The Temptation of Nevers Sekwila Mumba (Part I): Politics of Personal Sacrifice
By E. Munshya wa Munshya
It is Frank Talk time on prime time television in the early 1990s. One evening, the whole nation is listening in as journalist Frank Mutubila introduces his guest on ZNBC TV. Pastor Nevers Mumba sits confidently in his chair. Next to him is his wife. They are appearing on a program that follows and features news personalities. In the middle of the interview, smart Frank Mutubila probes Nevers about whether he would consider running for public office.“I am a preacher”, Nevers exclaims. And continues, “any involvement in politics would be a demotion.” Those words would become the most memorable lines of that Frank Talk interview.
When Nevers is saying that politics would be demotion. It really means just that. His name had become a household name in Zambia. He was an international preacher attracting the very best of international charismatic preachers. In a Christian nation, Nevers had access to State House at any time. Among his closest friends were President Frederick Chiluba and his Vice-President Godfrey Miyanda. Nevers Mumba was for all reasons a man with a lot of influence, the influence that came as a result of his faith commitment and leadership within the charismatic Pentecostal movement. His yearly Victory conferences became pilgrimages for Zambian Pentecostals.
Nevers’ influence did not just involve the MMD regime, however. President Kenneth Kaunda counted among many admirers of Nevers. In the dwindling days of his presidency, Kenneth Kaunda, a Chinsali native had turned to Nevers, another Chinsali native for counsel. The meeting at State House that Nevers had with Kaunda occupied several pages in Nevers’ book Integrity With Fire. According to Nevers and using Pentecostal language – President Kenneth Kaunda had given his life to the Lord after meeting Nevers at State House around 1990.
After winning the 1991 elections, President Frederick Chiluba’s government policy was to recognise and respect church leaders. Ignored for a long time under the leadership of Kaunda, Chiluba was going to give more visibility to Pentecostal leaders. He lavished them with recognition and Nevers Mumba was among those Chiluba honored with Zambian diplomatic passports. The reason for this honor was simple: “Christian preachers were envoys of the Christian nation of Zambia.”
On television, The Zambia Shall be Saved program was featured weekly, and sometimes appeared twice a week. In that program, Pastor Nevers Mumba became a firebrand of what it meant for Zambia to be a Christian nation. He would preach about faith, about prosperity, about international exposure. He would also preach about black consciousness. In those programs Nevers would testify about his wealth, his vision and the plans for his church and consequently for Zambia. Things were going well it seems. Zambia was going to be saved, and indeed it was getting saved.
Nevers was an alumnus of Hillcrest Technical School in Livingstone. After completing high school he interned for a few months in the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines. But this was not going to last long. He was to meet Evangelist Reinhard Bonkke in the early 1980s. When Bonkke met Nevers it was like at first sight. Nevers was going to be Bonkke’s Bemba interpreter and before long a scholarship had been arranged for him to study in the USA.
Upon return from the USA around 1983, Nevers registered a ministry under the Companies Act. In those days, Kenneth Kaunda had banned registration of new religious movements. The only recourse for beginners like Nevers was to use the Companies Act. Victory Ministries Inc. was born and with it came the influence, the splendor and the pomp. The poor boy from Chinsali had finally broken into the big league. For Nevers, what Kaunda had said about Zambia being free in 1962, he was going to tweak it and call rebrand it as “Zambia shall be saved.” This was going to be his mantra for life.
That splendor characterized Nevers’ life is an understatement. Ministry supporters of his had given him a mansion in Riverside, Kitwe. Victory Ministries was a staple all over the country. Crusades were held across the nation. Nevers Mumba was that embodiment of those rich American preachers. If any one could say there is money in Christian ministry, Nevers had broken that ceiling. He was swimming in money, in power and in influence. Given that influence, it is true; becoming a politician would truly be a demotion.
And then something happened.
It was in 1997, in Kabwe. Nevers had somewhat a change of heart or mind. We may never know. Or may be he had another born again experience. He announced that he had formed an organization to push for political reforms in Zambia. The National Christian Coalition was going to take on President Chiluba’s government.
When Nevers is making the decision to challenge Chiluba in this manner. He knew that this move would come at great personal and ministry risk. Indeed, if Nevers had cared about his own welfare he knew that challenging the Chiluba government would be a risky move. And it is this move that many analysts of Nevers never pay attention to. By breaking with the Chiluba government, Nevers had demonstrated tremendous courage. He knew he was going to lose all the honor, splendor and respect the Chiluba government had accorded him. In fact, he knew that the words he had spoken to Frank Mutubila earlier would come back to bite him.
But for Nevers, the nation was at stake. Chiluba had become corrupt. The promise of a Christian nation was not leading to a more moral nation. In that context, Nevers felt he could do something about it. He risked it all. And indeed the response from those in power was swift fierce.
After the NCC announcement, Vice-President Miyanda went to ZNBC. He berated Nevers Mumba. The war of words had now become the war between two of the countries’ foremost Pentecostal firebrands: Nevers in one corner and General Miyanda in another. Clearly, Nevers had fallen out of the league. With those words from General Miyanda, Nevers’ world started to shrink. And it shrunk faster than Nevers had expected. The sacrifice he had envisioned for his people was going to demand more than he could handle. If he had been tested and tried many times while preaching, the new political frontier was a temptation on steroids.
Nevers’ fellow preachers were next to call him out. He was a traitor, some of them screamed. He was challenging his fellow brother in Christ, some exclaimed. Some of his detractors accused him of leaving the “calling”, a treasonous crime within the Pentecostal fraternity. The words he had used to Frank Mutubila were replayed over and over again. Some even suggested that he was selfish just wanting to get into politics for more power, splendor and influence. Any one who has watched Nevers knows that he has far given more to politics than he had taken out. And if there was any doubt about that – challenging Chiluba’s corruption was the first step.
Chiluba’s machinery continued to respond swiftly. The NCC’s status as a society was threatened. Nevers had to quickly transform it into a political party and rename it the National Citizens Coalition. Chiluba summoned the Zambia Revenue Authority to audit the Victory Ministries Inc., which had for all these years operated as a non-profit company. Nevers was going to pay back back-taxes in millions of Kwachas. All the privileges Nevers had were to be withdrawn. The diplomatic passport was withdrawn too. Nevers might have bargained for too much. And he had bitten a bigger chunk he could not swallow.
But when he started speaking about his journey towards politics, Nevers was loved by the opposition and by civil society. As a close preacher to Chiluba he had noticed the abuse and corruption going on with Chiluba. Nevers had noticed how the government was working against the Zambians instead of working for the Zambians. Chiluba’s closest confidante, Michael Sata, was also on hand to berate the “disgraced preacher”. It was Nevers against Chiluba, Miyanda and Sata. It was Nevers against the machines of power and the testing and trails were only going to get fiercer.
That mansion in Kitwe was going to be subject of litigation. Victory Ministries faced closure. The Zambia Shall be Saved program on TV was only saved by court intervention. The temptation of Nevers Mumba had only started to intensify.
Pentecostal political theology is still in its infancy as an academic subject. Many observers of Pentecostal political theology especially in Africa do characterize it as one that attempts to maintain the status quo. At best, most analysts see Pentecostals as perpetrators of the status quo. As such, Nevers Mumba’s decision to challenge the status quo was a bit unusual and a departure from what is expected of a Pentecostal preacher. In this regard then, Nevers becomes an embodiment of that spirit of resistance against corruption and abuse of power. After noticing that Zambia was going the wrong direction, Nevers bucked his own Pentecostal movement to challenge the excesses of his brother in Christ, Frederick Chiluba. This Nevers did at great cost to his own life and in fact, to his own integrity.
Pentecostalism is for many reasons predicated on an understanding of God who can do anything. As a faith that lacks a central authority, it is by nature quite chaotic and dynamic. In Pentecostalism God speaks directly, but more than that, God continues to speak daily to his people. As such, when Nevers says he could not join politics that is what God could have told him in 1992, but by progressive revelation may be God told Nevers something else by 1997. He had to abandon the church in order to challenge the corruption he saw in the Chiluba government.
This contrasts Nevers and President Michael Sata. Both of them were close to the Chiluba axis of power. But when he noticed corruption, Nevers broke with Chiluba at great personal and family cost. Sata on the other hand stayed with Chiluba in the middle of the worst corruption Zambia has ever seen. In fact, Michael Sata only left Chiluba after it was apparent that Chiluba had dribbled him on succession. Nevers’ decision to leave Chiluba’s MMD was a decision for others, for Zambia. Sata’s decision to leave, however, was based on personal ambition – the desire to be President and only leave corruption when he gets disappointed from being adopted as MMD candidate.
By the time Nevers was campaigning to be president of Zambia for the 2001 elections, he had been reduced to a pauper. The levers of power had worked their way into Nevers’ life. He had lost everything. The only thing he was left with was that Pentecostal confidence in the God who can “do anything.” Nevers had lost his house, his reputation stained, and his friends had run away from him. He had not committed any crimes, or may be the only crime was to cry out against the shoes, the designers Bombasa, and theft he saw in the Chiluba administration. And for doing that, he suffered for it. Politics for Nevers had been a demotion, but a demotion he fully believed was for the good of the nation.
By the end of the 1990s, Nevers’ children had just become teenagers. They needed a father who would provide for them. Having lost the income, the influence, the power, Nevers had paid a huge price for politics. His passion for the ordinary Zambia led him to make these sacrifices. He had some solace in a few friends outside of Zambia who would invite him to preach. Having lost the Kitwe home – Nevers had become a destitute. Politics and a passion for his people and his nation had not made him richer but poorer. And daily, he had to agonize about what happens to his children, and to his family. The days of splendor and glory are over. With a simple stroke of a microphone he could have returned to preaching full time. And as usual, there was going to be more people to welcome back the prodigal preacher.
The temptation of Nevers was too great to bear. The man who could advice presidents was now living in a guest wing at his in-laws. Cruel life. But for a good cause. The cause of his nation.
And then the call came.
Nevers Mumba’s one of his eleven challengers in the 2001 elections had now been president for almost a year. Levy Mwanawasa had been handpicked by President Frederick Chiluba to succeed him. When Levy won the elections, he adopted the fight against corruption as the motto of his presidency. Levy Mwanawasa started proceedings to have Chiluba prosecuted for corruption and theft. Nevers Mumba’s fight against Chiluba’s corruption had now been confirmed that Chiluba was no longer in power. President Chiluba, a man of the people had by the end of his second term faced serious accusation of theft and corruption.
When Mwanawasa made the moves to prosecute Chiluba, Nevers Mumba was among the first to support the decision. The Post Newspapers carried Nevers Mumba’s reaction to President Mwanawasa’s efforts. “It was an answer to God’s justice”, Pastor Nevers Mumba had said. May be, as he is saying this, he has in mind the injustice he had suffered at the hand of President Frederick Chiluba. For now, it was just early 2002 and President Mwanawasa had noticed, a Chinsali born Bemba, and former preacher who shared his ideals against corruption.
Levy Mwanawasa’s crack at the presidency proved difficult. Chiluba’s influence within the levers of power was so endemic. If he had to prosecute Chiluba, Mwanawasa needed partners. But partners within the MMD government proved difficult to keep. And so he had to look elsewhere.
Within the MMD, almost all of the senior leaders had been soiled by the Chiluba corruption. Vice-President Kavindele himself had won the MMD vice-presidency under very controversial circumstances at the 2001 convention. By 2003, the Bemba speaking faction in the MMD had been dissatisfied with Mwanawasa. President Mwanawasa was going to find a perfect fit to help him win the Bemba hearts and to fortify his fight against corruption.
It was early 2003. In an evening broadcast, President Mwanawasa had made a choice of a new Vice-President. Nevers Sekwila Mumba from the living room of his in-laws went through the formalities of appointment. He had become Zambia’s Vice-President. Becoming the first preacher to become Vice-President and the second Chinsalian to become Vice-President after Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe in 1967.
President Mwanawasa had found a partner in the fight. President Mwanawasa had also found a well-spoken preacher to help him deal with the public relations issues facing his government. Nevers was swift, flamboyant and hard working. His personality made him likeable. The image of a clean, handsome man coming into office enthralled many.
But this honeymoon was never to last long.
In 2004, Nevers’ crack at executive privilege had been curtailed. President Mwanawasa had fired him. And with his firing – Nevers’ trials and temptations continued.