Eroding the Unity Legacy: Ethno-regional Rhetoric in Zambia’s 2021 Elections

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Zambia has a reputation for political stability and unity rooted in the efforts of – sadly recently departed – founding father Kenneth Kaunda to maintain a degree of ethno-regional balance in key political appointments after independence. But this proud reputation is under threat from the growing use of divisive ethno-regional rhetoric in election campaigns over the last decade.

More overt ethnic politicking – and in some cases outright ethnic chauvinism – threatens to both undermine democratic practice and exacerbate distrust between different communities.  

Drawing on specific examples of highly ethnicised narratives used by some political actors during the 2021 electoral process, I argue that in the context of a particularly close election political leaders are playing on ethnic stereotypes in order to mobilise supporters – and attempt to distract voters from their own shortcomings. In some areas, this risks exacerbating perceptions of ethno-regional discrimination, which will only add to the controversy surrounding elections that are already set to be extremely tight and controversial. 

Legacies of invitations to desist from ethno-regional rhetoric and politics

Playing ethnic politics has widely and historically been condemned, even by some of the leaders that have done it. Although “tribalism” is often said to be a common feature of politics in Africa, being accused of being a “tribalist” is almost always an insult, depicting someone who fails to take into account the national interest and so is a danger to the public good.

Efforts to build coherent national identities were particularly pronounced towards the end of colonial rule in the nationalist movements that secured independence. Kwame Nkrumah reminded Ghanaians that in the highest reaches of national life, there should be no reference to ethnic division, and instead the focus should be on a common national identity. Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire sought to include a diverse range of ethnic groups in appointments to ministerial positions, civil services, and developmental projects across the diverse ethnic groups with a view to foster unity.

While Julius Nyerere in Tanzania built a national identity around a common language – Swahili – and cultural symbols, Kenneth Kaunda utilised the slogan ‘One Zambia One Nation’ and emphasised his own personal political philosophy of humanism. 

Where such nation-building approaches were pursued, national unity has tended to be stronger. But the legacies of inclusive politics do not last long when leaders set about actively dismantling them by playing divide-and-rule politics, as is tragically demonstrated by the case of Côte d’Ivoire. It is therefore critically important that political leaders refrain from aggressive and discriminatory language. Elections, however, often provide political leaders with strong incentives to play on communal identities in order to mobilise support.

Ethnic politics in Zambia and beyond

As many scholars have noted, ethnicity, especially during electoral periods, is often used as a tool of political entrepreneurship to pursue the ambitions of aspiring leaders. Lacking strong formal structures and vast resources, a common ethnic identity is one of the most viable ways for many candidates to connect to potential supporters.

As a result, political actors will often argue that only they can be relied upon to look after the interests of a particular community. The inherent implication of this argument – which is often also explicitly stated – is that leaders from other communities cannot be relied upon, and should be distrusted.

Ethnic politics is complicated in the Zambian context by the fact that the country has overlapping ethnic, linguistic and regional identities. However, a number of researchers including Daniel Posner have emphasised the potential for the four main linguistic identities – Tonga, Bemba, Lozi and Nyanja – to structure political competition in presidential elections. One thing that has prevented this reality from escalating into the kind of ethnic tensions and conflict seen in other countries is that leaders have typically refrained from attacking their rivals – and their communities – in explicitly ethnic terms.

But this has started to change, and the 2021 general elections should serve as a warning to Zambians of all communities that things have gone too far.

The 2021 general elections

The 2021 presidential election is a particularly close and bitterly fought race between President Edgar Lungu and the Patriotic Front (PF) government and Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party of National Development (UPND) opposition. As tensions have risen, so has the use of discriminatory and demeaning language – in particular by pro-government leaders seeking to check Hichilema’s growing popularity.

On 30 June 2021, for example, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) suspended Chishimba Kambwili, one of the influential political actors in Zambia, from participating in campaign activities. Kambwili had left the ruling party to join the opposition, only to recently return to the PF fold. Among other reasons given was hate speech against Hichilema’s community, and one of the main bases of support for the UPND, the Tonga community largely based in Southern Province. In a video widely shared online, he is heard saying the following:

            –––––in Chibemba–––––

Pano mumbwene ine nalile, nafumine mu PF nati nje mbombe nabafya red – Mwebamunyinane ndemusoka, ‘akanani kantu kali pabwali’. Ababamunyinane tebantu, tebatuntulu nangu mulebamona belechita ifi. Ndemwebafye apabuta tutu, mukachula ukuchila nefyo mulechula pali-inonshita – Aba bantu tabaimina nangu chimo, baimafye ngomutundu, nefyobalefwaya fyamutundu wabo – Ngamwaya kumwabo bena takwaba nangu umo, teti uyeko wewakuno waya wina ama election – nangu ba Lungu bene, nangu ba Mwanawasa nangu ba Sata, tapaaba uo basalapo. Basalafye umuntu wabo – Ichilepilibula ukuti chilya ichilonganino bachisenda ngo mutundu, chabo, balefwaya ukuwamisha umutundu wabo [see].

            –––––English translation–––––

As you see me, I left the PF [suggesting Patriotic Front] to work with those in Red [suggesting United Party for National Development – UPND]. [Now I am no longer with them] I am warning you, ‘dirty is what is on the food’ [adage]. Even though you see them doing all that they are doing, they are ‘inhuman’; they are abnormal. You will suffer more than today. These people have no vision for you apart from representing a tribe. When you go to their region you will lose an election. They only vote for their own. Even Lungu, Mwanawasa and Sata could not. That party is taken as a tribe with a purpose to improve their tribe only [author’s translation, emphasis added].   

Chishimba Kambwili is not the only person cited for ethno-regional rhetoric. Bumba Malambo and Sunday Chanda – who has called UPND a poisoned tribal chalice – are among the other political actors to peddle stereotyped “tribal” narratives. This is not completely new, but rather represents a worrying trend.

A study conducted in Zambia in 2020 by the Auschawitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities revealed that recent elections (2015 and 2016) witnessed the strategic manipulation of ethnicity by politicians. More worryingly, in 2016 alone about 120 incidents of violence had ethnic undertones.

The 2021 election campaigns reveals a continuation of this trend, with evidence of violence, cyber bullying, hate speech and vulgar language. The case of Kambwili is the most striking example of this phenomena, but it is far from unique. If left unaddressed, such rhetoric will erode the unity in diversity that Zambia is known for.

Protecting the nation

The suspension of Kambwili by the ECZ was an important step in signalling that his activities are not acceptable. Yet he was not prosecuted for his comments, and shortly afterwards was allowed back on the campaign trail.

This is a worrying development – as is the fact that many lesser known figures are making similar statements and getting away with it because their remarks are not being as widely circulated as Kambwili’s. Zambians typically reject “tribal” rhetoric and a cross-ethnic support base was a key feature of the political platform that enabled Michael Sata to secure a transfer of power, and hence the presidency, in 2011. But allowing politicians to continually manipulate ethnic identities in the context of severe economic decline and intense political contestation is asking for trouble – and as we know from Côte d’Ivoire and a number of other countries, once inter-communal hostility and distrust has been mobilised into politics it is extremely difficult to remove it.

We must therefore re-learn the lessons taught by our founding father, Kenneth Kaunda, and in particular his belief in unity amidst cultural diversity, before it is too late.

Mwansa Rodgers is a Master’s Degree student in Peace Studies and International Relations at Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR), Nairobi-Kenya.    

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