Whatever happened to the real Chiluba?

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DAY of the baboons, a novel published in Zambia in 1988 and reprinted in 1992, describes one of the characters, named Zeb, thus: “The midget was dapper in a black striped suit. His white shirt, the black tie and the black bowler hat, gave him the debonair appearance of which most Africans were afraid.”
The novel is set in Northern Rhodesia now known as Zambia in the 1960s. Agitation against colonialism was then intense.
In the novel, Zeb’s character is some sort of catalyst in the events known as The Day of the Baboons.
The plot dwells more on the biographies of the three heroes than on Zeb’s. In a film, he might not even rate the title of a co-star.
To this day, I have not had anyone asking me: “Was Zeb’s character a portrayal of Frederick Chiluba at the height of his trade union career?”
It was.
I wrote the novel between 1975 and 1977. I was forced into unemployment after being fired from Times Newspapers.
As usual, I sent the novel to Heinemman’s in London. I had done this since the 1970s when I let them look at my first novel, A Parade of Villains.
Two of the editors in London and Nairobi involved in approving it for publication in the reputable African Writers Series, had given it the thumbs-up.
But the editor in Nigeria had voted against it.
The AWS had been pioneered by such distinguished writers as Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, James Ngugi and, from Zambia, Dominic Mulaosho’s The Tongue of the Dumb.
In Zambia, the novel was published by NECZAM, the then government-owned publishing house.
“Zeb” was consciously created from the character of Frederick Chiluba. We lived in the same city of Ndola and interacted quite often.
He was, for a man of his height, unforgettable as an orator and a man of such modesty you warmed instantly to him.
To some extent, the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions benefited enormously from his leadership.
We had known the earlier leaders, including Jonathan Chivunga, John Chisata and Wilson Chakulya, who later became a cabinet minister in Kenneth Kaunda’s government.
Chiluba, arguably the most charismatic of them, thrived during Kaunda’s presidency. He seemed to strike just the appropriate tone for a period during which Kaunda’s popularity was on the wane.
But it wasn’t until the bottom seemed to fall off the economy that the people in general realised Kaunda had failed to deliver on one of his great promises at independence: “An egg a day for every Zambian”.
By 1991, 11 years after I had left the country to return to Zimbabwe, Zambians in general were thoroughly disillusioned with Kaunda and his ruling party UNIP.
To the slogan One Zambia, One Nation, their response was a loud, insolent: Njala yeka! (Only hunger!)
Part of the problem could be laid at Kaunda’s stubbornness to pursue a disastrous socialist economic policy, implemented in tandem with an almost Stalinist drive for the one-party system.
This had begun with an ill-planned take-over of the copper mines in 1968.
It is not credible that Kaunda had been provoked into this rash action by the white miners’ jibe: “LoZambia enakawena. Lo mali en katina! (Zambia may be yours, but the money is ours!)”
With the takeover began a hasty programme of “indigenisation” on the mines — Zambianisation.
Zambia paid a very high economic price for supporting the struggle in southern Africa. But in 1991, Kaunda and UNIP were routed by Chiluba’s union-backed Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party.
What his two electoral victories did to Chiluba can only be speculated on.
But corruption seemed to burrow deep into the body politic of the MMD.
Chiluba was singled out as the major beneficiary.
The “born-again” convert had once said “Zambia is a Christian country”.
Now, he was caught stealing from the poor. His love of sartorial extravagance was the least of his sins.
What had possessed Chiluba to turn from a champion of the poor to this follower of Mammon?
Absolute power may corrupt absolutely. Around him were people who benefited enormously from whatever he did to earn the wrath of the people.
They egged him on with hymns such as “The people love you, Your Excellency”.
In my novel, Zeb is not deserted by his admirers. He doesn’t ride off into the sunset either, but he remains heroic.
Chiluba should have read the novel to the end.

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