LUSAKA, Zambia – A prominent separatist group in Zambia is called Linyunga-ndambo, which means "that which shakes the neighbor" in a regional language. And the more than 60 Zambians charged with treason for trying to secede did shake things up this week when they told magistrates that they can't be tried because they are citizens of another state.
A key figure who was not in the courtroom on Tuesday is Afumba Mombotwa, a former official at the Zambian foreign ministry who was educated in London and is now on the run. He is the founding chairman of the separatist movement in Western Province, and has declared himself administrator of the so-called Royal Barotseland government, which seeks to run its own affairs.
Britain's colonial history in the region as well as ethnic divisions form the backdrop to a dispute that has compounded problems for President Michael Sata. He completes two years in office on Friday amid concerns about his health as well as reports of political infighting with the next presidential and legislative elections coming in 2016. The ruling Patriotic Front Party had pledged more jobs as well as a review of tax laws for Zambia's copper mines so as to allot more money to development, but separatists in the impoverished west say the region has not received the promised benefits, and they want to chart their own way.
Many residents in the rural area rely on maize and other crops, as well as cattle-raising, for their livelihoods. There is a lack of paved roads and other basic services in the province. Some critics have accused the central government of intentionally denying funds to the politically troublesome area in past years, but central authorities have said they are committed to building more roads, clinics and schools there.
The separatists who were rounded up by police denied the charge of treason, which carries a maximum penalty of death, at the court hearing in Mongu, the capital of Western Province. They argued that it was illegal for Zambian courts to try them and said other organizations — the United Nations, for example, or the African Union — could set up a tribunal to handle their cases.
Magistrate Benson Mwanandiwa adjourned the case to Oct. 2, saying such issues should be decided by the southern African country's High Court, which is the only tribunal that can hand down a death sentence.
Zambia has blocked local access to several separatist websites, including those of the Barotse Post, Limulunga Post and Barotseland Radio.
Western Province, a former British protectorate called Barotseland and home to the Lozi ethnic group, was united with the rest of Zambia at independence in 1964, but separatists want implementation of an old agreement that provided for self-rule. Anti-government rallies have occasionally turned violent.
Separatist leader Mombotwa, who studied sociology at the University of London and took a communications course at another school in London, worked for the Zambian government first as a cotton officer in the ministry of agriculture and then in the communications department of the foreign ministry until he retired in 2010. Mombotwa, 58, then formed Linyunga-ndambo, one of several breakaway groups in the province.
"The law will deal with him severely because he can't declare a state within a state," Defense Minister Geoffrey Mwamba, told national broadcaster ZNBC.
Mombotwa has said he wants a transitional government in Western Province for up to three years, followed by democratic elections that would elect a prime minister to serve in collaboration with a traditional monarch.
Some people in Western Province are concerned about the separatist push. David Kunyanda, a small retail trader in Mongu, said secession would hurt his business.
"Breaking away from Zambia will bring trade difficulties on people like me and even more misery on ordinary people, most of whom are now oppressed by poverty," Kunyanda said.
"We need development and not secession."