The HH Presidency:Why the Tonga tribe is on trial

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By Chimwemwe Mwanza

This heading is not only repulsive but emotive enough to upset a segment of politically conscious Zambians – more so in the aftermath of a bitterly contested Presidential election.
Yet nothing compares in its vulgarity to this infamous remark. ‘Zambia will one day have a Tonga President but not this one,’ retorted former President Edgar Lungu to a question on the possibility of a Hakainde Hichilema Presidency.

Notwithstanding the sarcasm with which he delivered this message, Lungu was conscious of its impact on the electorate. It is precisely why he used the Presidency as a bully pulpit to deliver such a crudely stitched innuendo. He knew very well the influence and power of the office that he has since vacated. In retrospect, did President Kenneth Kaunda – Zambia’s founding statesman’s ethnicity ever matter?

Put more succinctly, did it ever bother our electorate or the political commentariat that Kaunda’s successor Frederick Chiluba was Bemba? If not, why then should ethnicity become a prism through which the HH Presidency be viewed? The fact that we are even discussing ethnicity with focus on a specific tribe and 57 years after independence is reflective of the low bar that politicians have set in our social discourse. However, the reality is that fear sells, and this is something that politicians know too well.

In fact, nothing scares the Zambian electorate more than having a tribalist sitting in state house. It is thus fair to state that in the absence of a compelling campaign message, politicians tend to resort to base politics hence the Patriotic Front’s (PF) decision to enlist Chishimba Kambwili as the attack dog to amplify their assault on HH’s persona. This was a well calculated move by the PF to exploit Kambwili, a formidable politician with a solid grassroot following in both Lusaka and the Copperbelt – two swing provinces that were critical to the electoral outcome.

Why Tribalphobia is Zambia’s biggest threat?

With Eastern, Northern, Luapula and Muchinga provinces firmly in the PF corner, he was the chief points man designated to arrest the PF’s waning fortunes in Lusaka and the Copperbelt. Whether he did succeed or fail in his scaremongering mission should not be seen in the context of PF’s loss but the overall impact of his messaging on the larger electorate. In the bigger scheme of this analysis, HH’s victory is inconsequential. While he won the election, it may well be true that HH somewhat lost his standing as a non-tribal leader especially among the PF faithful and independents that voted against his candidature.

Whichever way you look at it, PF with help from the likes of its Deputy Secretary General Mumbi Phiri (she of the bakachema fame), GBM, Canicious Banda and Kambwili among others did succeed to put ethnicity on the ballot alongside unemployment, rampant corruption, rising cost of living and poverty among others. This is evident in the voting pattern as demonstrated in the Eastern, Muchinga, Northern and Luapula provinces.

We can argue all we like and rightly so, but the facts and outcome of the elections tell a different story. Zambia is now dangerously divided into two parts, one shared by the UPND and the other half by the PF. Which brings us to the crux of the discussion.
HH waving to the crowd during his inauguration
HH waving to the crowd during his inauguration

Is HH a tribalist? It is difficult to pierce through this man’s veil but those that were once in his inner sanctum tell conflicting stories regarding his character. In fairness, there is hardly any tangible evidence to prove such. However, it is worth noting though that his ascent to the United Party for National Development (UPND) Presidency was problematic giving rise to a perception that he was enthroned to the UPND Presidency by a cabal that wanted to create a Tonga hegemony. To this day, this perception continues to fester hence the belief that the UPND is a tribal party.

Add to this, the commentariat including sections of the media peddled this notion with maximum potency effectively robbing the electorate a balanced view from which to interrogate his personality. In fact, no Zambian Presidential candidate has ever borne the brunt of a tribal stigma as much as HH. It can be argued that his defeat in previous Presidential polls was in part enabled by a sustained media attack on his persona. In truth, the HH we know has largely been defined by the media and his political detractors.

It now seems amusing that the leader of a party that was called all sorts of names including a derisory reference to being a leader of a Bantustan is today in charge of government. With the PF having collapsed Zambia’s political and moral fibre and Lungu on a slow march to political oblivion, the in-coming leader has the added burden of restoring decency to the country’s political landscape.
To suggest that HH is now carrying the weight of the nation on his shoulders is being charitable; the appropriate description is that the weight of his nation is resting on his entire body. This includes a toxic political environment bequeathed by the outgoing regime

As he prepares to govern, optics will also focus on the ethnic composition of his cabinet and the rest of his government, perhaps unfairly so. But this is the Zambia he has inherited. It is a pity that a tribal balancing act will rob him the luxury of picking his best team. Blame this on the toxic politics perpetuated by the likes of Kambwili and his handlers – precisely why uniting Zambia and helping it rid of tribal politics should rank as one of his top priorities.

The author is an avid scholar of political history and philosophy. Raised in the multi-cultural city of Livingstone, he often ate ndongo and mapopwe with his peers drawn from diverse ethnic backgrounds. He also knows a thing or two about mashendo yamu Livingstone. Mwanza remains a lifelong fan of both magnificent Kabwe Warriors and Liverpool. For feedback, contact [email protected]

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