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Zambia - History

Zambia History

Zambia's history goes back to the debut of Homo sapiens: evidence of human habitation going back 100,000 years has been found at Kabwe, north of Lusaka. Beginning around 1000 AD, Swahili-Arab slave-traders gradually penetrated the region from their city-states on the eastern coast of Africa. Between the 14th and 16th centuries a Bantu-speaking group known as the Maravi migrated from present-day Congo (Zaïre) and established kingdoms in eastern and southeastern Zambia.

In the 18th century, Portuguese explorers following the routes of Swahili-Arab slavers from the coast into the interior became the first known European visitors. After the Zulu nation to the south began scattering its neighbors, victims of the Difaqane (forced migration) began arriving in Zambia in the early 19th century. Squeezed out of Zimbabwe, the Makalolo people moved into southern Zambia, pushing the Tonga out of the way and grabbing Lozi territory on the upper Zambezi River.

The celebrated British explorer David Livingstone travelled up the Zambezi in the 1850s, searching for a route into the interior of Southern Africa, hoping to introduce Christianity and European civilisation to combat the horrors of the slave trade. Livingstone's efforts attracted missionaries, who in turn brought hunters and prospectors in their wake. In the 1890s much of Zambia came under the control of the British South Africa Company (BSAC), which sought to prevent further Portuguese expansion in the area.

Under the BSAC, the area became Northern Rhodesia in 1911. At about the same time, vast copper ore deposits were discovered in the north-central part of the territory (the area now called the Copperbelt). Large-scale mining operations were set up and local Africans employed as labourers. They had little choice: they needed money to pay the hut tax introduced by the Europeans, and their only other source of income vanished when much of their farmland was appropriated by European settlers. The colony was put under direct British control in 1924.

Settlers began pushing for federation with Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Malawi) - an arrangement delayed by WWII until 1953. Meanwhile, African nationalism spread throughout the country. British rule ended in 1963, when the federation dissolved and Northern Rhodesia took the name Zambia, after the Zambezi River. The new country suffered from a legacy of British rule under which the Brits taxed Zambians to the bone, and spent most of that money on Southern Rhodesia - a drain that continued to plague the country well into the 1990s.

Following independence, Kenneth Kaunda led Zambia for 27 years, a feat he accomplished by declaring the UNIP the only legal party and himself as the sole presidential candidate. Calling his mix of Marxism and traditional African values 'humanism', Kaunda rapidly bankrupted the country with a bloated civil service and a nationalisation scheme wracked by corruption and mismanagement. Falling copper prices and rising fuel prices accelerated the slide, and by the end of the 1970s Zambia was one of the poorest countries in the world. Not content to fiddle at home, Kaunda stuck his nose in the domestic political spats of several of his neighbours, including Ian Smith's Rhodesia, who promptly restricted Zambia's imports and exports by closing its rail routes to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Desperate by the mid-1980s, Kaunda turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose severe conditions for aid - withdrawing basic food subsidies and floating the currency - sent prices skyrocketing and touched off nationwide riots that killed thousands. A further round of price hikes in the early 1990s led to more rioting, but this time Zambians demanded a cure rather than a salve: bring back multiparty democracy. Kaunda capitulated with an amended constitution, legalised opposition parties and full elections in October 1991. When labour leader Frederick Chiluba won a landslide victory as president, Kaunda had the good grace to bow out peacefully. Chiluba immediately began to woo the IMF, the World Bank and private investors, introducing austerity measures that drove food prices up and the value of the kwacha down. Chiluba also set about reforming the civil service and reprivatising or closing failed government enterprises.

With Chiluba's popularity plummeting, Kaunda briefly threatened to return to the political stage. However, in May of 1996, Parliament passed a bill that limited a president's service to two terms, hence thwarting Kaunda's political aspirations. Chiluba effectively eliminated all serious opposition and triumphed handily. Two independent election monitors who dared to suggest that the election was neither free nor fair were arrested, and journalists were suspended for showing insufficient enthusiasm for Chiluba's victory. A group of dissatisfied army officers staged a failed coup attempt in October 1997, to which Chiluba responded by declaring a state of emergency for several months and charging over 100 people with treason. Regional troubles moved in a new direction in 1999, when the Angolan government accused Zambia of backing the UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) rebels in that country's ongoing civil war. Zambia in turn stated that Angola's accusations were the result of Zambia's refusal to get involved in the conflict by denying permission to Angola to battle UNITA rebels on Zambian land.

Despite fears that Chiluba would overstay his welcome, he was replaced at the December 2001 elections. His party, the MUD, was not. Chiluba's hand-picked successor Levy Mwanawasa won the vote, amid opposition claims of electoral fraud. Although a High Court challenge for an election recount has been denied, opposition parties are blocking legislative process in the National Assembly. In addition to a lack of parliamentary support, key issues facing Chiluba's replacement are economic problems in the mining and agriculture industries, in particular a grain shortage that is apparently having widespread effects among the population.

Despite the political chaos, the election, however flawed, returned one of the most broadly based democratic parliaments the country has seen, putting an end to the rubber-stamp, one-party system that has ruled since independence. Visitors to Zambia should keep an eye on political developments and any civil unrest that may accompany it.

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