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RELIGIOUS INNOVATION AND POLITICAL CONFLICT IN ZAMBIA

The Lumpa rising (Part I)

Wim van Binsbergen

homepage | index page Lumpa | Part II | Part III | Part IV

The Lumpa problem[1]

When in January 1976, in response to a complex national and international crisis, President Kaunda of Zambia announced a state of public emergency, he in fact merely re-activated the dormant state of emergency that had been declared in July 1964 by the then Governor of Northern Rhodesia, in connexion with the rising of Alice Lenshina’s separatist church, commonly called ‘Lumpa’. in the rural areas of north-eastern Zambia the fighting between state troops and the church’s members had ceased in October 1964, leaving an estimated death toll of about 1,500.[2] But the state of emergency (implying increased powers for the government executive) was allowed to continue. It was renewed every six months and lived through both the attainment of territorial independence (October 1964) and the creation (December 1972) of the Second Republic under the exclusive leadership of Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP). The Lumpa aftermath, including the continued presence of thousands of Lumpa refugees in Zaire just across the Zambian border was repeatedly cited as a reason for this continuation.[3]

                        It is not only in this respect that the Lumpa rising at the verge of independence appears as a key episode for an understanding of post-colonial Zambia. The event lives on as an important reference point in the idiom of the Zambian elite. Sometimes reference is made to it to express governmental and party assertiveness, as in Kaunda’s remark at a mass rally in January 1965:[4]

We have no intention whatsoever ...of legislating against the formation of any other party, so long as their behaviour inside Parliament and outside is responsible. If they misbehave, in accordance with the law of the country we shall ban them. If they misbehave, l repeat misbehave, we shall ban them as we banned the Lumpa Church.

More often, the Lumpa example is used to point out the dangers of religious sectarianism for national unity and stable government. This is most clear in the case of African Watchtower, one of Zambia’s largest religious groupings, with a long history of clashes with the colonial government. Shortly after independence, Watchtower adherents incurred the wrath of government and the party for their refusal to register as voters, buy party cards or honour the Zambian flag and national anthem. In that context, comparisons with the Lumpa Church were frequently made, partly in justification of the tough measures taken against Watchtower.[5] The use of Lumpa as a reference point, and the comparison between Lumpa and Watchtower, have become so commonplace that the Zambian historian Meebelo,[6] himself a government official, somewhat anachronistically reaches for the Lumpa example (1963-4) in order to stress features of early Watchtower in 1918.[7] Likewise, reference to the Lumpa events played an important role in the discussion, within the Zambian government, that led to the final banning of the Zambian wing of the Zaire-founded ‘Church of Christ on Earth through Simon Kimbangu’.

                        But the most typical attitude towards the Lumpa episode among the Zambian elite has been one of embarrassment and silence. One gets the impression of a home truth that one is not at all keen to share with outsiders. The rising was not only a national crisis but also a crisis in the home ties and kin relations of UNIP’s top leadership. Chinsali district, where the conflict concentrated, was the home both of the nationalist leaders Kaunda and Kapwepwe, and the Lumpa foundress, Lenshina. Kaunda and Lenshina had been at the same school. Robert Kaunda, the President’s elder brother, was a top-ranking Lumpa leader, whilst their mother, the late Mrs Helen Kaunda, was reported as having been ‘close to the movement’.[8] But it was not just childhood reminiscences and family ties that made Kaunda’s decision, three months before independence, ‘to use force against the Lumpas.... as he told me at the time, the hardest decision he had ever taken in his life’.[9]

                        The long and hard struggle for independence had seemed over with the January 1964 election, which gave the then Northern Rhodesia its first African party government under UNIP.[10] The world’s eyes were on what was soon to be Zambia. After campaigning for black government for years, UNIP, Kaunda and his cabinet, however ‘well-balanced and extremely capable’,[11] now had to prove themselves. The country was ready to reap all the economic, social and moral benefits that self-government was expected to entail.

                        At this extremely inconvenient moment the Lumpa rising had to occur. It demanded a death toll far exceeding that of the general clashes (commonly called ‘Chachacha’) between the colonial government and the nationalists in 1961.[12] The rising manifested the existence of massive and intransigent opposition to UNIP and to an African government, in the part of Zambia that had been UNIP’s main rural stronghold. For years the UNIP leadership, and foremost Kaunda, had through tremendous efforts rather successfully attempted to keep the rank and file of their party membership from violent anti-white agitation; but now the Lumpa rising forced an African government to direct a predominantly African military force against fellow-Africans. Kaunda was compelled to suspend his Gandhist principles of non-violence, which until then had been such an integral aspect of his identity as a nationalist leader, and of his splendid international image. Also, the rising could not fail to focus attention on such acts of violence by local UNIP members as were, from the beginning, recognised to constitute part of its causes.[13] An extensive process of attempted reconciliation, undertaken by Kaunda and other senior UNIP leaders in the months preceding the final conflict, had failed. Instead of the nationalists’ promise of a new, proud African order there was chaos and fratricide. White racialists, and critics of nationalism, could sit back and rejoice. The blow to nationalist self-confidence was almost fatal.

                        While the insurrection was effectively quashed, angry declarations of the obvious juridical justifications of this state action, as issued by Kaunda and his cabinet, could barely hide the distress and embarrassment of the nationalist leaders. In the terrible dilemma, it was soon realised that reconciliation not retaliation was the only way out. Whilst Lumpa’s alleged fanaticism, criminality and heresies were vehemently condemned, measures were taken to limit the number of casualties to an absolute minimum. Local people who were loyal to the state and the party were urged to refrain from all retaliation. Rehabilitation camps were erected and resettling campaigns were vigorously undertaken. When captured, the Lumpa Church’s senior leadership, including Lenshina, were treated respectfully. An amnesty for the Lumpa rank and file was declared in 1968. However, the ban on the Lumpa Church imposed in August 1964 was not lifted, and Lenshina remained in custody.

                        After the rising the Lumpa adherents found themselves dispersed all over north-eastern Zambia. Because of difficulties in resettling in their home areas, among people with whom they had fought, a gradual exodus took place to Zaire. In the years 1965-8 the number of Lumpa refugees in that country increased to about 19,000, and only about 3,000 returned to Zambia after concentrated governmental effort in 1968.[14] The Lumpas in exile have continued to form a reminder of what by now has taken the proportion of a major trauma of the Zambian nationalist dream. The main other reminder consists of the occasional trials of individuals who within Zambia were caught in the act of reviving the Lumpa Church’s organization and ritual (revolving particularly around Lenshina’s talented hymns). Such trials, in which again a reconciliatory attitude prevails, occurred in small numbers throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.[15] The final gesture of reconciliation was Lenshina’s release in December 1975.[16]

                        The extent to which the Lumpa rising and its aftermath does constitute a collective trauma for the Zambian elite can also be gauged from the silence surrounding it. The occasional vindications by the UNIP leadership at the time of the rising, justifying state action, and Meebelo’s cursory reference as cited above are virtually the only published statements on the subject by members of the Zambian elite. The 1965 official Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the Former Lumpa Church[17] is not easily available within Zambia. Expatriate writers who covered the details of the creation of independent Zambia, and who therefore for their data collection and publication were highly dependent on official introductions and clearances, are remarkably reticent on the subject.[18] They have certainly not attempted any interpretation of the significance of the Lumpa rising. The final conflict, and the preceding rise and development of the Lumpa Church, are still considered topics too sensitive for research within Zambia.

                        Thus in this time of rapidly expanding insights into African religious innovation, our knowledge of and insight into the Lumpa episode remains rather stagnant. At present, the literature on the subject mainly consists of the following categories of publications:[19]

1     Exploratory scholarly studies of the Lumpa Church as an independent church in colonial Northern Rhodesia, written before the final conflict broke out.[20]

2   A host of journalistic pieces covering the events of the 1964 rising.

3     Scholarly articles and notes in which soon after the rising a considerable number of specialists on African religious innovation and Central African society interpreted the conflict, thus providing often hurried attempts to add a scientific background to the journalistic accounts. Publications in this category mainly refer to the pre-conflict studies under 1.[21]

4   A few scholarly publications in which the available material, including some unpublished data, is synthesised, and attempts are made at more comprehensive interpretation.[22]

The empirical basis is still rather scanty, and so far there is no accomplished full-size study[23] interpreting the Lumpa episode within a widely acceptable theoretical framework. Yet the literature is sufficiently voluminous for the Lumpa Church to become a standard reference in Africanist writing over the past two decades. Here, to give a few instances, Lumpa is cited as an institutionalised witchcraft-eradication movement;[24] as a case in point for the claim that independent churches re-enact traditional opportunities for female leadership;[25] as an example of the religious expression of nationalism;[26] as a ‘stark corrective [of the view that] all anti-administration movements were forerunners of mass nationalism’;[27]and, finally, as an example of the post-colonial rivalry between state and church.[28]

                        As this selection of contradictory references makes clear, the relations between the Lumpa Church and the power structure of Zambian society, both before and after Independence, constitute a major interpretational difficulty. It is in this respect that Lumpa forms a key to the under standing of contemporary Zambia.

                        My claim of Lumpa’s significance is somewhat at variance with the attention given to the rising in the two main recent studies of Zambian politics.[29] Both studies summarise the basic facts concerning the rising and its aftermath. However, in their interpretation they are rather reserved .

                        Pettman writes:[30]

Subnational threats to Zambia’s unity and security are not only seen in tribalism, regionalism, and other sectional interests, but also in group loyalties like those of the Lumpas and the Watchtower Sect. These religious groups are held to differ from others in that their behaviour and beliefs are ‘political’, a perceived challenge to the existing or desired authority of the party and government.

Correct as this assessment may be, as an analysis of a major episode in modern Zambian politics it remains on the surface. In what respect are such primarily religious phenomena as Lumpa and Watchtower, political? Why do they represent a threat to the political establishment and why is the latter’s perception of this threat sufficient reason for suppression and violence? These are some of the questions Pettman ignores, and to which the present chapter attempts to give an answer.

                        In Tordoff’s book, Politics in Zambia, Molteno’s brief discussion of Lumpa and Watchtower[31] revolves around the question: what cleavages exist in modern Zambian society that could be a mobilisation basis for political conflict within the existing, formal party organization and the representative institutions of the Zambian political system? For Molteno, religious affiliation ‘could form the social basis for political conflict, but ...has not done so’.[32] Within the context of his argument, Molteno’s narrow conception of political conflict is justified; and it conveniently excludes Lumpa and Watchtower troubles from a discussion of political conflict. Yet conflict it remains, and with far-reaching implications for the distribution of power - the subject matter of politics. Therefore, Molteno’s explanation of why the unmistakable religious cleavage has failed to precipitate political conflict in the narrower sense of the word. does not convince:[33]

The reasons are that Watch Tower and Lumpa together form less than 5% of the population, and both movements in any case reject political participation.

Is Molteno suggesting that if there had been more Lumpa adherents, they would have challenged UNIP in the arena of Zambia’s formal political institutions, instead of engaging in battle against government troops, brandishing their battle axes and spears and firing an occasional muzzle-loader?

                        What makes Molteno’s approach unhelpful for an understanding of Lumpa, is that it takes the existing, formal political system, such as defined by the political elite themselves, as its exclusive frame of reference. This would deny us the possibility of exploring the limits of that system, and of identifying such social groups and institutions as, peripheral to or outside the formal political system, may legitimate it, challenge it, or opt out of it. If it is true that any political system can only be understood in its wider social context, this is particularly so in the case of a post-colonial state that still has to consolidate itself through processes of incorporation and legitimation. The significance of Lumpa (and of Watchtower) is that it demonstrates the limits of these processes. Beyond these limits a considerable number of Zambians refuse to be drawn into the post-colonial state, and reject its claims to legitimate power. Studying the Zambian political system from this angle helps to reveal its dynamic, even precarious nature - instead of taking this system for granted as an established and self-contained fact.

                        The Zambian political system is of recent date. It is not yet so deeply rooted in every part of the Zambian soil and population that it can afford to ignore challenges from outside this political system, challenges that undermine its legitimation and threaten its most fundamental assumptions. It is along such lines that I will attempt, in this chapter, to interpret Lumpa’s relations with nationalism and the state against the background of the process of class formation. Such an approach is only meaningful if the following related problems are discussed at the same time. Because of what structural conditions should the post-colonial state experience difficulties of incorporation and legitimation, particularly with regard to peasants in remote rural areas? For the rural adherents of Lumpa form only a small part of the large class of Zambian peasants; and difficulties similar to Lumpa exist elsewhere in rural Zambia, although without the specific Lumpa features of a large, rural-based independent church and armed mass resistance.[34] Moreover, we shall have to identify Lumpa’s specific dimensions of power, particularly in terms of class and class struggle. Thus we may begin to understand Lumpa’s relations with nationalism and the state, including the final conflict. Finally, as a religious movement, Lumpa is only one in a long series of religious innovations that have occurred in Central Africa during the last centuries. The latest decade has seen considerable growth of our insight into these religious innovations, their interconnectedness, and their causes. What new light does this emerging, comprehensive analysis of Central African religious innovation throw upon the Lumpa movement?

                        As my argument develops, it will become clear that these several problems are intimately related, mainly through the themes of urban-rural relations, incorporation processes, and class formation - which are in fact three different terms for the same phenomenon Meanwhile, the relations between religion, politics and the economic order, as exemplified by the Lumpa problem, constitute a core problem of society and history. The present argument, however ambitious, does not pretend to solve the problem But perhaps it rearranges the pieces in a way that may be helpful towards a future solution.

                        Reserving the order in which the specific problems raised by Lumpa were mentioned above, I shall now first discuss the background of religious innovation in Central Africa; then place Lumpa in this context; finally, after a discussion of its confrontation with nationalism, I shall deal with the problems of incorporation and legitimation of the Zambian state from a more general point of view.


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[1]                      Given the circumstances described in the opening section of this paper, l could not carry out local field-work specifically on the Lumpa Church. The general argument is backed up by prolonged research in Zambia, both in the Zambian National Archives and in various urban and rural field-work settings. Moreover, while in Zambia I informally interviewed a limited number of people with first-hand knowledge of the Lumpa Church, some of them personally involved in its history. However, the specific argument on Lumpa is primarily based on published sources (including the Zambian press) and secondary analyses, most of which are listed in the bibliography. My purpose is not to present new data but to attempt a new interpretation on the basis of available data. For the present chapter, l am indebted to R. Buijtenhuijs C. Holzappel, A. Kuper and G. Verstraelen-Gilhuis† for comments on an earlier draft, and to L. Lagerwerf for bibliographical assistance. My greatest debt is to S. Simonse, who took a keen interest in this study and generously contributed towards its leading ideas.

[2]                      Times of Zambia, 20 September 1969, as quoted in Gertzel (n .d .) :41.

[3]                      Tordoff and Molteno (1974):12; Sklar (1974):359; Pettman (1974):95.

[4]                      Legum (1966):209.

[5]                        Mwanakatwe (1968):253f; Phiri (1975); Hodges (1976); Sklar (1974):359; Pettman (1974):29, 96f;Assimeng (1970):110f.

[6]                      Meebelo (1971):141.

[7]                        Interestingly, the comparison was suggested to Meebelo by the influential Nestor of Zambian Protestant ministers of religion, the late Rev. Mushindo, whose refusal to accommodate Alice any longer within the Lubwa Mission congregation formed the occasion for the founding of Lumpa as an independent Church. On early Watchtower, see note 45.

[8]                      Hall (1968):229f.

[9]                      Legum (1966):xii.

[10]                   For detailed studies of Zambia’s attainment of independence, see: Mulford (1967); Hall (1968); Krishnamurty (1972).

[11]                   Mulford (1967):330.

[12]                   Cf. Hall (1968:209) for some conservative figures on the death toll of ‘Chachacha’. Macpherson (1974:340f) gives a more vivid, lengthy description suggestive of a large number of casualties, but does not actually provide an estimate On the basis of confidential government reports to which Short, a former district officer, had access at the time, he quotes a number of about fifty fatal casualties (Short 1978).

[13]                   Report 1965, as quoted in Gertzel (n.d.):40, and in Times of Zambia, 22 September 1965; Kaunda in Legum (1966):108; Roberts (1972):39f.

[14]                   Zambia Mail, 4 and 21 June 1968.

[15]                   E.g., Daily Mail (Zambia),2 June and 17 July 1972; Times of Zambia, 21 March; I,5,20 and 25 April; and 14,16 and 20 May 1972.

[16]                   Mirror (Zambia),45, February 1976: 3. Lenshina died on 7 December 1978 (Zambia Daily Mail, 8 December 1978).

[17]                   Report (1965).

[18]                   Hall (1968); Mulford (1967); Macpherson (1974); Rotberg (1967);Krishnamurty (1972).

[19]                   For fuller bibliographical references, particularly to more obscure publications and journalistic pieces, see: Roberts (1972); Calmettes (1970); Mitchell and Turner (1966): Ofori (1977).

[20]                   Rotberg (1961); Lehmann (1961); Macpherson (1958); Stone (1958); Oger (1960); Chéry (1959, 1961). Oosthuizen (1968:65) refers to an article by Audrey I. Richards on the subject, which however does not appear in Gulliver’s (1972) bibliography of the principal writings of Audrey Richards, and most probably does not exist.

[21]                        Anonymous (1964); Emanuel (1964); Fernandez (1964b); Martin (1964); Douglas (1964b);Welbourn (1964); Heward (1964); B.R. Wilson (1964); Roberts (1964).

[22]                        Lanternari (1965-6); Greschat (1968); Calmettes (1970, 1972); Roberts (1972).

[23]                   While this was written, J.-L. Calmettes was working on his MSc Econ thesis on the subject, for University College of Wales; cf. Calmettes (1978) and below.

[24]                   B.R. Wilson (1975):94f; Greschat (1965): 101 f

[25]                        Shepperson (1970):48; Lehmann (1963):68.

[26]                   Banton(1970):225.

[27]                        Henderson (1970a) :591.

[28]                   Barrett (1968):246f; Peel (1973):349.

[29]                   Tordoff ( I 974); Pettman 1974.

[30]                   Pettman (1974):94.

[31]                   Molteno (1974):85f

[32]                   Molteno (1974):85.

[33]                   Molteno (1974):86.

[34]                   I have myself studied a similar peasant situation in western Zambia (Van Binsbergen, 1975a, 1975b, 1976b, 1977c, 1978, 1979c, and forthcoming (a)).

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