Munshya wa Munshya
“To insult or not to insult.” That has been the question we have had to contend with from our presidents since 1964. Zambia’s history with presidential foul language and insults is not new. We, in fact, started having presidential foul language as soon as our nation was born. In this article, I draw upon the history of the Zambian presidency to discuss the presidential use of insults from 1964 to the present “don’t kubeba” government. Each of the presidents is discussed in turn.
According to authors Rotberg, Gifford & Morris, Kenneth Kaunda started off as a kind, Christian gentleman in the run-up to independence. He was widely admired by friends and foes alike. Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe at independence had lots of praise for KK. Additionally, Princess Nakatindi Wina remarked in 1964 that KK was like the Prophet Moses sent by God to deliver Zambians out of “Egyptian bondage.”
However, with the growing opposition to his rule from within his party UNIP and from an array of Zambians—in the army and in the trade unions—KK started to change the tone of his language. In press conferences he became famous for calling his opponents, “stupid idiots”. He would also frequently call opponents “frightened little men.” By this, he was implying that only he was that courageous big man. Not to be outwitted by his past, Kaunda’s “stupid idiot” comment has made headlines again in 2013. He used the same insult to refer to some members of President Sata’s government. I think Sata’s cabinet is perhaps the most insulted cabinet since 1964. What is unusual, as we will see below, is the source of the insults. It is not necessarily ordinary people seemingly insulting this cabinet, but rather President Sata himself and his master Kenneth Kaunda.
I cannot recall any report of Dr. Frederick Chiluba insulting anybody. Ironically, when he faced the fiercest opposition bordering on insults, Chiluba would famously say: “infumu taituka bantu, abantu ebatuke imfumu.” This Bemba adage basically means that while the general population may have reasons to insult a leader, a leader should not insult his people. With this attitude, Chiluba avoided use of foul language. The only moment, that stands as the exception with regard to Chiluba was at his rally in 2001 in Kitwe when he was introducing presidential candidate Levy Mwanawasa. At that rally Chiluba famously used a Copperbelt street idiom “ujeni”. He then quickly added, “I am not insulting because I have not called any particular person or insulted any particular person”. He further mentioned that only “catile cobe” would qualify as an insult.
That being the case, President Chiluba, mostly, was not the type that used strong or bad language. Indeed, there was a lot that President Mwanawasa needed to learn from the way Chiluba handled opposition. President Sata could also learn a lot from the way Chiluba handled opposition. It is rather interesting to see the kind of letters Sata is signing off at State House. They are often in bad taste and honestly they are full of condescension, especially for one Hakainde Hichilema.
According to biographer Amos Malupenga, President Levy Mwanawasa was seen to have been a man of very sober manners. In 2005, at a rally in Southern Province when MMD National Secretary Katele Kalumba tried to intimate that Levy was a handsome man whom ladies could truly fall for. Levy was quick to correct Kalumba and remind the rally that he was a happily married man. When it comes to drinking, it is reported that he was not a habitual drinker. The only time he sipped some alcohol, after a long time, was when the Supreme Court ruled the presidential petition in his favor.
But even if he had so much going well for him, Mwanawasa could not dodge the accusation that he had insulted some Zambians. He became a victim of a serious allegation that he had insulted the Bemba speaking peoples while visiting Ndola. To the question of why most of the people he had been prosecuting were mostly Bemba speaking, he is reported to have said how much he hated corruption. He then added just how “stinking” corruption was. This set off serious political tsunami that could only be assuaged by appointing a Bemba as his Vice-President. And one of the first duties for Dr. Nevers Mumba was to go to the Bemba chiefs and calm the storms of the “stinking” insult. Undoubtedly, Michael Sata, while in opposition, condemned Mwanawasa’s insult and used this alleged insult to his political advantage.
After the 2006 elections, Mwanawasa had to find a replacement for Vice-President Augustine Festus Lupando Mwape. He needed to find a person who could bring some maturity and stability to the Vice-Presidency. This person, in Mwanawasa’s judgment, was going to be a retired 67-year-old farmer, Rupiah Banda. And maturity, I assume here, may include being a person of sober words and a mature tongue. That was not to be, however. Banda maintained his tongue only as long as Levy was living. And only as long as he stayed as Vice-President. But when Banda became president, insults and rumors of insults besieged him as well. His closest insulting focus became opposition leaders Michael Sata and Hakainde Hichilema. With youthful vigor and a moderate tempter HH responded tit-for-tat to each of Banda’s insults. HH sometimes called Banda, “sleepy”, and a “man of small brains”. For his part Sata and Banda’s major area of insult was about whom, between them, was more handsome than the other. It was as if the old men were now competing for a beauty pageant. In one of those insulting episodes, President Banda called opposition leader Michael Sata as, “cisilu ca zoona”. Sata reciprocated this affront very swiftly too.
After becoming Zambia’s fifth president, Michael Sata has his own share of accusations of using insulting language. And therein lies the difference. All the other presidents are perceived to have been insulting their political enemies. Kaunda’s “stupid idiots” comment was aimed to the troublesome UNIP rebels. Banda’s issue with both Hichilema and Sata was because the duo was opposition. But with Sata currently, however, he seems to be berating and in fact insulting his own allies. It is quite strange that he would tell his inferiors in Kitwe that “bushe mulicipuba imwe”? This was rather strong a language to use especially that he was using it against his own associates from the Patriotic Front party. President Sata’s reaction in Kitwe was in bad taste at most. It was completely uncalled for.
At a time that the Patriotic Front is facing serious violence and “pangamonium” it is quite telling that the president has chosen to concentrate his energy on the state of his house in Kitwe. The president in very limited circumstances uses that State Lodge in Kitwe. In fact, he has only been to Kitwe once or twice ever since he won the presidency. It is strange therefore, that he would be so worked up about renovations that should go on in that house. Even if he were indeed indignant, he could do so, without mixing it with utter disrespect and disdain for his juniors. If indeed Sata is a no nonsense guy, it would be much better for him to demonstrate that through the way he disciplines Wynter Kabimba or GBM. It is like Sata was trying to make up for his inefficiency in dealing with the pangamonium in Lusaka by creating pandemonium in Kitwe.
That being the case, I think we will have to contend with presidential insults for sometime to come. I just hope that while doing his own round of insults, President Sata will also spend some time to actually govern our country. Insulting opponents and ministers is not the best way to run a country like Zambia.