By Marja Hinfelaar
‘Even if we are not actively negligent, greedy or corrupt, in so far as we turn a blind eye to the manifestation of these ills in our midst, we become a part of the self-defeating mediocrity that has become woven into the fabric of our national character’
(Elias C. Chipimo Jr.)
(Elias C. Chipimo Jr.)
In recent years, an impressive number of biographical works have appeared on the Zambian market. Though very different from one another, all of these works – written by the likes of John Mwanakatwe, Andrew Sardanis, Simon Zukas, Valentine Musakanya, Robinson Nabulyato, and others – are partly animated by the ambition to provide insights into the origins of the economic and social decline that characterized Zambian history from the early 1970s onwards. The theme of ‘what went wrong with Zambia’ is also taken up by Elias Chipimo Jr. However, unlike the above-mentioned authors, Chipimo has an open political agenda. For in Unequal to the Task? the discussion of the country’s (and the author’s own) troubled past serves as a prelude to – and justification for – the launch of a new political party, the evocatively named National Restoration Party.
As he explains in the book, Chipimo’s literary and political engagement was sparked by life-changing, dramatic personal circumstances. In particular, it was the author’s mother’s death and the hospitalization of his father in the UTH following a car accident near Mpika in 2008 that brought home to him the realization that ‘we have accepted abnormal things as being normal until finally, mediocrity and neglect have become widely and comprehensively accepted, whilst corruption and greed have been endorsed as the basis on which we should conduct our public and private lives.’
Born in September 1965, Elias, the third boy in a family of seven, grew up in Lusaka, but also lived in the United Kingdom, where his father served as a diplomat in the late 1960s. Of particular interest to historians of post-colonial Zambia will be Chipimo’s account of his father’s confrontation with the leadership of UNIP in 1980. Kaunda’s furious reaction to the criticisms implicit in Chipimo Sr.’s speech to the Law Association of Zambia had a lasting impact on the family’s standing and fortunes. Indeed, ‘falling out of favour with a head of state in a nation where political leaders are central to many careers can generate an incredible sense of loneliness and despondency.’ While admiring early nationalist leaders for what he describes as their commitment and sacrifice - an attribute that forms part of the moral and political ‘restoration’ that he advocates – Chipimo is no apologist for UNIP. On the contrary, he presents the introduction of the One Party state in 1972-73 as coinciding with the end of ‘independent’ thinking and the beginning of a culture of loyalty politics.
A large section of the autobiography seems primarily intended to demonstrate the author’s credentials for leadership, including the lessons he admits to have learned from past failures. Chipimo thus describes his educational background in some detail. After completing a law degree at UNZA, Elias got a Rhodes scholarship to study Civil Law at Oxford University. This section is followed by a description of his professional career. On his return to Zambia in 1992, he landed a job at Cavmont Bank and, together with Lucy Sichone, set up the Zambia Civic Education Association with the aim of ‘to help everyone remember who the masters [the people] were supposed to be and who the servants [the politicians] really were.’ In 1995, Chipimo inaugurated his own corporate law firm, Corpus Globe. He had realized there would be ample opportunities to provide legal advice to multinational companies which had entered – or were entering – Zambia as a result of the liberalization of the economy under the MMD.
The kernel – and, in all probability, the principal raison d’être – of the book is to be found in the last section: ‘State of the Nation and the challenges ahead’. After examining the record of the MMD regime and its privatisation programme, Chipimo concludes that ‘we were unequal to the task of building the nation beyond the infrastructure developments achieved in the early Kaunda days.’ In Chipimo’s analysis, five key factors have hindered progress in Zambia: ‘poor time keeping, lack of commitment to one’s word, limited vision and insufficient planning, emotion-driven rather than fact-based decision making and a strong sense of dependency.’ ‘Vision 3:3:8’ is Chipimo’s formula to rebuild the Zambian political system. This cryptic slogan alludes to 3 desirable outcomes (Zambia as an energy superpower, the continental centre for major agricultural production and the leading inland infrastructure and logistics hub), built upon 3 pillars (governance, energy independence and modernization) supported by 8 core values (excellence, integrity, responsibility, service, equity, humility, commitment and a sense of community). These ideas form the backcloth against which to judge the launch of the National Restoration Party on 2 March 2010, a party which, in the words of its main animator, seeks to (re)introduce an ‘era of service and sacrifice.’
Chipomo’s book, well-written and filled with fine analogies, reads like motivational literature, and a good one at that. This biographical work is clearly informed by the author’s profound desire to explain his current actions and to inspire others to follow. Like any autobiography, it suffers from a number of omissions; this reviewer, for instance, would have hoped to gain more specific insights into his experience as a corporate lawyer in the 1990s. Political scientists such as van de Walle have pondered over the popularity of autobiographies and Curriculum Vitae as campaign tools. The account of a given leader’s personal achievements – they explain – may well serve to disguise programmatic uncertainties or the absence of clear ideological foundations. The future will tell us whether these characterizations also apply to Chipimo and the NAREP.