Zambia: Lungu’s authoritarianism now turns to opponents within
The ruling Patriotic Front’s expulsion of one of its founding members paves the way for President Lungu to be its presidential candidate. But they’d be wrong to think they’ve seen the end of Chishimba Kambwili.
Last week, Chishimba Kambwili MP, an ambitious firebrand and possible presidential aspirant, was expelled from the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), a party he had helped found 16 years previously.
PF Secretary-General Davies Mwila claimed that the Central Committee’s 22 July decision to dismiss the former Information Minister followed his covert attempts to destabilise the party. He dared Kambwili not to challenge his dismissal in court but rather to test his popularity in a by-election.
At the time of publication, however, unconfirmed reports in the local press suggest Kambwili has begun a legal challenge. If he were to win, he would keep his parliamentary seat, either on the PF ticket or as an independent if he chose to resign from the party. If he were to lose, a by-election would be held within 90 days of the vacancy.
Before his dismissal, Kambwili, 48, had been a party stalwart. A former scrap metal dealer, he was a founding member of the PF in 2001 and one of party leader Michael Sata’s close associates. In 2006, he was elected on a PF ticket as the MP for Roan, an urban constituency on the politically-important industrial Copperbelt. In recent years, he has cultivated a reputation for being outspoken, winning him considerable popularity in the urban centres of the capital Lusaka and on the Copperbelt.
Kambwili recently indicated that he would consider running for the presidency in 2021. President Edgar Lungu has also unexpectedly declared his intention to seek another term in office. It was likely the incumbent’s ambitions that led to his former colleague’s expulsion, though the president would be wrong to think the matter is now settled.
Why Kambwili may welcome his expulsion
For Kambwili, being expelled from the PF is neither surprising nor necessarily unwelcome. It may be a mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides.
The ruling party has long been looking for a pretext on which to expel the Roan parliamentarian. Kambwili has been reprimanded on charges of gross misconduct twice, and although the PF fell short of expelling him, those incidents presaged the latest development. In the party’s judgement, expelling Kambwili rids them of a troublesome internal critic and destabilising influence.
For Kambwili, expulsion provides an opportunity to take another step in his political career. In this sense, the PF may have played into his hands. Unlike some other former party stalwarts, Kambwili was never going to leave voluntarily. His political strategy was to either remain in the PF, which he constantly described as “my baby”, and carve out a power base for himself, or be expelled by Lungu. Kambwili knew the latter option would allow him to argue that he was forced out of the party he founded and built alongside former President Michael Sata – a party that, in his view, has since been hijacked and departed from its original ideals.
In fact, Kambwili has consistently courted dismissal in recent months, knowing it gives him a better platform from which to criticise the PF. Being dismissed fits with his narrative that former Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) figures and allies of ex-president Rupiah Banda, Lungu’s political godfather, have commandeered the party. It also gives credence to the argument of some Bemba speakers that they are being marginalised from the uppermost echelons of power – and are now even being chased out of the party.
Paving the way for Lungu 2021
Kambwili’s expulsion indicates that President Lungu is serious about his plans to seek a third presidential term of office in 2021. Although his eligibility to contest the elections remains the subject of a legal challenge, the PF appears certain of procuring a favourable outcome from a Constitutional Court widely seen as being biased.
Given this, the PF may have reasoned that internal opposition will be harder to tackle and that the earlier it is addressed the better. It is telling that soon after expelling Kambwili, the Central Committee moved to adopt Lungu as the party’s presidential candidate for 2021, subject to approval by the PF elective general conference in 2020. This suggests Kambwili was regarded as an obstacle to Lungu’s desire to extend his rule.
Having successfully dealt with external critics — which has seen knockabout blows to the critical free press, the main political opposition and, more recently, civil society organisations — it appears Lungu is now turning his attention to his opponents within the PF. Kambwili, who has never hidden his own presidential ambitions, was seen as effectively campaigning against Lungu’s third term and positioning himself to stand for the party presidency.
In addition to criticising the idea of floating Lungu as the sole candidate at the elective 2020 general assembly as undemocratic and a violation of the party’s constitution, Kambwili also craftily indicated that he would consider launching an alternative bid. Given his capacity to mobilise, endear himself to the rank and file, and create his own power base, it was not inconceivable that Kambwili could have defeated Lungu, who is yet to establish his grip on the PF, in an open intra-party election. It is this prospect that may have frightened the PF into permanently eliminating Kambwili’s possible candidature.
What next for Kambwili?
Depending on how he plays his cards over the course of the next weeks and months, Kambwili’s expulsion could cause a rupture within PF strongholds and potentially lead to the implosion of the governing party. It would be a costly mistake for Lungu to dismiss Kambwili as a political nonentity, a rabble-rouser or clown with a sharp tongue, and think that his exit will not adversely affect his electoral prospects.
Much more so than other prominent PF members who have walked out in recent times — notably former Vice-President Guy Scott, former Minister of Defence Geoffrey Mwamba Bwalya, and former Commerce Deputy Minister Miles Sampa —Kambwili has significant support and appeal.
The former Information Minister is a shrewd political operator, a skilled grassroots mobiliser, an accomplished agitator and a Bemba nationalist. He is an effective populist in the mould of Michael Sata with a gift for oratory and the common touch. Notwithstanding his previous closeness to the levers of power, during which he rattled many people, he is capable of recasting himself as a spokesperson for poor people, workers, marketers, street vendors, the citizen on the public minibus, and Bemba speakers – constituencies that were crucial to Lungu’s rise.
Indeed, Kambwili could mobilise the same constituencies that voted for Lungu in 2015 and 2016: namely the urban centres of Lusaka and the Copperbelt, and the Bemba-speaking rural communities of Luapula, Muchinga and Northern provinces.
These electoral bases are likely to be receptive to a new populist party. Zambia is facing mounting economic challenges, which are likely to be aggravated by the soon-to-be implemented International Monetary Fund programme. Meanwhile, there is a growing sense of marginalisation among Bemba speakers, who argue that Lungu’s 2016 running mate should have come from their ranks as a show of appreciation for their political support in 2015.
It is important to note that despite pretentions to the contrary, the PF started as a Bemba project and its support in the Bemba-speaking region rested on Sata’s use of an ethnic strategy. Attempts by Lungu to nationalise the party’s appeal by promoting non-Bemba figures like Inonge Wina (now PF and Zambia’s Vice-President), Ngosa Simbyakula (PF National Chairperson), a horde of former MMD ministers such as Lucky Mulusa, Dora Siliya, Vincent Mwale, and many others who lack political gravitas have not received the endorsement of the Bemba core.
It remains to be seen whether Kambwili will form his own party or join an existing one. It is almost certain, however, that he will not join the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND). This is both because his presidential ambitions may prevent him from agreeing to serve under someone else, and also because he is a Bemba nationalist who, like Sata, believes the UPND is a vehicle formed to advance Tonga ethnic interests. Kambwili is more likely to either form his own party or, if the ruling elites frustrate his efforts to register one, assume leadership of an existing political outfit such as the one about to be formed by Mwenya Musenge, another prominent PF member and Bemba speaker who was expelled alongside Kambwili.
Crushed under a tonne of bricks
The potential effect of Kambwili’s expulsion, however, is not completely down to him. Opposition figures in Zambia are now faced with continued obstruction from ruling elites. Kambwili has already had to cancel a press briefing and failed to appear on a private television station for a scheduled interview due to security concerns. There is also a possibility he will be arrested on trumped up charges or that Lungu may seek to stymie his actions by quarantining him in one location as part of the declared state of threatened emergency.
It is worth noting that when Lungu sacked him from Cabinet last year, no reasons were offered. This did not stop Kambwili’s detractors from linking his dismissal to allegations of corruption, especially when the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) started investigations into his conduct when a minister. No charges were issued, but Kambwili’s expulsion may encourage the ACC to announce the outcome of their investigations and bring formal charges.
Such a move may backfire and feed into public perception that Kambwili is being victimised. The legal process could additionally provide him with a platform to launch criticisms of the government or accuse other key figures in the government of corruption. But the charges would also likely force Kambwili into a distracting and possibly lengthy court case.
President Lungu – who, critics argue, is not averse to deploying state institutions for partisan use – may have a final say on the course of Kambwili’s next moves. Secretary General Mwila’s call for Kambwili to test his popularity by embracing a parliamentary by-election may be informed by the PF’s burning desire to defeat Kambwili and desecrate his political influence on the Copperbelt.
A by-election in which Kambwili runs would likely see the deployment of massive state resources for partisan use, high levels of intimidation, and outright political violence. But the ruling party will probably not care as long as Kambwili is, to quote Lungu, crushed under a tonne of bricks.