There is not a lot to admire about the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh with his numerous titles but it is his latest addition that makes one sit up. The title is Babili Mansa or bridge builder. Of course it is not about adopting it but rather internalising what the title is all about.
For a country like Zambia with a much changed political landscape from 2011 when the Patriotic Front (PF) took over and tribal talk took centre stage between the predominant ethnic group behind the ruling party—the Bemba—and that of opposition United Party for National Development (UPND)—the Tonga, the country would definitely need a leader who would build bridges not only between the two groups but among all 73 recognised ethnic groups.
What surprised most Zambians recently was President Edgar Lungu coming up with a statement threatening to deal with some Tonga people who allegedly met at the recent Lwiindi Ceremony and discussed the possible secession of Southern Province from the rest of Zambia. If such a meeting was held, it was probably a very private and secretive meeting but the President being the President, he probably received an intelligence report about it.
Discussing secession and certainly acting it out is treasonable in many jurisdictions and Zambia is no exception. But assuming this topic came up among Tonga—mostly traditional—leaders, it is obviously in the wake of what the PFSecretary General Davis Chama said about the ethnic group with its polygamous practices taking 100 years of procreation for them to have sufficient numbers to produce a President.
Secession or the attempt of it is borne out of many factors and some of them being alienation, political and economic marginalisation, harassment and mockery of minority ethnic groups by the majority or bigger ethnic and politically influential groups.
Threatening advocates of secession, arresting them or even killing them through some form of civil war just gives birth to “freedom fighters” who gain more sympathy from compatriots. The history of the world is replete with secessions and secession causes. In Africa, the latest country to win its secession cause is South Sudan which has just celebrated its fourth independence anniversary and there are other failed causes such as Biafra in Nigeria in which up to a million Nigerians in the south eastern part of the country lost their lives.
Dr John Garang
When leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), the late Dr John Garang De Mabior, launched a diplomatic offensive to meet a number of African leaders way back in the late 1980s when Sudan was under the leadership of strongman, Jafaar Nimiery, nobody thought the ragtag army would go as far as splitting the biggest African country then into half many years later.
Elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopia lost one of its regions, Eritrea, which seceded from the country after a referendum in 1993. Other countries such as Angola have had to deal with issues of secession with the enclave of Cabinda separated from mainland Angola by a sliver of Democratic Republic of Congo land, battling for decades to form a separate country.
In Zambia itself, there is the burning issue of Barotseland in which some activists have been calling for the secession of the region most Zambians call Western Province.
Zambia’s former colonial master, Britain, just saw one of its constituent nations, Scotland, losing a referendum for independence from the United Kingdom.
With divisive statements like Chama’s statement, ethnic groups such as the Tongas would get hurt when they are told that as minority groups, they would never produce a head of state unless they improved their demographic numbers.
Of course people do point to President Frederick Chiluba as being a Chishinga, obviously aligned to the Bemba, Kenneth Kaunda as a Henga—a Tumbuka dialect—but we all know he aligned himself with the Bemba, Levy Mwanawasa as Lenje/Lamba but of course we cannot forget the massive support he received from Chiluba.
Admittedly, on the second day of writing this blog, I saw a statement from President Lungu agreeing with UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema that discussing issues of tribalism—and by extension secession—took away from most important issues affecting Zambia such as the current shortage of electricity, the closure of universities and the economy in general. (As I am finishing up, there is a notice calling Tongas to meet in Monze at the end ofthis month to discuss Chama’s statement).
As I set out to write about the title bridge builder borrowed from President Jammeh, the Zambian leader ought to identify and isolate toxic people surrounding him whose only political relevancy has been to strike a wedge between different ethnic groups in Zambia. Zambia’s politicians enjoying political power today need to be sensitive about how they handle issues of ethnicity. It does not do for lead politicians to hate with a passion certain ethnic groups because they did not vote them.