By Charles Kachikoti
RUPIAH Bwezani Banda is in the unforeseen position of acting President of the Republic of Zambia, and presidential candidate of the ruling MMD.
When the late president Dr Mwanawasa, appointed Rupiah his number two on October 9, 2006, neither could have anticipated such a complete turn of events.
Today, RB is hugely interesting: while he criticises no one, he is the most vilified of the presidential by-election candidates on the platform.
Voters wonder what this fatherly, gentle man has done to plague the front pages of some newspapers everyday. They ask how this presidential stand-in has become the hottest target without doing or saying anything reprehensible.
The heat is on partly because the story of his life in national politics, international diplomacy, corporate business, education and soccer is in contemporary times largely untold. And of course he stands in the way of other presidential hopefuls as a ruling party prospect.
A co-founder of Zambia’s first indigenous bank, African Commercial Bank, and a co-founder of Leopards Hill Secondary School in Lusaka, Rupiah is married to Thandiwe and they have twins, Duniya and Temwani. In 1966 he had married Hope Mwansa Makulu who passed away on October 11, 2000, leaving him with a family of sons.
The sons are James, Andrew, Mabusha Masekela (whose mother is the young sister of trumpeter Hugh Masekela), Henry, Nenani and Dingani.
These factors make RB well worth the discussion.
If Rupiah wins the presidency, he will at that level be the last luminary of the Kenneth Kaunda era, bringing Zambia full circle and marking the end of a 44-year epoch.
Now that he is MMD presidential candidate, what is his take on major current issues? Here are his answers to my questions.
“HIV/AIDS is a modern disease and I think it is true to say that it caught us unawares. I think Africa in general was too slow to react in tackling this killer disease. The main problem was of course that it was never regarded as an ordinary illness but something not to be mentioned. Thankfully, it is no longer a taboo subject and we can discus it openly. It is pleasing that during the last few years, significant progress has been recorded in dealing with HIV/AIDS.
“Breaking the infection cycle is most important. Deaths from AIDS peaked in 2003 and since then it has been falling at a steady rate. The percentage of infected pregnant women receiving anti-retroviral drugs has risen from around 20 per cent in 2004 to just below 50 per cent as of 2007.
“Medicine alone is not the answer, education is also most important. In this case ignorance is a killer. The Government will continue with its information campaign so that ignorance does not cost you your life.”
Street kids and orphans
” Even with our economic progress, tackling poverty is still our main priority. The only way to break the poverty cycle is through education. We must find innovative ways to get our most deprived children, street-kids, off the streets and into the classroom.
As a father, I understand that education is a passport to prosperity and my Government will work to harness local and international expertise to find a real solution to a problem that has plagued our nation for far too long!
“In the past two years, the global price of crude oil has more than trebled. This shock increase in the price of oil has had a knockon affect on almost everything we purchase here in Zambia. As I said on Thursday at the launch of my campaign, I am deeply concerned at the rising prices of mealie-meal, bread, milk and other staples.
“We have already reduced fuel prices and now we are working to ensure some stability in the supply and price of fuel. We are presently looking at all the policy options and I will be speaking about this in greater depth during the campaign.”
“The inadequate state of Zambia’s infrastructure is a major hindrance to growth. Transport costs are high, partly because we are a landlocked country, but also because of inefficiencies and structural weaknesses in the transport network.
“Meanwhile, electricity shortages are having a detrimental effect on industry. This should not be so, especially when one considers that Zambia has abundant hydroelectric potential, but the building of extra generating capacity has failed to keep up with surging demand. That demand is due to an expanding and growing economy.
“We must look at new options which will make Zesco more efficient and better able to distribute electricity to all homes and businesses. What I really want is to see load shedding become a thing of the past. But as I have intimated before, this may need us to rationalise the rates we pay to encourage new investment.”
“Zambia is a tolerant nation and all are welcome irrespective of race, religion or creed. I believe that a man’s religion is his own business and long may that remain so.
“My only concern is that any religion must conform to the laws of the land and must also be tolerant of other religions. Providing that is so, then you are free to practise whichever religion you desire.”
“The economy has grown steadily over the past seven years. The combination of our policies on privatisation and surging international prices has provided a dramatic boost to copper mining in Zambia over the past few years. This has also had a positive knock-on effect on the manufacturing, wholesale and retail sectors.
“This has made us one of the most stable countries on the African continent. With this stability we have attracted even more foreign investments which in turn have modernised our industries and made our farmers more productive. This is a cycle I’m keen to maintain.
Unlike others, we welcome foreign investors to Zambia – all foreign investors – as long as they obey the laws and regulations of our country, particularly those protecting our environment.
“This investment is the engine which will make our industrial and agricultural sectors more productive and creating more jobs at better wages.
“Not only am I keen to attract finance but also expertise. I am keen for Zambia to engage in a knowledge swap process as we have more to gain in the long term. Only this week did we sign a deal with the Argentineans, your readers will have seen it reported in your paper.
“Africa is often referred to as a Third World continent, and this may be true, but I want Zambia to aspire to be a First World nation. My Government will always strive for the highest levels so that we can achieve this status.
“We want investors to feel protected so that they have the confidence to invest even more. But we also want investment which benefits Zambians in terms of jobs.”
If voters usher Rupiah into office, will he bring along any advantages? What is his background?
Born in Gwanda, Zimbabwe, on February 19, 1937, he has since 1964 been vastly exposed nationally and internationally. This alone empowers him uniquely to interpret and manage delicate and dynamic international relationships.
In an age of regionalisation and globalisation, a head of State as equipped as Rupiah becomes a bonus.
The son of Northern Rhodesian migrant workers, Bwezani and Sarah Banda, RB spent his formative years in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
A prominent family, the Naiks, took RB under their wings and sponsored his early education. The Naiks, activists for majority rule in Southern Rhodesia, sparked his early political interest.
While at Munali Secondary School, he became a member of the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC) headed by the late Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula. Rupiah left the too-moderate ZANC and joined the youth wing of Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP).
After Munali, Rupiah won a scholarship to the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. In 1960 he secured a scholarship from the International Union of Students to study economic history at Sweden’s prestigious Lund University.
While in Sweden, RB also served as UNIP’s representative to northern Europe, a roving ambassadorial role which entailed fundraising and awareness for UNIP’s cause. RB secured scholarships for Zambians and other Africans who would later play a key role in the liberation of Zambia and the entire region.
Having attained the equivalent of a bachelors degree in 1964, RB returned to Zambia and enrolled at the National Institute for Public Affairs (NIPA) to study diplomacy and international relations. Soon after he was posted to Egypt, then the United Arab Republic, as Ambassador.
Until 1967, he served there. Given the tensions between the Arab states and Israel, he gained immense experience in diplomacy and conflict resolution.
His next posting was Washington as ambassador at age 30. RB is of the same stock as Vernon Mwaanga, another highly talented diplomat who is considered in many circles the best president Zambia never had.
In 1970, Rupiah was appointed general manager of the National Agricultural Marketing Board (NAMBOARD), a forerunner to today’s Food Reserve Agency (FRA). He later served as the general manager for the Rural Development Corporation until 1974. That period represents important agro-economics exposure.
As well as an illustrious career in politics, he has over the years plied the commercial sector and is familiar with business in both mono- and market economies.
In the 1970s Rupiah purchased Robert Hudson, an engineering services firm which supplied the mines, and Allenwest Zambia Limited, an electrical engineering services firm. He also owns Chiparamba Enterprises Ltd which is a property holding and management company.
Trained and exposed to realities of Government and private business, he will bring into the presidency invaluable insights and help steer Government towards profitable economic engagements if elected.
He returned to the foreign service as Zambia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York in 1974. During this period, he was chairman on the UN Council for Namibia, a body tasked to steer South West Africa towards liberation from the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Rupiah became minister of Foreign Affairs in 1975, shuttling across the region to broker peace in Angola and to enhance dialogue between the ‘frontline’ states and apartheid South Africa at the height of the liberation struggles in the region.
This background would enrich Zambia’s ongoing peace brokerage in various parts of Africa as Rupiah, if elected, would use his vast experience to better direct and guide those who represent the nation in such missions.
In 1977 RB qualified to read for a post graduate diploma in development studies at Wolfson College, part of the world renowned University of Cambridge. He ran against the late Mainza Chona to become UNIP MP for Munali constituency in 1978.
The 1983 election saw him lose and for five years he was in the wilderness. In that period his career shuttle continued: he served as Senior District Governor for Lusaka Urban District and after that Minister of State for Mines.
He recaptured his seat in 1988, becoming MP until multi-party elections in 1991 when he lost to the late Ronald Penza.
In 2000, hot succession wrangles troubling UNIP, Rupiah bade farewell to the party he had served since he was a youth. In late 2002, attracted by Dr Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption drive, his openness and flexibility towards including opposition MPs in running Government, RB joined the MMD.
Though off-stage politically, he spread Levy’s message and vision throughout the Eastern Province. The province, traditionally a UNIP stronghold, swung to the MMD in the 2006 polls. Levy noticed all this and saw in Rupiah a worthy number two.
For those who had just about forgotten about Rupiah this was a curious choice. Nonetheless, the stability and sense of purpose with which the top two were running national affairs in Levy’s second term was evident.
If Zambia as a nation in mourning ever needed a father-figure, it is now. For it is now that Zambia needs a figure to embrace and reassure the old and young across Zambia’s landscape that all will be well.
No-one has the words to assuage the pain of a national bereavement, but RB evidently has the comportment and demeanour to convey that sense of reassurance. He does not come across as abrasive or warlike but thoughtful, friendly and long-suffering.
When on June 29, 2008, president Mwanawasa was taken ill in Egypt, and was subsequently airlifted to the Percy Military Hospital in France, Rupiah and his cabinet held Government and ultimately the country together. It is a tribute to the acting President that at no stage during Levy’s illness and funeral did the country fall into a vacuum or into chaos.
At a time when media reports were more intensely followed by a grief-stricken nation, Rupiah’s leadership capabilities were tested before the 12 million Zambians.
On August 19, 2008, RB performed the most difficult assignment any vice-president could do. He announced the tragic passing of Dr Mwanawasa who by then was no longer a controversial and doubted Head of State but a widely respected one. RB assumed the mantle of acting President.
He stood side by side with first Republican president Dr Kenneth Kaunda to receive the body of Dr Mwanawasa at Lusaka’s International Airport, a truly emotive image to be remembered for years to come. Having lost his first wife Hope, he was able to meaningfully stand with the widow, Mrs Maureen Mwanawasa.
If the ruling MMD lost the presidency, there would be an inevitable shift in policy on all fronts, and particularly so international economic relations. A shift occurring mid-stream would tilt the balance so far established under Dr Mwanawasa at a time when foreign investment is still showing growing confidence in the Zambian polity and the economy.
Contenders so far include Hakainde Hichilema of the UPND and Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front. While their party manifestos are intelligent and well-intended, an MMD loss at this stage would be the equivalent of changing the gears of an abnormally loaded two-trailer truck dragging uphill.
With Rupiah at the helm, it will be possible for matters of economy and international relations to roll on steadily and predictably.
Rupiah is a hands-on football fan with long experience in matters of the sport. This is one of the reasons why, uncharacteristically for heads of State, he visited the Chipolopolo Boys at their residence in Kitwe before the last Zambia-Togo match.
A die-hard supporter of the Zambia 11 and Arsenal (Gunners) in the UK premiership, he is often awake into the early hours of the morning watching football on TV after attending to matters of State. You would expect that not to happen at that level – but it does!
He was the vice-president of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) when the then all-conquering national team traversed the continent.
A life member of FAZ, RB is also the chairman of the Chiparamba Soccer Academy. The academy was founded by his son Nenani and a team of Swedish businessmen who are passionate about football and socio-economic advancement through the sport.
Through the academy, young Zambians are able to develop their talent, get an education, learn other valuable life skills and travel the world. To the academy’s credit Zambia boasts of notable young players like Boyd Mwila, Clifford Mulenga and Yoram Mwila.
This background is uncommon for presidential candidates anywhere, which indicates to the sports fraternity that in RB prospects of active Government backing are even more pronounced.
He is also a member of the Breakthrough Cancer Trust, an organisation noted for its work in raising funds, awareness and improving conditions for cancer patients. This organisation is very dear to his heart because he lost his first wife to breast cancer – which signifies a soft spot for the health sector.
When Levy fished him out of retirement, RB, who is a member of the Anglican Church, was established as a medium-scale farmer raising crops and some livestock on his 460 acre farm in Chipata.
For the most lampooned of the three presidential candidates, this makes for a compelling record.
And if the harpooning continues without any evidence of his wrongdoing, and if RB still does not lash back, it will start looking like there are enviable qualities in him that his opponents are afraid of.
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