High poverty levels and the skewed distribution of resources in Zambia's poorest province is stirring secession talk - with an ethnic dimension.
"The tensions in Western Province are a consequence of the neglect that the place has suffered in terms of socio-economic and infrastructure development," Thomas Mabwe, head of Development Studies at the Zambia Open University, told IRIN.
"Poverty levels in Western Province are the highest in the country, and there is very little to show in terms of infrastructure development. So, to some extent, people are just reacting to that under-development of their region," he said.
Earlier this month Mungu, the capital of Western Province, saw protests demanding independence for the region: Violent clashes with security forces left three dead, including a nine-year-old child, and 12 others were hospitalized.
The protests started with a poster and flier campaign by a group calling themselves the Black Bulls, which urged all of the province's "non-inhabitants" (non-Lozi) to leave the province by 15 January 2011, or risk being hacked to death.
Western Province is home to the Lozi-speaking people, one of the biggest of Zambia’s 73 ethnic groups. The minority Nkoyas and Mbunda ethnic groups in the province were classed as "non-inhabitants" in the poster campaign.
Police have arrested 24 Lozi-speaking people and charged them with treason, an offence that carries the death penalty.
Western Province was a British Protectorate known as Barotseland [Land of the Lozi people] while the remainder of Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia, was administered as a British colony.
Ahead of independence (1964) and to facilitate a unitary state, the two territories were united by a pact known as the Barotse Agreement, which among other things, called for equal distribution of resources.
|There is nothing independent about us [the Lozis]; we are not free. We will continue [with protests] because what we want is our nation [Barotseland]|
"The Government of the Republic of Zambia shall have the same general responsibility for providing financial support for the administration and economic development of Barotseland as it has for other parts of the Republic and shall ensure that, in discharge of this responsibility, Barotseland is treated fairly and equitably in relation to other parts of the Republic," said the 1964 Barotse Agreement signed by Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda; Northern Rhodesia’s last governor, Evelyn Hone; and the then Lozi king Mwanawina Lewanika.
In October 2010, the government removed the Barotse Agreement from the new draft constitution, which immediately led to widespread protests in the province.
Grace Muyangana, leader of the Barotse Freedom Movement which is calling for the province's independence, led a campaign to pull down the national flag from public institutions and boycott the 24 October Independence Day celebrations.
"There is nothing independent about us [the Lozis]; we are not free. We will continue [with protests] because what we want is our nation [Barotseland]," she told local media at the time.
Western Province social indicators show poverty levels at 84 percent, against the national average of 64 percent, an indicator that has remained unchanged in six national surveys conducted by the government’s Central Statistical Office since 1991, the year multi-party politics was re-introduced in Zambia.
While 19 percent of Zambian households have access to electricity, only 3.5 percent of families in Western Province have it, and 53.4 percent of the province’s households have no toilets.
The province has no industry to speak of and the South African chain store, Shoprite Checkers, represents the only foreign investment in the region, with fishing being the predominant economic activity for the 700,000 inhabitants.
Paul Duffy, a Roman Catholic Church missionary in the province for 25 years, told IRIN: "People keep hearing promises from government leaders, especially during election campaigns and they vote for them [government leaders] expecting those developmental programmes to be implemented. The people are still waiting for action."
"The solution to this problem [in Western Province] is for the government to pay attention to the particular issues of development in the province," said Mabwe of the Zambia Open University.
Lee Habasonda, executive director of the regional governance watchdog, the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), warned government against down-playing the issue and called for dialogue.
"The approach taken by those calling for the Barotseland restoration [secession] and the government has a distabilizing effect on Zambia as a unitary state. The protesters should not call for secession or chase away non-Lozi speaking people because they are endangering other Lozi people who are outside Western Province."
"This can undermine national security. Government should call for dialogue and hear the issues that the people have or else we may end up with a state of emergency which is never good in a democratic country," Habasonda told IRIN.
National elections are scheduled for this year and analysts fear if the Western Province issue remains unresolved it could become a flashpoint for election violence.
Stanley Mhango, president of Foundation Democratic Process, an elections and good governance watchdog, commented: "This can greatly compromise our 2011 general elections because it has the capacity to create anarchy in the country; people should be aware that it is easy to lose peace and stability but very difficult to restore it."
President Rupiah Banda pipped presidential challenger and leader of the Patriotic Front (PF) Michael Sata to the post by a 2 percent margin, after a presidential snap-election was called in the wake of President Levy Mwanawasa's death (August 2008), although Sata garnered virtually no votes in Western Province.
Sata has backed calls for the recognition of the Barotse Agreement and its re-inclusion into the national constitution.
"The Barotse Agreement is still a valid agreement. How can you ignore an agreement that was signed, sealed and delivered almost 47 years ago? There is no honest person who can deny the existence and validity of the Barotse Agreement. I am ready to spend two months in Barotseland to help fight for their rights," he told local media in the aftermath of the protests in Western Province.
"The PF government will honour the Barotse Agreement without hesitation because we have no problems with it. We see nothing wrong with it," Sata, who opposed recognition of the same agreement when a cabinet minister in Chiluba’s government, said.
Banda has dismissed claims of lopsided development in Western Province, but conceded that the region may have been neglected.
"Yes, we haven’t done everything. It’s impossible to do everything at one time. That would be like magic. We have started on the path to the development of our country. Our country was in [a] shambles for a long time. Our party has begun to attend to these problems," Banda told a public meeting on 15 January in Luapula, northern Zambia.
"We are rebuilding the hospitals in our country, including in Western Province. We can’t build all of them at one time. I wish I was a magician because then I would strike once and all the hospitals would germinate; [but] we can’t do that."
Banda said the situation had been brought firmly under control and his administration would "ensure that precious province known as Western Province remains part and parcel of our country".