By Elias Munshya
President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa (Zambian President from 2002 to 2008) was a controversial figure. Without a doubt, he has gone into history as one of the most controversial presidents. Several things about Mwanawasa are contentious. Just how he was called from political retirement to become Chiluba’s preferred MMD presidential candidate ruffled many feathers within the MMD in 2001. Legend has it that Mwanawasa was woken up from sleep to go and accept his candidacy at an MMD meeting at State House. Without effort, Levy would be king. Chiluba had famously dribbled several people in the MMD to push the Mwanawasa candidacy through. Ironically, one of those dribbled candidates was a potent MMD Secretary known as Michael Chilufya Sata. Ten years later, Sata would himself become President of Zambia.
Mwanawasa also proved to be contentious by the way he won the 2001 elections. Held during the December holiday season, the 2001 elections were contested by a record eleven candidates including Michael Sata, Nevers Mumba and Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika. What made the 2001 electoral result even more bizarre was how Mwanawasa beat Anderson Mazoka, by a single percentage point. Some political observers claim that Mwanawasa’s victory was stolen right from Mazoka’s nose. We, of course, do not have any evidence for all these allegations. For their part, the Supreme Court exonerated Mwanawasa from any electoral malpractice in the 2001 electoral petition.
Mwanawasa was also controversial in the way he chose to prosecute and, with it, persecute his benefactor President Chiluba and his close collaborators. No one escaped Mwanawasa’s wrath. Beginning from Chiluba’s political collaborators such as Michael Sata to civil servants such as State House senior staff, Mwanawasa made sure that they all faced police cells. Sata’s alleged crime was the theft of a motor vehicle. This was a non-bailable crime at that time. For Chiluba himself, it was theft of about half a million dollars.
With all these controversies, however, there is something for which we should all commend Mwanawasa. The way he handled, perhaps, the most vicious of insults any person can ever face: the state of one’s mental wellbeing. Shortly after the 1991 elections, Mwanawasa was involved in a very nasty accident where he almost died. He was hospitalized in South Africa for many months. His recovery was nothing short of a miracle. According to biographer Amos Malupenga, some of Mwanawasa’s closest associates and even Levy himself did link this accident with his short-temperedness and a slurred speech. According to Malupenga, in his own home, Mwanawasa had a nickname: the tiger. His children and his wife learnt over the years how to handle his temper.
The most vicious of insults, however, concerned the idea that Mwanawasa was a cabbage. The term cabbage meant that Levy had been so affected by the 1991 accident as to leave him without normal human faculties. He had become a vegetable – a cabbage. The idea that Levy was a useless cabbage became the punchline for Zambian opposition leaders. In one of the many protests against Mwanawasa, protesters would be seen hoisting cabbages in the air, sending a clear insult to Levy that he was but a vegetable. Opposition leaders Edith Nawakwi and Dipak Patel even faced a brief prosecution over the “cabbage” remarks in 2002. No doubt, calling Levy Mwanawasa a cabbage was an insult. And as such, the law that proscribes presidential insults and defamation covered it.
The way Mwanawasa handled this cabbage episode, however, teaches us a few lessons in leadership and indeed in the way leaders should handle insults. Before political leaders resort to using the courts or the police to resolve issues of insults, it would be better for them to have recourse to some specific tools that could counteract those insults. Mwanawasa had a choice. He could have started to arrest all the people who called him a cabbage. He could have banned cabbages too.
Additionally, he could have sent soldiers to arrest UNZA students who frequently hoisted cabbages when protesting. Instead of reacting in retribution, this is how Mwanawasa handled the insult. He simply rebutted it by claiming quite famously that: “I am not a cabbage, I am a piece of steak.”
With these few but powerful words, Mwanawasa added hilarity to a very difficult insult. He knew that he could not fight all the people calling him a cabbage. It would be difficult to do a tit-for-tat with everyone bent on annoying him. And he realized that he had a choice in the matter. And that choice was humor. When you react to insult with humour you pre-empt the enemy’s venom.
Only history will judge the Mwanawasa presidency. One thing remains true for sure: he managed to neutralise a very difficult insult. He indeed was that cabbage who became a piece of steak!
Note: This article is adapted from an article we published in January 2014 at eliasmunshya.org. It is reproduced here partly as a tribute to the 2020 commemoration of the life of President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa.
The author, Elias Munshya, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org