The King With a Mouth: Why Nkhosi Mpezeni’s Political Outspokenness Should be Fair Game for Zambian Democracy

By E. Munshya wa Munshya

 In the run up to the recent Chipata Central by-election, Nkhosi ya ma Khosi Mpezeni actively campaigned for the PF candidate Lameck Mangani.[i] Nkhosi Mpezeni even appeared at a campaign rally addressed by President Sata where again he asked the people of Chipata to cast their votes for the Patriotic Front. As expected, the condemnation was swift from both the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and from opposition parties. Some of the major arguments against Mpezeni’s political gestures were to the effect that the constitution forbids a chief like Mpezeni from participating in politics. This is drawn from Article 129 of the Constitution of Zambia which states that, “a person shall not, while remaining Chief, join or participate in partisan politics.” As for the ECZ, its desire to conduct free and fair elections meant that the Chipata electorate needed to be free from undue influence, especially that which comes from a traditional leader like Paramount Chief Mpezeni.[ii]

I wish to argue, that both Article 65 (3) & (4) and Article 129 in our constitution that seem to suggest that chiefs cannot express active political opinion has either been misunderstood or if not, it should be reinterpreted in ways that give effect to the constitutional liberties and rights that the chiefs, as citizens of Zambia, should enjoy. Indeed, if the interpretation of the said articles yields to the result that chiefs should have no political opinion, whatsoever, then these particular articles will deserve not our loyalty but our disdain.

With that in mind, a critical analysis of both Articles 65 and 129 yields to a clear conclusion that in fact, as the constitution stands, Mpezeni did not abrogate it by actively campaigning for the Patriotic Front. First, he did not stand for election as an MP. Second, he did not join politics, and thirdly he did not “participate in partisan politics.” Consequently, I wish to argue that as leaders, chiefs and other traditional leaders should be granted the freedom they need to freely express political opinion. This is good for democracy and indeed it is good for Zambia.

The idea that chiefs should not participate in politics is perhaps one of the greatest mistakes to come out of the 1996 amendments to the constitution of Zambia. President Frederick Chiluba and two of his closest collaborators Godfrey Miyanda and Michael Sata had pushed through constitutional amendments in 1996 whose main motive was to block some of their most vocal political opponents.

To block Kaunda, whose father descended from modern day Malawi[iii], the Chiluba-Miyanda-Sata triad decided to push an amendment that would require a presidential candidate to produce “a Zambian father and mother” (Article 34 [3] [b]). This was something that Chiluba himself could not, controversially, provide himself. It had to take the Supreme Court to correct this obvious glitch in the case of Lewanika and Others v Chiluba. Additionally, to block Mung’omba the triad pushed through another amendment. Article 34 (3) (f) would require any presidential candidate to have been domiciled in Zambia for 20 years prior to the elections. Dean Mung’omba, having lived overseas for much of the 20 years prior to the 1996 elections, could not possibly satisfy this requirement. However, to-date, the domicile rule has not been tested in court. Indeed, if Article 34 (3) (f) were to be applied then several politicians including Dr. Nevers Mumba would have been ineligible to stand in the 2001 presidential election.

However, the most relevant amendment to our argument here concerns that of the chiefs’ participation in politics. Article 129 eloquently stated that, “A person shall not, while remaining a Chief, join or participate in partisan politics.”

That Chiluba was going to stop KK from contesting in 1996 had become very apparent by the time the new constitution was being formulated. The problem for the Chiluba-Miyanda-Sata axis of power was that even if Kaunda were to be disqualified in 1996, there was a rising star within UNIP who was going to rise up to the task. As such, to ensure that UNIP would not provide any viable candidate to challenge Chiluba, Sata and Miyanda’s MMD the government decided to push through a provision that forbade chiefs from participating in politics. In 1996, Kaunda’s party vice-president was Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta, who just like KK, had become quite a robust candidate with enough clout to threaten Chiluba and his collaborators’ hold on to power. That being the case, it is clear that Chiluba’s government was not sincere in its decision to push through this amendment, especially that it was aimed at stopping Inyambo Yeta. As such, from history itself, it is clear that this article in our constitution was born out of seeds of injustice.

Each time we condemn an outspoken chief like Mpezeni from holding political views we assert this unfair chapter of our history. Each time we condemn a chief for holding and communicating political views we reenact a play designed by the political engineer himself. In fact each time we condemn Mpezeni, we play into a story that was hatched in 1996 by non other than Michael Chilufya Sata and his malevolent colleagues in the MMD.

Those who argue against traditional leaders’ participation in politics point to the leadership role that these chiefs play as leaders of their chiefdoms. However, traditional leadership should not and cannot be the barrier. In fact, upon close scrutiny this argument falls flat. According to the Chiluba-Miyanda-Sata triad, the main reason why it decided to proscribe chiefs from active politics is because “chiefs needed to be above politics as custodians of tradition”. In the present context, it would be expecting too much to expect that our chiefs should not be political when, in fact, the Chief of our State itself is a partisan demagogue. Indeed, the argument that chiefs should not proffer political opinions because they are above politics is unfair and a violation of their rights to speak and hold different and varied beliefs.

Zambia’s current Chief of State, Michael Chilufya Sata is a partisan political demagogue, why then should we expect any differently from traditional chiefs whose territorial influence is just a few thousand people at Mtenguleni or Sokontwe as the case may be? If we really meant to exempt traditional leaders from politics, on the basis that partisan politics is bad, then the president should have been the first to be exempt from partisan politics because as Chief of State he clearly does have a non-partisan role. However, that is not the case. President Sata is so partisan that one would wonder whether he could use the powers of the state to defend even a single member of the opposition if they were to be attacked by outside forces. This is the Chief of State who is daily singing about how he would deny state privileges to those people who do not vote for the likes of Lameck Mangani in Chipata, Livingstone or Kafulafuta. If it is all right for Sata to be a partisan demagogue, we do our traditional leaders great injustice by confining their psyche to a prison of conscience.

And in fact, today we could be condemning Mpezeni and tomorrow the same proscription could be used by those in power to muzzle political opinions of chiefs that are opposed to the Patriot Front and its one-party agenda. The berating of Chief Jumbe in the House of Chiefs by President Sata should send shivers to any well meaning Zambian. Surely if Jumbe is proscribed and threatened when he speaks out, it becomes apparent that the Patriotic Front agenda might soon land the whole country into oblivion. I want Mpezeni to vocalize his support for the PF, in the same manner that I do desperately want Chitimukulu or Jumbe to vocalize their disdain for this incompetent PF government.

In this regard then, we should perhaps answer a very momentous question. Given the provisions of articles 65 and 129 of the Constitution itself, does it in its current form forbid Mpezeni from supporting a candidate of his choice? The ECZ says the constitution forbids Mpezeni. I hold otherwise. It is my submission that a strict reading of this provision does not contemplate to forbid a chief from expressing political opinions. Indeed, this article forbids chiefs from being candidate in an election and from holding a partisan political position. That being the case, Zambia might have overreacted against Nkhosi Mpezeni. He was not participating in politics and neither was he standing as a candidate. Mpezeni was only openly campaigning for the party of his choice – in keeping with the sacred rights of citizenry. He holds no party position in the PF and as such, it would be too onerous on our democracy to proscribe conduct, which is within his rights and liberties.

That being the case, we should then turn to the theory, advanced by some, that chiefs might influence an election in one way or another. From the Zambian experience since independence, there is no model that has been repeatedly rejected through empirical evidence than this theory that holds that chiefs do influence their subjects politically.

From history, evidence is scanty to support the notion that subjects are easily influenced by the political persuasions of their chiefs. Perhaps a little historical analysis might help shed some light. In the January 1964 elections, the people of Barotseland went against the wishes of their king to elect Kaunda’s UNIP. UNIP got 56 seats while Nkumbula’s ANC won 9.[iv] The idea that the people of Barotseland would vote a certain way due to the political persuasions of their king was proved wrong that January. In the 1991 elections, Chief Mporokoso was the UNIP candidate for Mporokoso Constituency. His candidature did not in any way mean that his subjects would automatically vote for him. In fact, it was one of his subjects Ackim Nkole who beat Chief Mporokoso by a wide margin. As recent as 2011, it was no secret who Mwata Kazembe was supporting in Mwansabombwe. However, the subjects of the Mwata did not succumb and instead overwhelmingly voted Sata and the PF. Perhaps we should in this case include numerous examples in the Southern Province where the people of the South turn out to vote for UPND even when their chiefs’ preferred candidates and party is the MMD or the PF as the case may be.

Indeed, if there was any doubt about these fears, the recent example should settle the matter. In spite of a spirited campaign by Mpezeni, the people of Chipata voted for the MMD. Therefore, the theory that chiefs should not hold political views because they will unduly influence their subjects does not survive close scrutiny.

That being the case, it would be in the interest of our robust democracy to give back chiefs their voice and their heart. Indeed, chiefs should be free to express themselves and to make known what they believe in their hearts. A constitution therefore, that muzzles the voice of chiefs need revision.

Having established, above, that subjects do not necessarily support their chief’s preferred political candidates or parties, it would be a mistake to think that these chiefs’ personal popularity fluctuates according to these political views. This is an area that in fact might need further study. In spite of voting or supporting candidates opposed to their chiefs, most subjects nevertheless still hold their chiefs in very high esteem. This does seem to suggest a disconnection. Subjects could still respect a chief as their traditional leader and yet not let that respect spill over into any significant political influence. The examples I have given above might need a little elaboration. I explain below.

After the 1964 elections, Kaunda mistakenly thought that he could then interfere with the Litunga since the people of Barotseland had in effect rejected the Litunga’s preferred party. With a landslide in Barotseland, Kaunda never expected what was to come. Once he had perceived the Litunga’s weakness, KK wanted to pounce and humiliate Mwanawina II. Winning an election is one thing, but disrespecting a chief is quite another. Kaunda’s maneuvers backfired when within a few months he lost very influential Lozi members of his UNIP. He quipped in anger that the “Lozis had decided to align themselves to their tribe and their chief rather than the country and his UNIP.” This model has been confirmed in other chiefdoms as well. No one should perceive differing political persuasions between the chiefs and their subjects and think that they could exploit it to their political advantage. It always backfires. Even after the obvious MMD preference of the Mwata Kazembe, he has escaped unscathed from this support. There has not been any backlash for his backing of the losing MMD. He remains chief and a very well regarded and respected at it.

As for Mpezeni, he might have expressed his opinions the way he did. But the MMD should not for a moment take it to mean that they can then exploit this weakness to their political advantage. The same people who voted for MMD in Chipata would if they see Mpezeni attacked still come to his defense. Mpezeni is their king after all. And apparently, anyone who fights a chief might as well be prepared to get some backlash from his subjects, even if in actual political currency, the result could be the opposite.

In the interest of democracy Mpezeni, using slang, should be given a break. And as the idiom says we all might just need to “cut the Nkhosi ya ma Khosi some slack”. Our democracy is dependent upon free opinions expressed by its people, and these people include their royal highnesses. Both Jumbe and Mpezeni should be encouraged rather than dejected in communicating their political persuasions.

 Join me on twitter and let us continue the conversation. My twitter handle is @munshyamunshya.  

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