Adamson Mushala

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Adamson Mushala was the leader of a 200 plus man strong force ranged against the Zambian State then under the leadership of Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda, Zambia’s Independence hero and first president. Mushala who at the height of his insurgency sent shivers and sowed blood curdling fear in the hearts of many civilians and security forces alike, ran riot in the jungles of North-Western province between 1976 and 1982 when he was killed in a counter-insurgency operation by Zambia Army Special Forces.

Emboldened by the Stand of UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) under Jonas Savimbi in neighbouring Angola and the patronage of the South African Military Intelligence through the command of Colonel Jan Dirk “Jannie” Breytenbach of the South African Special forces, Mushala looted, abducted and pillaged and sabotaged the North Western Province of Zambia with impunity.

Between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, Adamson Mushala led the only significant internal armed rebellion against the post-colonial Zambian state. While making no substantial military gains, Mushala succeeded in destabilising the North-Western Province, the site of his insurgency, and creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia among local and national leaders of the ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP). Despite his notoriety during his life and continuing place in the memory of the peoples of the North-Western Province.

Brief History of Mushala’s Rebelion

The Zambian post-colonial state, its artificial borders drawn across powerful ethnolinguistic territories and identities, was threatened by the enduring relevance of such allegiances. Mushala capitalized on the strength of local systems of ethnic affiliation, following in the footsteps of chiefly authorities who had expressed their rejection of UNIP’s national project by leading their people across the barely visible colonial borders separating an enduring Lunda polity or “commonwealth.”

But his rebellion was also fired by the increasingly manifest failure of the independent Zambian state to fulfil its people’s expectations of national social and economic development. He and his supporters consistently acted and saw themselves as the spokesmen of the neglected peoples of the North-Western Province. Finally, the regional (and, during the Cold War, global) dimension of the rebellion stemmed from a geopolitical context in which covert diplomacy and destabilization were the

principal means by which the surviving colonial powers and settler regimes – Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa – sought to neutralize the liberation struggles waged by armed movements operating out of Zambia and other “frontline states.”

Adopting an anti-Communist rhetoric, and striving to manoeuvre in a shadowy world

of armchair conspirators, cynical intelligence agents and gung-ho military instructors,

Mushala and his allies made temporary common cause with the regional enemies of the UNIP-dominated state. In the event, however, the changing profile of South Africa’s foreign policy and its détente initiatives towards Zambia frustrated and even threatened Mushala’s capacity to wage his war. Mushala’s struggle within Zambia, from 1976 to 1982, was fought largely without external support. The insurgency was thus more notable for its political impact than its military significance. For no matter how ineffective and circumscribed, its very existence presented a threat to the fragile hegemony of the Zambian one-party state, rooted as it was in UNIP’s claim to speak on behalf of all Zambian peoples. UNIP perceived the rebellion as evidence of the disloyalty of the peoples of the North-Western Province and feared its diffusion elsewhere in the country. Although hemmed in to a provincial base and reliant on the use of violence, Mushala briefly advanced an alternative vision of independent.

Zambia based on revitalised chiefly authority, capitalist free enterprise, and Western democratic values. For some Zambians, Mushala’s ragged band of fighters, inspired simultaneously by anti-Communism, post-colonial economic discontent and the power of magic, were heroes who resisted the one-party state and, in so doing, paved the way for the pro-democracy movement of 1990-91.

Shortly before the Portuguese coup of April 1974, Mushala’s immediate followers

were transferred from Calunda to Luanda by their DGS handlers. Mushala’s widow, Rejoice, explains this decision by pointing to the need to protect them from the renewed activism of Angolan nationalist forces.74 However, it is equally likely that by relocating the leading

Zambian guerrillas, the Portuguese sought to ensure closer control over their movements. As a result of the coup, Mushala’s supporters in Calunda were granted a form of political asylum in Caprivi in August-September 1974. The agreement stated that the Zambian exiles “will be used as the Republic of South Africa needs them,” but that they will “not take part in any undermining activity against Zambia.” Mushala reluctantly accepted these conditions, but only 23 of his male partisans, together with 43 women and children, followed his lead. This group was transported to Caprivi on a Portuguese military flight on 17 November 1974.75 The Zambians who remained in Calunda appear to have eventually forsaken the military option

and returned to Mwinilunga in 1977, having reached some form of reconciliation with Kaunda.

There is substantial disagreement regarding the extent of military training provided to the Calunda contingent in Caprivi. Whilst official South African documents claimed that training was limited to the defence of the “Zulu” camp in which they resided, Wele states that Mushala’s men were instructed in the use of rifles, hand grenades, bazookas and machine guns.He also suggests, however, that the group was in practice limited to occasional incursions into Zambian territory to lay landmines and to recruit a few villagers to the cause. Given the divisions between and within South African military and political intelligence at this time, it would be unsurprising if the Recces in Caprivi offered Mushala and his men significantly more support than their distrusted political superiors in Pretoria had officially approved.

Breytenbach, whose sympathies were undoubtedly with Mushala, met him on only one occasion, during which he gave him a copy of The War of the Flea, a popular study of the tactics of guerrilla warfare and their successful application in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Following their escape from Caprivi, Mushala and his small group of around twenty supporters trekked north to their home-areas in the North-Western Province. They went first to Mufumbwe, then to the dense forests of Mulumbwanshika, to the north of the Kafue National Park. From January 1976, the Zambian authorities began to receive a steady flow of reports of

armed robbery and shootouts with local police. In March of the same year, Mushala was in Senior Chief Kanongesha’s area, where his forces burned the house of a Rabani Chitenga of Matafwali village.88 By May, when Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Milner reported the capture of Mushala’s base camp, 14 people had been killed (six of whom were poachers mistaken by the police as members of the rebel group).89 In July, Mushala’s men burned one village near Matushi and one near Mufumbwe (four civilian casualties), clashed with the

Zambian Army on two occasions (three army personnel killed), and broke into a school in the Kasempa district.

In September 1976, three months after Kaunda’s press conference linking him to South Africa, Mushala issued a statement denying that he was receiving external logistical support but asserting that, under his rule, Zambia would adopt an anti-Communist stance and open diplomatic relations with South Africa and Rhodesia. Mushala also claimed that his group was targeting government officials, not civilians, in its military actions.91 Despite UNIP’s characterisation of Mushala’s followers as mere “bandits,” the rebels appear to have taken distinctively political actions during this period, for example issuing written propaganda against the one-party state in the Mufumbwe area in as early as February 1976. When, at some point in 1977, Mushala returned to Mwinilunga and held a secret meeting with the then Kanongesha, Sailas Kamonda, he explicitly told the latter that his wish was to contest the presidency of Zambia against Kaunda in competitive elections. He also explained that he was fighting to address the marginalisation of the North-Western Province and its peoples.

Mushala’s programme cannot be summarised into a single coherent agenda for political change. Indeed, the rebellion’s capacity to deliver a range of widely different messages to potential supporters was, like other rural movements, a significant part of its mobilising power. Mushala did, however, produce a “Plan of Action” that amounted to an alternative vision for the organisation and governance of independent Zambia.94 The “Plan” proposed to replace UNIP’s “atheistic” government with a federal multi-party democracy – the “United States of Zambia” (USZ) – consisting of sixteen states, each officially headed by a paramount chief. Considerable powers would be placed in the hands of traditional rulers, with “power in the government … so diffused among different persons so much so that no one person shall be able to make dictatorial laws and impose them on others.” Economic development would lead to the construction of more houses, schools, roads, hospitals, and universities, funded by the opening of new mines. Fundamental human rights would be observed, and an independent press and radio permitted. Churches would be “called upon to play a leading role in nation building of institutions of learning without government interference.” Trading with Rhodesia and South Africa would be sanctioned, and the USZ would adopt a “policy of alignment with the western world.” Free enterprise and economic competition would be supported, state-owned mines, banks and other institutions privatised, and farming encouraged with the concession of the right to buy and sell land.

In April 1976, it was reported that villagers were, on orders from Mushala, tearing down the posters of a UNIP councillor in Musonko’s village. The district governor for Kabompo pointedly remarked in his account of this incident that “Mushala could have been caught if the Zambia Army had been supplied at this time [i.e. informed] of the situation by bush hunting him.”96 The suggestion of a lack of public cooperation with the authorities was strengthened to imply active collusion with the enemy by Bautis Kapulu, the member of UNIP’s central committee for the North-Western Province, who wrote to Kaunda that

“Mushala [knew] very well the movements of our security forces including number plates of the trucks that [were] following him.”97 And a few months later, the same Kapulu admitted that because Mushala knew “the area very well and also the people, it [was] very easy for him to organise in this particular areas and be able to amass support from the local population.”

By the end of 1976, 16 people had been arrested for allegedly supplying Mushala with food and/or information.99 Distrust amongst the security forces of the peoples of the North-Western Province, particularly the Kaonde, led to violence and brutality against civilians suspected of sheltering or supporting the rebels.100 Mushala himself apparently believed in the principles of

guerrilla warfare expounded in The War of the Flea. In an address to his grandly-named “national security council and defence mobilisation council” at his headquarters in the Mulumbwanashika forest, Mushala warned that In 1977, the capture or killing of some members of the original rebel group, including

Mushala’s brother and his “medicine-man,” Yotam Chimwanga, significantly reduced the guerrillas’ activities; they never again reached the previous year’s degree of disruption. Accounts of Mushala’s deeds, however, depicted an increased level of violence by the “gang.”102 It was reported at this time that agricultural production in the province had been adversely affected, for Mushala’s presence made people afraid to go to the fields to farm.

Somewhat contradictorily, accusations of tacit or open support for his activities also became more common. Despite the restriction of his operations primarily to the North-Western Province, Mushala’s frame of reference remained both national and regional. In April 1978, he wrote to Savimbi, arguing that since UNITA and his own “Democratic Supreme Council” (DSC) shared an anti-Communist perspective, they should cooperate along the lines of NATO. But Mushala’s request for supplies of ammunition and mines was apparently not met.104 Although Mushala instructed the chiefs to direct their subjects not to vote for UNIP and Kaunda in the 1978 one-party state elections, UNIP’s fears that Mushala might disrupt the elections in the province were not realised.105 Nevertheless, in 1979 there were renewed rumours of localised famine.106 And in 1980, UNIP’s failure to recruit members in the NorthWestern Province was officially attributed to the danger of violent reprisals from the gang.Mushala mounted a campaign of recruitment and propaganda against the one-party state. He and leading members of the band would travel to villages in Kabompo, Mwinilunga and Solwezi districts, and to the shantytowns of the nearby Copperbelt. They would hold secret nocturnal meetings on the edge of the bush, aimed at those who were discontented with Kaunda and his government.108 Mushala’s lieutenants utilised the familiar discourse of regionally-based thwarted expectations: Although some villagers would flee as the rebels approached, others would stay and engage in discussion. In this way, Mushala’s following grew to a fluctuating force of between 150 and 500 “soldiers” (many of them were actually unarmed) by the late 1970s. The guerrillas would normally camp in small semi-permanent bases, growing some of their own food and acquiring additional foodstuffs and other necessities by trading with villagers, to whom they offered attractive opportunities in a context of economic decline. The rebels would poach ivory and ask the villagers to sell it; the proceeds would then be split equally between them. Other guerrillas were recruited to the cause by more forceful methods. Alex Saimbwende was effectively kidnapped in 1977. By 1979, he had risen to become Mushala’s second-in-command in the DSC. Today, Saimbwende emphasises both the brutality of the one-party state and the allegedly “Communist” orientation of the UNIP government. He also recalls that lack of hospitals, roads, education and other social infrastructure fed people’s malcontent with UNIP. Such materialist ideas ran alongside a profound belief in the power of Chimwanga and his successors’ medicine, the distribution of which Mushala appears to have tightly controlled. Saimbwende says he personally witnessed three occasions when the bullets of Zambian Army soldiers fell away from the body of those wearing charms, carried in a pouch around the neck. Finally, he stresses the importance of bush training to the guerrillas, reporting that the rebels were trained by those who had themselves received instruction from Portuguese and/or South African soldiers. Saimbwende’s descriptions are notable for the absence of effective UNIP or state authority in the remote villages of the North-Western Province. Local UNIP’s officials were amongst those who came and listened to Mushala and his propagandists. Mushala also contacted many local chiefs; whilst few were prepared to offer him active support, a significant number effectively granted free passage to his forces through their areas. Despite UNIP’s hysteria, lack of outside support ensured that the Mushala group remained small and poorly armed. In November 1982, Adamson was cornered and killed by Zambia’s security forces.112 By this time, Mushala’s reputation for trickery and magical disappearances was such that his dead body was publicly displayed, with photographs of the corpse printed in local and international newspapers. After the leader’s death, most of his erstwhile supporters returned to their villages, reducing the band’s number from approximately 160 to 26. Saimbwende, now president of the DSC, wanted to end the struggle, but was convinced by others that they would be killed if they surrendered. Instead, they used their bush skills to survive in remote rural camps until 1990, when Saimbwende was eventually invited by Kaunda to give himself up to the authorities, in exchange for an amnesty that enabled him to retire to the remote farm in Mwinilunga district where he lives today.


Saimbwende’s amnesty was one of a large number that was granted by President Kaunda in mid-1990, as he prepared to accept the return of multi-party democracy, which would shortly thereafter end his 27 years in power. Writing in The Post newspaper in October 2004, Kaunda himself did not question the customary catch-all description of Mushala as “funded by the Boers to destabilise us. Thank God, we walloped him.” For many in the North-Western Province, however, the election of the rebel leader’s son, Berts Mushala, as an independent MP for Mufumbwe in 1996 was an indication of the enduring appeal of his father’s challenge to the failure of the Lusaka-based government to address the concerns of the peoples of what remains a remote and poverty-stricken part of Zambia. Berts’ popularity was noted by the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), which in 2001 made him its candidate for the same constituency. The MMD implemented many of the policies that Mushala had advocated in his “Plan of Action”: privatisation, the right to buy and sell land, an increased role for faith-based organisations in the provision of social infrastructure and a substantially reduced role for the state. While in no way inspired by Mushala’s thinking, the MMD’s agenda made it viable for its local officials to establish a linkage between their party and the rebel’s memory – a linkage aptly symbolised by the appointment of Berts Mushala as minister for the North-Western Province early in 2002.

By mid-2005, when the younger Mushala was removed from his post, the economic marginality of the province was apparently being transformed. The opening of new local copper mines and extensive prospecting for copper and other minerals coincided with unprecedentedly high international mineral prices. This led to widespread speculation that the area could, in the words of President Levy Mwanawasa, become the “new Copperbelt.” Plans are afoot for new rail links between the recently inaugurated mines and Solwezi, the provincial capital, and the Copperbelt and Angola.116 Yet questions have inevitably arisen as to whether the supposed provincial boom will actually benefit local people. North-westerners living in the vicinity of the new Lumwana mine pointed to the removal of copper ore to refineries outside the province and were sceptical that any lasting advantage would flow to them. Indeed, Berts’ demotion and his replacement by a Nyanja-speaking outsider from the Eastern Province were perceived as signs that the province’s resources were now too important to be left to its people to benefit from.117 Strong and potentially exclusionary forms of local identity; a cynicism bred from decades of broken developmental promises and imperfect integration into the post-colonial state; a fundamental weakness vis-à-vis the vagaries of the international political and economic conjuncture – the complex combination of local, national and regional forces by which Mushala was made (and unmade) continues to shape the destiny of his province.

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