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ZAMBIA: Let our Chiefs Govern

Lewis Mwanangombe

LUSAKA, Dec 21 2009 (IPS) - The Litunga of Barotseland, King of the Lozi, has no judicial or legislative authority. No supervisory control over government projects, and worst of all he cannot stand for elected office. Yet successive Zambian presidents have deferred to him.

Paramount Chief Mwata Kazembe of the Lunda people being presented to the people. Credit: Lewis Mwanangombe/IPS

Paramount Chief Mwata Kazembe of the Lunda people being presented to the people. Credit: Lewis Mwanangombe/IPS

The Litunga, Imwiko Lubosi, showed his influence when the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) recently tried to drag him into its internal squabbles, and he reacted by demanding a public apology from the party.

The result was that two days later, on Nov 28, President Rupiah Banda flew to Barotseland (Western Province) for a meeting with the Litunga to resolve the issue.

The Litunga, and 200 or so other tribal chiefs in Zambia, are prevented by the republican constitution from standing for elected office, mostly because the government fears their influence in elections. But it defends its position by insisting that this law protects the chiefs’ integrity, and a sense of fairness among all subjects.

The chiefs and their supporters, who include the 1,229 who made submissions to the Constitution Review Commission that drafted the new Zambia constitution, now under debate at the National Constitutional Conference, reject the government position.

They demand that traditional rulers should be allowed to govern and engage in active politics by contesting council, parliamentary and presidential elections.

“Look at it this way, if our chiefs were engaged in the administration of their districts, even the civil servants would fear to plunder money meant for development,” opined David Kayama, of Mongu in Barotseland (Western Province).

Indeed many Zambians believe politicians have ‘an irrational fear of the chiefs’ and that is why they cannot allow them to exercise their constitutional rights as citizens.

“Government should let our chiefs rule. It seems politicians only want to see them in times of elections, but not when development is being considered,” said Diana Musonda in Lusaka. She claims to be of the Royal House of Chitimukulu, the Bemba King in Northern Province.

To placate these critics of government, in 2003 the late President Levy Mwanawasa revived the House of Chiefs, bequeathed to Zambia by British colonialists, but he clipped its functions and limited the chiefs only to be an advisory body to government ‘on traditional, customary and any other matters referred to it by the president’.

Before Mwanawasa became president his predecessor, former President Frederick Chiluba, had introduced a law specifically targeting Chief Inyambo Yeta, of the Lozi people in Sesheke district of Zambia, whose popularity and influence was so immense that he looked likely to take over as president of the country in any fairly contested election.

At the time Chief Inyambo was president of the United National Independence Party, and he enjoyed massive support from the Barotse Royal Establishment, the traditional government of Barotseland.

It was to counter Inyambo’s influence that in 1996 Chiluba piloted a law that forbade chiefs from contesting elections or openly supporting any political candidate.

“A person shall not, while remaining a chief, join or participate in partisan politics,” reads Article 129 of the Constitution of Zambia, as amended by Chiluba.

Earlier when Kenneth Kaunda was president, he altered the constitution out of fear of the influences of the four most powerful kingdoms in his country (the Lozi in Barotseland, the Ngoni in Eastern Province, the Bemba in Northern Province and the Lunda in Luapula Province). He gave himself authority and total control over land and natural resources to the exclusion of local chiefs.

Today corrupt officials in Lusaka are abusing this position, as they award huge tracts of land to so-called investors, who do not care for villagers and remorselessly uproot them. Where they set up mines and companies, few benefits go to the locals.

But in this regard the Litunga is not without blame. Between 1890 and 1909 the Litunga (King Lewanika) granted mining concessions to the British South Africa Company over land on which today’s Copperbelt lies according to the book Zambia’s Mining Industry, The first 50 Years, published by Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines in 1978, and also according to the book History of the Barotse (Lozi) Kingdom.

Few benefited, and today Barotseland is listed by the Zambian government as the poorest region in the country.

Indeed Zambian chiefs, like those elsewhere in Africa, have fallen on very hard times. The departure of colonial Britain from Africa has not brought relief. To the contrary it has brought them undeclared conflict with politicians, who fear giving away their power to these traditional leaders.

Areas of conflict have been many, and in Barotseland the latest tiff was sparked by an MMD wrangle over whether or not Banda, as acting party leader, should be installed as de facto leader without a convention.

MMD leaders in Barotseland had rejected the proposal of installing Banda, but their national leaders in Lusaka wanted him to go through unchallenged, and the national leaders quickly claimed that the rebels were drawing support from the Litunga.

The denial was swift and crisp. “At no time has His Majesty, the Litunga or the Acting Ngambela (who is the traditional mouthpiece of His Majesty) stated or caused to state a position that could have justified the disrespectful utterances that are said to come from the MMD caucus meeting,” declared Litia Walubita, acting Ngambela of Barotseland (Western Province).

This tiff was seen by many to be illustrative of the fragile relations that exist in Africa between kingdoms and central governments.

In Uganda, for example, the mistrust left by the first Uganda Republican President Milton Obote, over the powerful Baganda kingdom of the Kabaka or king continues to exist, even with Yoweri Museveni as president.

Similar friction has been seen in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

Few in South Africa have forgotten how the Zulu kingdom, under the influence of then Bantustan Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, fiercely resisted the dominance of the African National Congress right up to the end of the struggle for majority rule.

That the African chiefs and kings hold heavy sway over their subjects is never in doubt. It is for this reason that in Zambia aspiring president Michael Sata, of the Patriotic Front, is courting traditional rulers of all tribes as he mobilises support for his bid.

He is not alone in this quest. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has not hidden his ambition of becoming first president of a United Africa, has been lavishing food, drink and money on the continent’s chiefs and kings in the hope that they will support him.

But those in southern Africa, meeting as a kothla (house of chiefs) have rebuffed him, insisting through the acting chair, Chief Kutama, that they will not support Gaddafi’s scheme as it will reduce them to the role of puppets.

The chiefs’ claim to political freedom has won support from many in Zambia, and the result is that in the new draft constitution now under debate, Article 263 has been inserted allowing a chief to ‘seek and hold a public office, or participate in national political activities by standing for any elective public office’.

Also inserted is article 265 that allows chiefs ‘to initiate, discuss and make recommendations regarding the local community’s welfare’, meaning chiefs will now participate in development processes.

To the Litunga this is welcome news. He hopes he will win back some of the rights he previously enjoyed. Rights that included legislation of laws, adjudication of cases and most important of all the right to contest an election for high office, such as member of parliament or state president if he should choose to do so.

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