The Temptation of Nevers Sekwila Mumba (Part II): A Turbulent Vice-President
By E. Munshya wa Munshya
In 2008, as President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa was reflecting on his legacy, one issue he had to confront was whether he had any regrets in choosing Nevers Mumba for his Vice-President from 2003 to 2004. According to Malupenga (2010), President Mwanawasa hoped that in future Zambians will come to the same conclusion he had come to in 2003 – that choosing Nevers Mumba as Vice-Present was a great choice.
To put Mwanawasa’s sentiments in perspective it is important to begin from
where it all started. When Mwanawasa assumed power, he came to a country that was deeply divided. For the first time in history, Zambia had eleven presidential candidates in the election that brought in Mwanawasa. The margin of victory for Mwanawasa was a paltry 28%, just a point ahead of his closest rival UPND’s Anderson Mazoka. The EU Observers condemned the 2001 elections as having not been free and fair. On the other hand, an active civil society and The Post newspapers had been pushing the agenda that Mwanawasa’s predecessor, Frederick Chiluba had stolen public funds and should be prosecuted for it.
Within the ruling party, the MMD, there were apparent fractures. President Frederick Chiluba, even after he had relinquished the republican presidency, still maintained a grip on the ruling MMD party. Early 2002 was a difficult time for the country and Mwanawasa needed to act fast to show that he was in charge.
Most of the leaders within the MMD were still loyal to President Frederick Chiluba. Vice-President Kavindele, Foreign Affairs Minister Katele Kalumba and many others still held Chiluba in high esteem. To respond to this, Mwanawasa fired some of Chiluba loyalists including Katele Kalumba and Lupando Mwape. Mwanawasa had to find his own niche.
In this context then, the most attractive of all the candidates he had considered to replace Vice-President Enoch Kavindele was Nevers Mumba. Nevers had been attractive to Mwanawasa for several reasons. First, he had long campaigned against Chiluba’s corruption. Starting from the 1997 formation of the NCC it had been a political aim of Nevers’ to bring to light the misdeeds of the Chiluba administration. Faced with possibilities of a prolonged fight against corruption, Mwanawasa needed a good partner for a Veep whom he could rely on in tough times.
Secondly, Nevers was attractive to Mwanawasa because he was considered an outsider. Lacking any genuine political base, Levy had somehow believed that Nevers would be personally loyal to him. Actually, Zambian presidents do have the habit of choosing politically unpopular candidates as their vice-presidents. Any vice-president that proved politically popular or astute has never lasted in that position beginning with Kapwepwe and ending with Mwanawasa. As an outsider with no political clout, Nevers Mumba would be a good candidate for Vice-President.
Thirdly, Nevers was attractive due to his tribe. When Mwanawasa came into power it was not long before the Bemba political aristocracy got concerned at his lack of regard for the Bemba hegemony. The firebrand of a Bemba aristocracy, Michael Sata was now in opposition and he never hesitated to drive home the point that Mwanawasa’s leadership was heavily nepotic and was patently anti-Bemba. When Levy started to prosecute Chiluba and his close associates, Sata even accused Mwanawasa of unfairly targeting Bemba-speaking politicians. Mwanawasa’s response to this criticism did not help matters. In Ndola in 2003 when he was asked to respond to the anti-Bemba criticism Mwanawasa is reported to have said that he made no tribal exception to the fight against corruption because “corruption stinks.” These remarks became folder for opposition leader Sata.
“Mwanawasa”, Sata claimed, “had insulted the Bembas.”
In a flurry of arrests and detentions, not even Sata was spared from Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption fury. Sata got arrested for theft of a motor vehicle in 2002. As this is going on – president Chiluba, now facing corruption charges, had abandoned his MMD membership to become a member of Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front. Sensing a tribal revolt, Mwanawasa needed a Bemba vice-president to show that he indeed was not as nepotic as his critics were suggesting. That Bemba vice-president was going to be Nevers Mumba a native of Chinsali.
At the time Nevers was assuming the Vice-Presidency in 2003, He was basically destitute. He statutorily declared a house in Texas to be his only meaningful asset. He owed a mortgage of thousands of dollars on that house. The only other asset was Chishimba Farm in Chinsali. Among other sources of income, Nevers had declared was “honoraria he receives when he speaks in conventions overseas.”
How Nevers got himself to this destitute situation has been explained in a previous article. Suffice to mention here that when Nevers entered politics in 1997, he had lost everything by 2001. Chiluba squeezed any value out of Nevers. He had lost his house, his friends, and some closest to him even suggested he was about to lose his family. The price Nevers had paid for politics was just too high. It is this kind of personal sacrifice that should make critics of Nevers Mumba to reflect and realize that Nevers was not into politics for the money. He had invested far too much than he had earned back by the time he was being appointed vice-president. It should not be hard to notice the dedication to the nation Nevers exhibited, even at the price of personal sacrifice.
If anyone did not believe in miracles, they had to. Nevers Mumba, a boy from Chinsali, and a preacher who had abandoned the pulpit and lost everything, was now going to be the second most powerful person in the country. As vice-president he had clear chances of assuming the presidency one day. Im keeping with his motto, Zambia was going to be saved and what had been a remote possibility was now within reach.
In appointing Nevers Mumba – President Mwanawasa was very optimistic. “I have appointed you”, Mwanawasa told Nevers, “because you and me share a common dream for a corrupt free Zambia.” If there were any doubts about the other reasons why Nevers had been appointed – his itinerary in his first 90 days would show. Nevers travelled to meet the Bemba chiefs and addressed their misgivings about the insults that had been attributed to President Mwanawasa. With Nevers as vice-president, Mwanawasa had a Bemba confidante who could buttress any tribal accusations against government. A preacher with a likeable and handsome personality meant that Nevers was going to be the public face of President Mwanawasa’s government. And indeed it took only a few months for Nevers’ star to rise and for President Mwanawasa to realize that the Nevers he had appointed was actually far more ambitious than he had initially thought.
Those close to Mwanawasa would whisper to him about the ambitions of Nevers Mumba. To resolve these difficulties, Finance Minister Ng’andu Magande and Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwashya would be Mwanawasa’s kitchen cabinet while Nevers was left enough rope to politically hang. Nevers’ inexperience was proving a liability to him. He became politically reckless in amassing lots of political support from the grassroots MMD branches at the expense of his aloof boss. As a likeable person, it was far much easier for ordinary MMD members across the country to meet Nevers than it was for them to meet President Mwanawasa. Perhaps the greatest asset Nevers had from his background as a preacher was his way with people. The star of Nevers had started to rise and the MMD was now perfectly in his control. With a president Mwanawasa that is struggling with health issues – it is Nevers who became the defacto leader of the MMD.
But not for long, for that rope had now drawn close to suffocate Nevers politically. And the crowd was gathering to watch him hit the ground.
It was around September 2004. Nevers had been vice-president for about 15 months. The main opposition party that was threatening the MMD was Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front. Using the levers of power that had remained intact within government and on the grassroots – the PF was growing in popularity by the day. The prosecution of President Chiluba had gathered steam. President Sata saw Chiluba’s prosecution as a general strategy by Mwanawasa to weaken the Bemba-speaking political aristocracy. Indeed, MMD structures in Luapula and Northern Province had started to crumble. Frederick Chiluba had made his political opinions clear – he was in support of Michael Sata, the man he had dribbled in 2001. Patriotic Front cadres would provide escorts to Chiluba each time he appeared in court. At one time after returning from a South African hospital, Chiluba greeted the gathered PF cadres with the “Donchi Kubeba” salute.
MMD branches in Ndola had organized a “Meet the Vice-President Dinner” to raise funds for the party. That September, Mwanawasa had travelled to New York for a UN summit. At home it was Nevers in charge. Mr. Mukutulu Sinyani, the director of the Drug Enforcement Commission had gathered some information that Katanga businessman Moise Katumbi was channeling money through the Congolese border to fund political activities of an opposition party. It did not take rocket science to know that it was President Chiluba, Michael Sata and the Patriotic Front who were the beneficiaries of these monies. That evening, Sinyani briefed the acting president about that information. More than anything else, what Nevers did with this information spelt immediate political doom for him. It set off events that would eventually lead to his dismissal.
Zambia shares thousands of kilometer borders with the Congo DR. It is a porous border to say the least. You can smuggle nearly anything along this long border. From the time Zambia got its independence juggling security for the nation in view of Congolese instability has been a delicate balancing act for any president. The reports Nevers got that evening from Sinyani are by no means isolated. Each president has had to deal with security issues arising from the Congo DR. As such, any issue that comes from Congo DR deserves wisdom and diplomacy to resolve. This is the wisdom and diplomacy Nevers had lacked that September.
At the MMD dinner dance held at Savoy Hotel, acting President Nevers Mumba made some usual political statements aimed at the opposition and then he added:
“Government has information that a particular opposition party is receiving dollars through the Congolese border.”
This statement started a flurry of events so fierce that Nevers could not control them. As Nevers finished speaking to the MMD, it was morning in New York, and President Mwanawasa was about to meet President Joseph Kabila to discuss issues of mutual importance. President Mwanawasa was supposed to meet Kabila at 13:00 Eastern Time.
In Zambia that evening, Congolese Ambassador Dikanga Kazadi reacts swiftly to Nevers Mumba’s accusations. Kazadi’s message is channeled to President Kabila in New York. The Zambian government is accusing the Congo DR of meddling in its internal affairs. Mwanawasa gets the information too that morning. This was going to create a diplomatic standoff.
“The Congo DR having itself been a victim of foreign military interference cannot interfere in Zambia’s internal affairs,” screamed Ambassador Kazadi.
Nevers’ words had exposed his lack of diplomatic skills. His recklessness towards the Congo was going to be his downfall.
In New York, President Mwanawasa gathers his team and comes up with a strategy. An apology to President Kabila would be in order and the two presidents should continue to commit themselves to dialogue on issues of mutual importance. Mwanawasa had redeemed the recklessness of his vice-president. Nevertheless, back home in Zambia, security services are on high alert and Ambassador Kazadi found an opportunity to speak even more. Those baying for Nevers’ blood within government had something to work on. With this weakness they could make Mwanawasa fire Nevers Mumba – but the problem was that Nevers had done a good grassroots organization. The MMD grassroots was firmly in his charge.
While Mwanawasa is still in New York, Vice-President Mumba does something unusual. He summons the press and cabinet to his Government House. On the agenda are the preparations for the 40th Independence Anniversary. Those close to the workings of government notice how unusual it is that a Veep should address the nation when the president is away. Nevers was not going to takeover the government, he was simply announcing preparations for the independence celebration. Mwanawasa while away is informed of this, and his inner circle wonder why Nevers had gone this far.
In Nevers’ mind, government should continue to function even in the absence of the president. As such, since he is part of the government he saw no reason why he could not brief the nation about independence celebrations that would be held in a few weeks time. Except that, Nevers was not going to be part of that celebration. Not as vice-president anyway, because by then he would be fired.
The same month of September – a few days’ latter Mwanawasa returns back to Zambia. At Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, Nevers Mumba is on hand to receive President Mwanawasa. Nevers is looking flamboyant wearing dark eyeglasses.
Mwanawasa’s first words off that plane were to address the litany of diplomatic missteps his Vice-Presidents had made. The words of the vice-president were regrettable, Mwanawasa said. He also mentioned that he had to personally apologize to President Kabila over that misunderstanding. With dark shaded glasses Vice-President Mumba looks down as he listens to the president berate him. A few minutes latter he sees off President Mwanawasa and returns to his Mercedes Benz car waiting for him.
Nevers had been leader of the Christian movement in Zambia. He was the boss for a long time. He was the one to berate his juniors. But as vice-president, he had a very temperamental boss in Mwanawasa. And protocol demanded that he had to defer to his principal. But on that day, a journalist asked Nevers about his reaction towards President Mwanawasa’s sentiments. Whether Mumba had misunderstood the question or not, we may never know. This is how he answered it nevertheless.
“I am not embarrassed by this, the only embarrassment might have been for the other side.”
The “other side” here might only mean the parliamentary opposition of the Patriotic Front.
The next day, this answer made headline news in the Post Newspaper. Realizing that he had been misunderstood and probably misquoted in the report, Nevers wrote his boss apologizing for the misconception. But it was too late.
Mwanawasa had already found an unassuming Augustine Festus Lupando Mwape Katoloshi to be Nevers’ replacement. Lupando Mwape had been fired as a cabinet minister a few months into the Mwanawasa presidency. He was one of those Bemba leaders Mwanawasa thought had maintained allegiance to President Chiluba. This time that he was appointing Lupando Mwape as vice-president he had just reinstated him to a junior position of Provincial Minister.
And yes! Mwanawasa had done another miracle. He had gone for another political non-entity to be vice-president. The reign of Nevers Mumba as Zambia’s vice-president had come to an end.
But the temptation of Nevers Sekwila Mumba continued. Discussions of the next segments in Nevers’ life deserve another analysis.