January 25, 2011

Poverty fuels secession bid by Western Province

High poverty levels and the skewed distribution of resources in Zambia's poorest province is stirring secession talk. "The tensions in Western Province are a consequence of the neglect that the place has suffered in terms of socio-economic and infrastructure development," Thomas Mabwe, head of Development Studies at the Zambia Open University, stated. "Poverty levels in Western Province are the highest in the country, and there is very little to show in terms of infrastructure development. So, to some extent, people are just reacting to that under-development of their region," he said.

Earlier in January Mungu, the capital of Western Province, saw protests demanding independence for the region: Violent clashes with security forces left three dead, including a nine-year-old child, and 12 others were hospitalized. The protests started with a poster and flier campaign by a group calling themselves the Black Bulls, which urged all of the province's "non-inhabitants" (non-Lozi) to leave the province by 15 January 2011, or risk being hacked to death.

Western Province is home to the Lozi-speaking people, one of the biggest of Zambia’s 73 ethnic groups. The minority Nkoyas and Mbunda ethnic groups in the province were classed as "non-inhabitants" in the poster campaign. Police have arrested 24 Lozi-speaking people and charged them with treason, an offence that carries the death penalty.

Western Province was a British Protectorate known as Barotseland [Land of the Lozi people] while the remainder of Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia, was administered as a British colony. Ahead of independence (1964) and to facilitate a unitary state, the two territories were united by a pact known as the Barotse Agreement, which among other things, called for equal distribution of resources. "The Government of the Republic of Zambia shall have the same general responsibility for providing financial support for the administration and economic development of Barotseland as it has for other parts of the Republic and shall ensure that, in discharge of this responsibility, Barotseland is treated fairly and equitably in relation to other parts of the Republic," said the 1964 Barotse Agreement signed by Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda; Northern Rhodesia’s last governor, Evelyn Hone; and the then Lozi king Mwanawina Lewanika.

In October 2010, the government removed the Barotse Agreement from the new draft constitution, which immediately led to widespread protests in the province. Grace Muyangana, leader of the Barotse Freedom Movement which is calling for the province's independence, led a campaign to pull down the national flag from public institutions and boycott the 24 October Independence Day celebrations. "There is nothing independent about us [the Lozis]; we are not free. We will continue [with protests] because what we want is our nation [Barotseland]," she told local media at the time.

Western Province social indicators show poverty levels at 84 percent, against the national average of 64 percent, an indicator that has remained unchanged in six national surveys conducted by the government’s Central Statistical Office since 1991, the year multi-party politics was re-introduced in Zambia.

While 19 percent of Zambian households have access to electricity, only 3.5 percent of families in Western Province have it, and 53.4 percent of the province’s households have no toilets. The province has no industry to speak of and the South African chain store, Shoprite Checkers, represents the only foreign investment in the region, with fishing being the predominant economic activity for the 700.000 inhabitants.

National elections are scheduled for this year and analysts fear if the Western Province issue remains unresolved it could become a flashpoint for election violence. (IRIN)

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