One Bemba, One Nation: Politics of Tribe From Kenneth David Kaunda to Michael Chilufya Sata

E. Munshya, LLB (Hons), M.Div.

Fighting for his political survival, Hon. Wynter Kabimba, made a very significant comment that his party has a clique of Bemba political hegemonists. Even Guy Scott has supported Wynter in these assertions. A daily newspaper has also, in its editorial, made the same allegations: there seems to be a Bemba clique within the PF that wants exclusive political control. Kabimba, further, acknowledged that he had been naïve all along. We’ve been telling Wynter all along that the PF is a tribal party, but it is only now that he has suddenly realized it. After this reality had sunk in, Wynter realized that the party he thought would rule Zambia for 100 years was in fact, a tribal party. Since Bo Kabimba has joined in this conversation, it would be just and prudent for all of us to continue it. After all, democracy is an orgy of ideas.

At independence in 1964 Zambia’s first president naively thought that Zambia had entered a new era of post-tribal politics. Kaunda had managed to convince the Litunga to have Barotseland proceed to independence, with the rest of Zambia, as one nation. However, just three years into power, Kaunda realized that the Zambian tribes were not as united as he had previously thought. The first post independence UNIP convention saw a very bitter tribal fight. The Bemba—Tonga pact had at the UNIP convention bitterly defeated the Lozi—Nyanja alliance. Kapwepwe was elected UNIP’s vice-President to the consternation of Kaunda. Reuben Kamanga, an easterner, was soundly defeated. In fact, it was during this time, that some UNIP stalwarts started doubting Kaunda’s loyalty to the Bemba tribe since he had Malawian parentage. Kaunda knew very well that he needed to do something more to overcome this new era of tribalism that had started to engulf the nation.

To overcome this, Kaunda retraced and reemphasized his loyalty as a Bemba subject of Chief Nkula in Chinsali. He also made a point to try and persuade Kapwepwe to step aside since two Bembas could not possibly hold two top positions in both UNIP and the government. Kapwepwe reluctantly obliged and Kaunda quickly brought in Mainza Chona, a Southerner to replace Kapwepwe. But this deeply displeased Kapwepwe and several other Bemba hegemonists, who later proceeded to found the UPP, a party whose principal popularity was in Luapula Province and its Copperbelt subsidiary of Mufulira.

To cure the issue of tribalism Kaunda started what he called Tribal Balancing. In this new arrangement he made sure that the provinces were well represented in government. It was so intentional that you could actually predict who would be in Cabinet and who would not. In this new arrangement the position of Prime Minister was almost exclusively reserved for either Barotseland or Southern Province. Out of six Premiers, from 1973—1991, four were Lozis and the other two were Tonga. This was KK’s tribal balancing at its best.

When Chiluba came into power, the intentional and deliberate tribal balancing was effectively overruled. Chiluba now claimed that he would appoint people on “merit.” However, it still remains to be answered why under Chiluba almost all Parastatal chiefs seemed to originate from Luapula Province. From just this it may be clear that appointment on merit may have meant tribal merit as well. But even if this is the reality with Chiluba, he was never accused of playing tribal politics. I guess if it were a Lenje doing the same thing, some vocal quarters could have condemned the practice.

It seems like; there is an assumption, a disturbing one for that matter, among some Zambians that only non-Bemba speaking peoples are more capable of tribalism. This is obviously erroneous. It should be quite surprising that President Sata would in one breath appoint an exclusively Bemba cabinet and in the next condemn Hakainde Hichilema for tribalism. Of all the presidents, it is the Bemba-speaking presidents who in fact have appointed more of their tribesmen to power. Chiluba and Sata have appointed more Bembas in their cabinet and Parastatal companies. What is surprising is that in spite of this, these presidents still deny being tribal.

When leaving power in 2001 Chiluba wanted to have a minority tribe to take over. This honour obviously fell on Mwanawasa—of both Lamba and Lenje heritage. Even without objective evidence, Mwanawasa was quickly accused of appointing a family tree in his cabinet.  Opposition leader Michael Sata was the main accuser. But once objectively assessed you will notice that Mwanawasa’s cabinet was more tribally balanced than any other in history. Mwanawasa also brought in some tribal diversity in Parastatal companies. However, when he appointed Sisala as ZESCO Managing Director, more tribalistic accusations were leveled against him. This again plays to my thesis that several Zambians believe, erroneously, that only non-Bembas are more capable of tribalism.

Under the Rupiah Banda presidency, the issue of tribalism took on a new shape all together. What was even more surprising with Rupiah Banda is that in spite of only having five easterners in his cabinet, opposition leader Michael Sata repeatedly accused Banda of practicing tribalism. Five easterners in Rupiah Banda’s government by far pale the over 70% Bembas in Michael Sata’s government.

President Sata has appointed more of his tribesmen to both Cabinet and the diplomatic service. But in spite of this, he still denies that he is a tribalist. I don’t know what measures tribalism better than a president’s exercise of prerogative powers. If a president appoints more of his tribesmen than any other tribe, surely, we could easily conclude that tribe must be playing a more prominent role than any other consideration. The idea that this president tries to balance brains is even more insulting to other tribes considering that these so called brains are derived primarily from Luapula-Muchinga-Northern corridor.

In the Bible both Joshua and Moses were repeatedly asked to choose men from each tribe of Israel. Tribal balancing does have some biblical basis as well.

Tribalism is alive and well in PF because President Sata tolerates and in fact, flourishes in it. Action speaks louder than words. If President Sata wants to put a stop to this tribal nonsense, then he must act and act decisively. The president should not be seen to be acting with a forked tongue – condemning GBM and his group while at the same time doing nothing concrete to put a stop to GBM’s tribal crusade, as alleged by Wynter. But to add more salt to injury just this week His Excellency sent two more Bembas to the diplomatic service.

Munshya wa Munshya

Tribal diversity should be the bedrock of our republic. No one should be ashamed of his or her tribe and no one should be made to think lowly of their heritage. The rivers of our national identity pass through the valleys of tribal and ethnic diversity. The dream of One Zambia, One Nation is not a motto that obliterates differences, but a tool that unites diversity for the national good. In Zambia, all people from all tribes and ethnic groups should feel a part of their country. From Mongu to Mwansabombwe and from Milanzi to Milenge, it should be clear that our country is better and stronger once diversity is not only recognized but also respected.

Our national motto is One Zambia One Nation and not One Bemba One Nation. It should be simple common sense to realize that a little tribal balancing could help foster unity more than this crass preference for the peoples of Luapula-Muchinga-Northern corridor.


Suggested citation: Munshya, E., ‘One Bemba, One Nation: Politics of Tribe From Kenneth David Kaunda to Michael Chilufya Sata’ Elias Munshya Blog (11 October 2013) (available at


  1. The thesis that only when the Bembas are negatively affected do they see tribalism, would need more in-depth analysis than some generalisations brought out here. The piece itself is good food for thought but evidentially simplistic. No geopolitical demographies and impact of other socio-economic factors, such as voting patterns and the influence of strongholds on prospects of re-election, have been considered in the analysis.

  2. I dare say that this is a very good piece of writing. Nonetheless, could we for now ignore the tribal talk? Talking about it whether in condemnation or in support thereof, simply fuels it. The fact is, politics, as you are aware, is about dividing the masses and in doing so, politicians tend to pick on issues that affect the emotions of the electorates.

    Good Politicians are those who talk about things they know will affect the masses and hence labelling an opponent tribal, for sure receives maximum attention. No wonder then that Sata would call Rupiah tribal. Let’s learn to choose what we want to be. As for me, I am a human being first, and then I am, and hence I am me.

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  4. Maybe instead of calling it “Tribal Balancing” we can call it something as this excerpt shows:

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    “Affirmative action or positive discrimination[1] (known as employment equity in Canada, reservation in India, and positive action in the UK) is the policy of providing special opportunities for, and favoring members of, a disadvantaged group who suffer from discrimination.[2][3][4][5]

    The nature of positive discrimination policies varies from region to region. Some countries, such as India, use a quota system, whereby a certain percentage of jobs or school vacancies must be set aside for members of a certain group. In some other regions, specific quotas do not exist; instead, members of minorities are given preference in selection processes.”

    However, this is only practiced or is expected in the workplace and not in elected offices. Zimbabwe tried it at independence in 1980 whereby 20 seats were reserved for whites.(yes they are a tribe). As Umublakcs has posted below, if all your MPs are Lamba it would be hard to practice tribal balancing. When Mwanawasa (a Lamba) started recruiting from the opposition, he was accused of dis-empowering the opposition. Umm..You are damned if you do, you are damned if you don’t. Would enshrining a provincial representation clause
    in the constitution be the answer? I don’t know. Just think aloud.

  5. Elias I would like to meet you. Your articles are spot on. Very few writers are as objective as you put it. Hats off. Ulemu.

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  7. I find the article interesting article and historically refreshing. I would nevertheless argue that perhaps the very notion of tribalism is itself problematic. It still smacks of colonial undertones. A postcolonial context such as ours requires us to somewhat rethink such notions without of course denying our own heritage. But the real question is whose heritage really? Tribalism is a notion that arose with 18th century anthropologists and we need to seriously think about what it means to be Zambian in the 21st century. How could we possibly deal with the limitations of tribalism as discussed by Elias in this article? I think that until the level political discourse is raised, I do not see how mere tribal balancing would in itself be productive for Zambia. Until our political parties organize themselves on the basis of clear and objective convictions (i.e. WHAT they understand their contribution to the nation to be and HOW they intend to implement such given the chance). If this were the case, I do not see how one would appoint a “tribes-mate” to an important government position that requires necessary skills for the what and how above. It continues to rankle my sensibilities when traditional identity is used only for political expedience. History is replete with examples of how exclusive notions of identity are a clear recipe to anarchy and disintegration. I wish we could discuss matters of governance and development on the basis of a party’s what and how. Oh what a beautiful country Zambia is!

  8. Elias this aritcle is not objective. One thing that you fail to mention is that the president is only allowed to appoint Ministers from MPs in parliament how then can he make tribal balancing when almost all his MPS are Northerners? Secondly if you Elias became president would you appoint people you do not know (or who do not support you) to key government positions?

  9. Well done Elias, an objective reflection on the status quo and of the historical evidence that has brought us here. I think there is little doubt that in view of a disfigured tribal picture of Zambian politics, certainly a careful consideration of ‘balancing’ however delicate is not only necessary but actually fundamental to the complexion of democracy! 100%

  10. Thumbs up Munshya wa Munshya. ONE ZAMBIA ONE NATION.
    A little tribal balancing not could BUT WILL definitely foster unity. What does GBM stand for?

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