Reference is made to the thought-provoking front page story “Tongas are more – Mukuni” (Daily Nation, April 14, 2020) in which it was reported that Senior Chief Mukuni of the Toka-Leya said that Tonga is the only tribe that outnumbers Bembas. He reportedly argued that the 21% majority population the Paramount Chief Chitimukulu made reference to, was a combination of Luapula and Muchinga provinces, which were viewed as Bemba speaking, but not necessarily Bemba inhabited. For those who haven’t read this article yet (and I highly recommend it), here is a bit of why he omitted to mention the “Bantu Botatwe”.
When I first came across this term, I was so moved that I thought I should share it with the esteemed readers. The “Bantu Botatwe” is an acronym for Tonga, Ila and Lenje speaking people spanning across Southern, Central and Lusaka provinces. Can that justify the notion that the Tonga tribe outnumbers the Bembas that Chief Mukuni was passionately talking about? I doubt it.
I don’t know about you, but I am getting really worried by the antics of Chief Mukuni. Firstly, I can simply put it down to “ethnocentrism”, but the Toka-Leya chief’s frequent U-turns in the last few years have given me cause to wonder if there isn’t more to him than mere “ethnocentrism”. Whichever way one looks at him, there is a good reason why Zambians should take what he preaches with a pinch of salt.
So which of the Chief Mukunis do we listen to? The one who wants the Bemba to emulate the Tonga speaking people, who recognize the importance of voting, or the one who preaches that Tonga is the only tribe that outnumbers the Bembas? So who does Chief Mukuni think he is deceiving? I guess you know what he is driving at. From not dousing the flames of Tonga tribalism that UPND leaders once ignited in 2006, he is now fanning them. Besides, I do rather suspect, he is also stoking the tribal-embers with the “It’s time for a Tonga to rule Zambia” mantra – trustingly repeated by some “Bantu Botatwe” and others.
This is unfortunate as there has been growing awareness and strong sense of déjà vu that the leaked document which disclosed that Hakainde Hichilema had engaged disgraced – now defunct – UK data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica to influence voters ahead of the 2016 general elections with the said mantra which proved as the most effective means to the overwhelming voter turnout of over 70% of mostly underage first-time voters, in each of the UPND strongholds.
As expected, Cambridge Analytica has re-emerged incognito, with an Egyptian owner, Ahmad Al-Khatib as its sole investor and has its focus on the Middle East and Africa. The new company, Auspex International, has allegedly kept ex-Cambridge Analytica director Mark Turnbull at the helm, according to media reports disclosing that an unnamed African country – most likely Zambia – was already on board as one of the first clients. So, will the spectre of Cambridge Analytica still haunt Zambia’s 2021 elections?
Funding for social media advertising and manipulation could determine the outcome of Zambia’s 2021 vote, moreover, with a monthly fee of US$ 225,000 for a period of 15 months from March, 2020. Elections are big business, and look no further than the ongoing UPND frenzy over the upcoming 2021 elections for proof. It is hard to miss how much money would be made in both the main event and the ecosystem around it.
UPND politicians are no longer just candidates, but also brands, backed by elaborate merchandising and advertising apparatuses that would be designed to probably catapult their public image to victory. Outside the core tug of war, media companies around the country would wrestle for the attention of viewers, listeners and readers with elaborate, attention-grabbing infographics and chyrons. As Zambia inches towards this critical vote, it does so in the shadow of profound questions about the changing nature of elections in the country and beyond.
Over the last few years with exposure to smartphones, there has been rising alarm over the role of social media in politics around the nation. 2016 was arguably Zambia’s first social media election, where UPND leader for the first time invested significant sums of money into shaping the behaviour and conversation of voters on these platforms. He spent considerable amounts of money on data analytics and data mining firms that specialised in consuming, digesting and regurgitating voters’ online behaviour into political messaging.
One of the major fears for analysts watching the 2021 vote is return of these social media parasites. In this regard, the election in Zambia will be a bellwether for the increasing anxiety over the role of foreign private companies in Zambian elections. Underneath this panic over social media lies a broader conversation on the changing nature of elections. Money is more influential than ever and normative ideas about democratic values are in decline.
More and more, the real decision-makers are those who can use their money more efficiently to tilt the scales in their own favour – basically, those who invest the most in branding and advertising, in lobbying foreign funding, or even as in Zambia, in manipulating the electoral system directly by rejecting the Constitutional Amendment Bill. For voters, the process of achieving truly representative or inclusive government has never been more difficult.
When financial gain trumps all other consideration our collective tolerance to injustice increases, leaving many who don’t have access to power or influence vulnerable to the whims of the people with the deepest pockets. Political advertising should be a special class of its own, separated from the vagaries of advertising in general.
The stakes are very high, because the outcome would have an impact far beyond the individual or outfit buying or selling these services. Social media changes everything, and we aren’t quite able to grasp its massive scale yet. It is a salutary lesson to us Zambians which we’ve all learned since 2016.