Elias Munshya, LLB (Hons), MA, Mdiv.
President Michael Chilufya Sata in May 2013 used his powers as President of the Republic of Zambia to withdraw government recognition of one Henry Kanyanta Sosala as Senior Chief Mwamba of the Bemba people. According to President Sata, Sosala did “not fully undergo Bemba rituals for him to ascend to the throne of Senior Chief Mwamba.”[i] Just what made Sata to be the arbiter of Bemba rituals is an open question we attempt to ask in this article.
After some hesitation, Henry Sosala succumbed to presidential pressure and conceded to President Sata’s demands. He resigned from the Mwambaship and apologized to President Sata for the embarrassment he had caused him.[ii] On the other hand, the Bemba traditional elders were quite displeased with what they perceived to be President Sata’s interference with their traditional matters. In a meeting held with President Sata’s emissaries, Chiefs Affairs Minister Nkandu Luo and Defence Minister Godfrey Mwamba, the Council of Bemba elders (Bashi Lubemba) expressed concern at the president’s action and asked that Sata stops to interfere in traditional affairs.
In August 2013, two months later, the same traditional council sat and decided to pick the same de-gazetted Henry Kanyanta Sosala as the next king of the Bemba Commonwealth. This in many ways went against President Sata’s wishes. First, the President had initially degazetted Sosala as Chief Mwamba. Second, Sosala himself had succumbed to presidential pressure and left the throne. Third, it is quite unusual that the Bemba Traditional Council would go ahead to grant supreme control to a chief who had been degazetted by the president.
That this act by the Bashi Lubemba will set of some stand off with President Sata is clear. Some reports suggest that president Sata has personal interest in the Bemba chiefdom that makes him desire to have a close relation of his to ascend to the Bemba chieftainship. In clear defiance of his wishes, the Bashi Lubemba have made perhaps one of the clearest statement to president Sata that they will not succumb to his wishes. As far as they are concerned, they have made the choice of a new paramount chief of the Bemba, and that person will have to be Sosala – the same person, President Sata degazetted.
In this battle, it is our opinion that President Sata should desist from causing any further confusion in the Bemba traditional affairs. It is also our submission that if president Sata decides to act any further against Sosala or against the Bashi Lubemba, it will be a battle he cannot win. And this is so, for several reasons.
Since Sata Is Bisa, What Stake Does He Have in The Bemba Empire?
It is important to set aside some misconceptions concerning the Bemba Empire. There has been some reports that President Sata being Bisa of Mpika cannot and should not have any interest in the Bemba traditional affairs. The truth is that in the present state of affairs, while the Bisa peoples and the Bemba peoples remain distinct, there has been incessant blurring of that distinction. As such, the argument that President Sata does not have tribal or familial interest in the Bemba affairs because he is not Bemba is an accusation not steeped in reality.
In the Bemba and Bisa ruling aristocracy, there is no distinction between a Bisa and a Bemba. We could take one example: the Chibesakunda chiefdom of Chinsali. Even if the Chibesakunda chiefdom is a chiefdom of the Bisa, Chief Chibesakunda herself is supposed to be a Bemba belonging to the Ng’ona clan. Essentially, then the Bisa people of Chinsali have a Bemba lineage ruling over them. However, with intermarriages and in fact, matrilineal system of succession the distinction that should exist between who is Bemba and who is Bisa in the royal household of Chibesakunda and indeed among their subjects has been blurred further.
The auxiliary blurring of these lines happened a few years ago when the Chibesakunda Royal Court appointed Bob Bwembya Luo, a Bemba from the Ng’andu clan to become the Chief Chibesakunda. This brought some protests from a Bisa and former parliamentarian Newton Ng’uni[iii] who in March 2007 wrote that the new Chief Chibesakunda was actually a Bemba from Abena Ng’andu and as such could not ascend to a throne reserved for Abena Ng’ona. President Mwanawasa’s government was swift in gazetting this new Chibesakunda, partly to bring stability to the chiefdom, which had not had a substantial chief for decades.
Using what happened with Chibesakunda as an example, the choice of a chief by a royal council is almost sacrosanct; courts of law do not and should not interfere with choices done by the royal council. This being the case then, those who think that a Bisa has no interest in the Bemba traditional affairs unfairly target President Sata. We must submit however, that President Sata’s interest or interference in Bemba traditional affairs should not go to the extent of meddling with the Bashi Lubemba.
Traditionally, the Bashi Lubemba is the Bemba Royal Council that is custodian of Bemba traditions. It also carries out the sacred duty of choosing of the successor of the Chitimukulu throne. In Bemba traditional management the second most senior throne next to the Chitimukulu is the Mwambaship. After Mwamba comes several other chiefs such as Mpepo and Nkula. It was customary that after the death of Chitimukulu it is the Mwamba that accedes to the throne.
However, it is not automatic that Mwamba becomes Chitimukulu for it is the Bashi Lubemba who appoints a Chitimukulu. A few years ago, the Bashi Lubemba in favour of a chief Mpepo bypassed a chief Mwamba. Chief Mwamba then decided to take the matter to the High Court. At first instance, Justice Anthony Nyangulu declared Mwamba to be the next Chitimukulu and chastised the Bashi Lubemba for not following customary law that made a Mwamba to be the next Chitimukulu. Mpepo appealed against this decision and the Supreme Court reversed Justice Nyangulu’s decision. In that case, the Supreme Court made some very important pronouncements with regard to customary affairs in Zambian traditions.
According to the Supreme Court, even if customary practice mostly favored a Mwamba as the automatic successor to Chitimukulu, the decision of the Bashi Lubemba was final with regard to whether Mwamba would become Chitimukulu. For Justice Silomba,
“the Bashi Lubemba have the final say over who takes over as Chief Chitimukulu and are not restricted to the system of ladder climbing and seniority.”[iv]
Essentially then, the Bashi Lubemba are the custodians and the courts of law should not replace their customary advice and input. Fundamentally, it is the Bashi Lubemba who make Bemba chiefs.
The Bashi Lubemba are important in making the Chitimukulu because they comprise both the rulers of the Chiefdom and the priests of the chiefdoms. The Bemba royal house strikes a balance between the ruling clan (Abena Ng’andu) and the ritual priests (Bakabilo). A Chitimukulu can only succeed in leading the Bembas if indeed she has the blessing of the ritualists. Royal birth does not automatically entitle one to being Chitimukulu; it must be supplemented by the approval of a clan different from the Abena Ng’andu. It is in this vein, that the decision from the Bashi Lubemba should be respected.
Should Sata Be The Bemba Ritual Expert?
President Sata’s original decision to dethrone Sosala as the Chief Mwamba was that Sosala had not followed proper ritual procedure. The problem here is that the President even if as a Bisa does have an interest in the Bemba chiefdoms, does not have expertise to advise the Bemba royalists about what that ritual procedure must be.
President Sata is president of our republic; he is unfortunately not an expert in ritual practices of the Bemba peoples, even if he belongs to the greater Bemba commonwealth. Indeed, if the Bashi Lubemba are wrong in their choice, it is not for President Sata to make that call.
In fact, there is precedence where a white Catholic priest, Bishop Joseph DuPont, acceded to the throne of Mwamba with full approval from the Bemba royal household. As far as tradition is concerned, it is what the Bashi Lubemba decide that should carry the day with regard to matters of succession. If indeed, the Bemba royal household had erred to have Sosala as Chief Mwamba, President Sata could not unilaterally decide to reverse such a resolution.
Leaving the Sosala and Mwamba saga aside, the recent decision of the Bashi Lubemba to recognise this same Sosala as Chief Chitimukulu makes things even more difficult for President Sata. Sosala has several things going well for him. First, he was the substantive Chief Mwamba chosen by the Mwamba royal household, and secondly, he has become the choice of the Bashi Lubemba to be the next Chitimukulu. With these two going for Sosala, President Sata is in a serious quandary as to what he would do next.
The Tests From the Judges
For sure, there is no dispute between any competing pretenders to the Chitimukulu throne. The choice of customary practice, going by Justice Nyangulu’s test favors Sosala and so is the supremacy of the Bashi Lubemba (going by the Supreme Court test).
This being the case, President Sata in combating the Bashi Lubemba will quickly realize that a Cobra cannot quite win if it fights the Crocodiles. Abena Ng’andu with their colleagues the Bakabilo, in the Bashi Lubemba, will shame the Bisa Cobra, again.