the purported letter from alleged Tonga’s with a stated “oath” to kill all Bemba’s in the southern Province. I have no intent to address the authenticity of such a claim as I have no facts on which to base it, but what I will state is that this issue resembles too closely the early communications that eventually simmered into what we now call the “100 days of killing” – the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Zambia is a peaceful country, and always has been. But we should never take that peace for-granted, nor should we ever be so fool-hardy as to assume that it will always be a quality of ours. Kenneth Kaunda understood this fact, hence his almost maniacal devotion to the phrase “One Zambia, One Nation”. But what some viewed maniacal, antiquated and maybe even self-aggrandizing (to the point of even eliminating that language after the multi-party victory of 1991) now seems proactively responsible. For that, Kaunda must be commended.
Elimination of those slogans was probably the first step towards the negative tribal psyche we now find ourselves embroiled in today. This is frankly a failure of leadership. Kaunda led Zambians to think in terms of “oneness”, the Zulu concept of “Ubuntu”. Leaders since him have done very little in this regard, and I must fault Michael Sata most in what is threatening to become an explosive environment.
Regardless which side you find yourself, it is clear that Bemba’s are feeling empowered but isolated, while Tonga’s and Lozi’s are feeling marginalized – with the latter to the point that they are threatening succession. Easterners are feeling targeted, primarily because of accusations against Rupiah Banda, but also because of the unfortunate behavior of one William Banda, while the rest of Zambia’s tribes look on, befuddled by the self-occupation of the country’s largest tribal groups.
Regardless of the causes of these sentiments, the solution – if one must be found at all – requires leaders to do what they are elected to do: lead! To quote the president of Energy Design Pat Heydlauff, “It takes a leader with vision and the creative know-how to turn things around and have everyone in the [country] think as one instead of as a number of [tribes]. Leaders must realize they cannot use 19th-century leadership tools in the 21st century, especially those that are narrow and top down instead of inclusive.”
Sata can start by setting an example – stamping out any form of tribal sentiment within his leadership team. Failure to do so will not only confirm his support of tribalism, it will inadvertently encourage its practice. The most unfortunate outcome of that will be the undeniable reality that tribalism breeds more tribalism. This also means that he will have to reach out to those who he may feel did not support him in his quest for the presidency. He does not have to work with recognized opposition leaders, but he can certainly find competent members from all of Zambia’s tribes with whom he can solicit advice, and even appoint leadership roles. Building advocacy will go a long way in helping non-Bemba’s perception of him.
Sata can also start a national campaign to reverse the tribalism trend. The good news here is that he does not have a start from scratch. Kaunda laid a great foundation for this through his “One Zambia, One Nation” slogan. Sata and his cabinet need only to brand this slogan and milk it for all they can.
As part of that however, Sata also needs to be conscious of the fact that people will and do read into how he presents himself. The culture of making official speeches in one language has to stop, if he expects all Zambians to fully embrace him as their president. This means he has to care how others feel. He has to care how others perceive him. This may be a challenge for one who from all appearances embraces his reputation as an individual who speaks his mind in uncensored fashion, but he will need to count the cost of this reputation. Is it worth a potential genocide?
Finally, all of this will be mere window-dressing if Zambia’s leadership does not genuinely develop a sentiment, vision, and guiding principle of inclusiveness. It is easy to blame the opposition for all problems, tribalism included, but the fact still remains that there is only one party in power today, and that ruling party must lead in the fight against tribalism. There is no alternative. I would be giving this same advice to Hichilema and his cabinet, had fortune and election put them in charge. Let the leaders’ actions show their commitment to all Zambians of all tribes. Zambians will be sure to judge the outcome for themselves.
Sata and his cabinet must take a hard look at themselves and decide what their legacy shall be, but before they do, they must take the pulse of the nation. Those of us looking in from outside see a major storm brewing, albeit one that can be averted. There are two things that have torn nations apart. The first is religion. We are probably at little risk of that challenge in Zambia. The second is tribalism. Will Michael Sata rise to overcome this risk, or will he add fuel to the fire instead?
Questions still remain in Rwanda today as to who actually shot down President Habyarimana’s plane, sparking the “100 days of killing”. Was it the Tutsi minority rebels, or was it the Hutu’s themselves in their final instigation to spark the genocide? Regardless of who did it, one million souls were lost before the insanity subsided. Will Zambians someday ask the same question of this “Oath” letter, or some other action yet to come? The answer may very well depend on how Sata and his advisers respond today.
I beg you, your Excellency. Lead.
Mabuti Ng’andu
Los Angeles, California
“Knowing is not enough. We must apply.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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