Who’s a Tribalist? Why We Need An Honest Debate On Tribalism

Dear Editor,

In “The night without a President,” veteran politician Sikota Wina’s shows how tribalism almost destroyed the new independent nation of Zambia in the late 1960s; forcing President Kaunda to resign for a night.

If Kaunda and his friends thought that they had resolved the issue of tribalism then, they were wrong. Today, churches and political parties are still divided on tribal lines as they did then, if worse. It is sad that even after 48 years of independence tribal identification has become the highest qualification to holding office in our beloved nation and in some cases in the Church. It is sad that at the time when our nation is suffering from the cancer of tribalism, political and religious leaders are doing little to confront it aggressively!

If there is something that “The night without a President” reveals, it is that tribal suspicion has a history in our political discourse.

Just as some Tongas and Lozis vowed not to support a Bemba then, the situation has not changed that much. They are some Bembas out there who are ready to vote for a frog than give their vote to HH; reason, teti nvotele umutonga! The same can be said about the Lozi and other tribes in Zambia. Tribalism is a dominant force in Zambian political discourse.

Generally, tribal loyalty and not ideologies or policies determined one’s political affiliation. Even when the party has failed to execute its manifesto as was the case with the MMD, people from the leader’s tribe are likely to vote for that party out of terror of being governed by another ethnic group.

Yet the only benefit such tribes receive from their tribes persons is occasional beers, fitenges and salt during the campaign season. Despite UNIP, MMD and now PF being associated with the Bemba, for example, Northern, Muchinga, Central and Luapula provinces remain among the least developed regions in the nation.

Here, it is important to recapture the fact that Africans understand themselves as a community. Rather than following René Descartes in saying cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), Africans would say “I am because I am interconnected to my family, community and tribe.” For Africans, defending one’s tribe is a moral issue. When the MMD and now PF government ignore the plight of the Lozi, even those in the diaspora feel disrespected. Likewise, when Sata demeans HH, the entire Tonga community feels disparaged. HH should also understand that when he degrades Sata, it feeds into the stereotype that Tongas’ are against Bembas.

Such stereotypes may energize one’s tribal base but will not win one a national election in which all tribes participate. Most people believed that the advent of education will make us more conscious of our individual needs as opposed to ethnic ones.

The late president Frederick Chiluba, for example, asserted that many people viewed themselves as individuals and not simply as members of some ethnic group. While such an argument has some truth, tribalism should not be underrated in Zambian politics. No one can deny the fact The United Party for National Development is by default a Tonga party and Patriotic Front is a Bemba political party. The MMD may appear national but in reality, it is still perceived as another Bemba party.

With Nevers Mumba now on the helm of MMD, it is not likely that Tongas or Lozis will give him their vote. If HH or Chipimo need to win the 2016 elections, they have to unite all Zambians. I hate to this.

Tribalism works to the advantage of the ruling party, hence under the current scenario; Sata’s PF is likely to retain power in 2016 even by a very small margin. Perhaps it is here that opposition leaders should change their strategy if they want to rule Zambia. Like Barack Obama did in 2008 when he addressed racism in American politics, politicians should address tribalism as a major threat to Zambian democracy.
They must give a better vision for a united Zambia where tribal differences are celebrated as the very knots that unite our nation. But to pretend it does not exist or to accuse PF or UPND of being tribal while benefiting from it during elections is self-deception and entombing our nation’s future.

Friends, Zambians are nonviolent but to think that the country is immune from tribal related violence is a delusional. Our leaders should know that tribalism can win one the presidency but it cannot ensure the security or the development of our nation.

Demonizing each other will only do one thing; allow politicians to make money on our backs while we are busy fighting each other. It is time we realized that no one tribe makes Zambia. Like our soccer National Team, we can make Zambia great if we work as team.

We need all tribes to win the war on corruption, poverty, ignorance and ultimately tribalism. Alas, poverty knows no tribal boundaries or identifications. For a common man, being Bemba, Lozi, or Tonga does not put food on the table. Let us put aside tribalism, and fight our common enemy responsible for our perpetual agony – politicians who continue to amass wealth at our expense.

Today, we have a choice: to allow politicians to divide us while they make millions, or unite and fight for our equal share as Zambians. Kaunda taught us to shout, “One Zambia, One Nation,” but it is encumbered on us all to turn those words into a lived reality. Next time when we sing our national anthem, let us put away tribalism and become “all one, strong and free!”

Rev. Canon Dr. Kapya John Kaoma 1 Desmond Avenue Watertown, MA 02472