__A Review of “The Musakanya Papers”__
First off the book’s negatives: I’m not sure that the late Mr. Valentine Musakanya (VM) would be overly impressed with the quality of this book, both esthetically and editorially – in the sense of proof reading, not the quality of the content itself. Esthetically, the book looks like it was printed on a home printer, even though a Zambian commercial publisher is listed, and it has the most plain and unattractive cover design: This would bother a man who once distinguished himself as a rising star in a company known for its impeccable packaging (IBM), especially since it is written for a popular readership. And most unforgivably, the book even has some important appendix pages missing (at least from my copy), from page 103 to 118! (When I tried to take the book back to the shop to see if I could get an explanation or an exchange, I was told, in typical Zambian service fashion, that there was only one person I could talk to and he was obviously not available; I was advised to keep randomly checking for him – I could be lucky to catch him one day!)
Editorially, it seems there was not much proof reading. Even something as concrete as his year of death could not be kept consistent: in the first sentence of the editor’s introduction, it is given as 1994; by the second paragraph of the same page, it has mysteriously changed to 1995, without any account of an interim miraculous resurrection!
Typos can be seen even at the back cover before you open the book (“This volumes [sic] is the first in a printed series â€¦,” we are told). The acknowledgements are written in the first person but do not identify the writer, even though it is neither the editor nor the subject (VM). One has to guess that it is one of his children, but only after reading through, because it ends with the words “…my late father” in reference to the subject. The publishers should have noticed that a name was missing instead of leaving it to the reader’s deductions. If one reader can notice these omissions and discrepancies only at first glance, how could the publisher’s editing team miss them when detailed inspection is their specific job? Only in Africa.
The sad irony here is that the book itself relates how seriously Mr. Musakanya took the issue of competence and professionalism; it was clearly an obsession of his throughout his life. It was in fact his biggest vision and legacy in his work as the first head of the Zambian civil service. So one would expect that at the very least a book dedicated to his memory would deliberately attempt to reflect his own ruthless attention to detail.
But these shortcomings should not detract an honest seeker of truth from the precious gems found in this book. Perhaps one might even rationalize that these conspicuous weaknesses are a faithful embodiment of the most tragic truth about his life: Mr. Musakanya’s vision of a competent and highly professional Zambian culture and workforce was never fulfilled, not during his life and not even a decade after his death (evidently).
But enough with the negatives. The reason I went out to buy the book in the first place was because I had read a positive review by Dr. Guy Scott in the Post that suggested that Mr. Musakanya’s memoirs contained some rather revelatory things against Kenneth Kaunda’s despotic rule. Having felt like a lone voice after writing some articles of my own against our inexplicably resurgent first president, I wanted to see if indeed there were some honest voices from the grave that wanted to keep Kaunda in his rightfully discredited place in Zambian history. In that regard alone, this book is an invaluable piece of treasure. I’ve obviously never had any personal acquaintance of KK, but the articles quoted from in this book were written by a man who knew him quite closely (the book even has some pictures of them together).
Besides realizing that the man had already written every thing that I’ve written about Kenneth Kaunda and more, I was also pleasantly surprised to find that he also realized that an individualist (or “Western”) capitalist ideology was the key to Zambia’s prosperity. He wrote that he believed “in utmost freedom of the individual – even at the risk of anarchism. Only a nation of free individuals can advance” and “to allow free play of individual initiatives, which are more efficient than the state, free enterprise must play a larger role.” He was perhaps not as radical as this Hayekian writer (I believe the government should progressively work towards having absolutely no role in the economy beyond protecting private property), but even his moderately capitalist position was still good enough to have prevented the poverty we still suffer had Kaunda listened to him instead of taking the dominantly socialist route he took; we would have been at least as wealthy as Singapore (Zambia was richer than Singapore at independence).
VM’s insights also predate other modern Zambian writers. When Dambisa Moyo was still a crawling toddler, Valentine Musakanya presciently declared: “World Bank loans will never create a base for take-off, but [only] adds to foreign indebtedness which sooner than later will have to be paid.”
It was very surprising for me to learn that there were people even back in this time who, without the benefit of hindsight that we enjoy, already knew exactly what wrongs Kenneth Kaunda (KK) was doing and boldly advised him so. It is not true that the failures of a leader always reflect the ineptness of those around him. This was clearly a case of a president who was hellbent on following his own irrational path, regardless of the quality of brains employed to advise him.
If there was ever anyone close to possessing the brain of a true genius in Zambia, Mister Valentine Musakanya was the one. And I am not using that word (‘genius’) frivolously or conventionally: this was a special case of the real thing – a true renaissance man with the universal talents of a polymath constantly expressed as if at will. How many times does one hear about a government minister who can just decide to invent something patentable, for example? Imagine any of our busy Ministers finding time to actually invent something, in between the time they have to pour adulations on the president in front of TV cameras and the time they have to rush to the airport to joyfully wave him goodbyes for his next trip out!
VM chose to take all his appointments with the utmost seriousness and refused to clown around for anyone. When he was appointed to a lower rank of Minister of State for Technical and Vocational Training (some months after voluntarily resigning as Cabinet Secretary to avoid a certain conflict of interest), as was his habit he decided to commit himself fully to the job and to lead the field by example – literally, not just rhetorically. In this case, he thought the best way to do this would be to invent (by himself) a very useful and practical machine that he would half-humorously call the ‘nshimatic.’ This was a massive automatic pot for cooking Zambia’s staple food (nshima) on a large scale, quickly and efficiently, instead of relying only on pure muscle as per African tradition. The nshimatic is still used today in colleges, universities, large hospitals (including the University Teaching Hospital), and so on, although there have been no improvements made to it all these years since the minister invented it in the 60s.
To be fair to the Zambian ministers, it would not be normal even for an American or a British government official (or a Japanese one, for that matter) to just decide to invent something as a show of leadership (they show their seriousness in other more human ways). It’s even more remarkable that the man was not an engineer!
Like any supremely gifted individual, Mister Musakanya’s strongest virtue was his independent mind. Socially, he was so independent that he refused to be subjected to the procedures and ceremonies of a traditional African wedding when he decided to marry his good wife, at a time when this was unheard of, especially for someone born and partly raised in a rural village. His decision to follow his own mind against a culture he believed he was really not a part of any more was obviously very offensive to the relatives of both sides, but independent minds are just that: they are incapable of putting the irrational sentiments of others above the judgments of their own thoughts.
In his social life as a young professional on the Copperbelt, he refused to join into the new artificial culture of young blacks that he described as “ostentatious consumption, rampant alcoholic intake and obsession with motor cars.” (Still sounds like many parts of urban Africa today, not to mention black America). His inevitably secluded life thus led him to seek more and more the companionship of books, a habit that paid off well later in life, although it came at the price of being too different from his own peers, too advanced for his time. He was only lucky to find a friend in Andrew Sardanis, an intellectually astute Greek businessman, at first due to a mutual interest in classic Greek philosophy, before he discovered that he was also a very independent man – he did not care that his fellow whites were opposed to his close friendship with the black Musakanya, for example (Musakanya also did not care that his fellow blacks thought he was a “sell out” for his close friendship with the white Sardanis).
VM’s principled commitment to intellectual and social independence was unfortunately also the cause of his ultimate downfall (after independence), in a country led by a very insecure dictator with almost no identifiable talents of his own. Many of President Kaunda’s apologists have correctly claimed that he was good at picking out very intelligent young men (like VJ Mwaanga, Chipimo, Chisanga, etc) and giving them important advisory jobs. But what seems to have been his motivation is that he needed to feel important by having such brilliant men submitting to him and preferably even worshipping him, thus giving him some synthetic relief from the constant consciousness of his own sense of inferiority. How else could one explain why he demoted such men whenever they were perceived to have maintained their own independent views after promoting them? Notice that he usually did not fire them completely, he just demoted them; he still needed them to feel obligated to and dependent on him.
Apparently, even his philosophy of Humanism was started because he wanted to feel equal to other African leaders who were being admired for constructing their own philosophical systems, as “philosopher kings.” Musakanya instantly noticed that the president’s new ‘Humanism’ philosophy was utter nonsense, even worse than the other useless ‘national’ “philosophies” propounded by other African presidents (Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, etc), but at first he thought KK was just trying to also look good to his unsophisticated followers, without really meaning what he was saying. He was shocked to discover later that the man actually believed he had invented something real and original (which was consequently to be put in school textbooks, University teaching curriculum, Civil Service tests, etc). Everyone was forced to memorize the tenets of a “philosophy” that was nothing more than an incoherent repackaging of regular socialism. It was presented as a unique Zambian intellectual discovery, made by the president’s own genius mind!
In contrast to Kaunda’s pretensions to any actual thinking, Musakanya’s originality was unquestionable, and he wrote some of the most startling arguments ever presented by an advisor to any president anywhere. Just as one of many examples, when KK and his friends were trying to forcefully promote “African culture” by discouraging the practice of new Western cultural norms (eg in women’s dressing), VM wrote a thesis to counter this misguided effort by showing from history how great societies (including the United States) rose when they were most receptive to different cultural expressions and fell when they officially stopped tolerating anything different from the politically dominant group’s cultural expressions, as Zambia was now doing before even achieving any level of greatness. The interesting thing is that this exact thesis was only developed many years later by bestselling American professor Amy Chua of Yale University in her 2007 book “Day of Empire,” using similar historical trends observed by Musakanya. She did not cite VM in her footnotes simply because she could not possibly expect that a non-academic African government official had already analysed all this in a private memo to his president forty years earlier than her!
Sometimes VM’s strongest ideas went against the accepted academic orthodoxy of the time in some field. For example, when KK was pursuing his “back to the land” de-urbanization and rural development policy, he was simply following the advice of Western experts attached to donor institutions and agencies, who were faithfully relying on consensus theory in Development Economics. Musakanya saw that the Western experts were wrong about this and he publicly predicted that it would just be a large waste of money, by demonstrating how the theory was based on misguided assumptions about Africa. By the time the field of Development Economics started realizing that this model was unworkable, as seen in many third world countries where it was imposed, too much money had indeed already been wasted. But they never acknowledged that a humble Zambian government official had analysed and predicted this correctly all along, and neither did his own president.
One of the oldest stories told about Kenneth Kaunda was that there was a day he (allegedly) offered to resign the presidency because he was (allegedly) too hurt by the tribalism going on in the country. We always thought there was something fishy about that tale of our first president’s epic selflessness. This book finally puts that myth to rest by quoting from the convincing firsthand analysis of Musakanya. According to VM, Kaunda orchestrated this whole episode and merely pretended that he was resigning in order to see if Simon Kapwepwe (his controversial and mysterious Vice-President) was really loyal to him. Like a typical Mafia boss, absolute personal loyalty was the most important thing to KK, so he asked his informants to tell him exactly how Kapwepwe would react to the news of his resignation (to make it look believable, he officially asked the Chief Justice to tell him how to resign and the Chief Justice obliged him – but he never tendered that precious resignation letter). Fortunately for Kapwepwe, he did not fall for this insidious trap: he joined the rest in beseeching their great irreplaceable leader to rescind his unbearable decision! (Later, of course, Kapwepwe was still jailed for continuing to express his independent mind through his opposition to the president’s one-party state idea.)
Musakanya’s independent and stubbornly honest mind was also bound to lead him to prison one day in Kaunda’s intolerant era. This posthumously published book thus opens with a verbatim introduction from his memoirs, which he began writing while in prison, charged with treason for allegedly masterminding a plot to overthrow the president. The rest of the book selects quotes from these writings, mostly interspersed with the editor’s comments. These editorial interventions are not a bad thing because the editor, Professor Miles Larmer of the University of Sheffield, seems to have a good mastery of the subject and a fairly objective approach, at times even expressing doubts about some of VM’s claims. Most interestingly, the editor seems to believe that Musakanya is not fully open about his involvement in the coup plot he was accused of. Witness accounts showed that he may have indeed been an early strategist of the plot before tactically pulling out when he realized how much the president knew about it from the public statements he started making. It appears that Musakanya did not want a violent coup d’etat, preferring instead a “gentleman’s coup” in which Kaunda would simply be taken somewhere and talked into resigning so that it could be a more peaceful handover, unlike what was happening in West Africa with their own despots. The coup plotters, of course, wanted VM to then take over as president of the Republic of Zambia (one can only imagine where Zambia would be today had that happened.)
The book’s editor also has good reason to think that VM was once a secret agent of the famous British spy agency MI6, a “fact” he obviously omits from his memoirs. But if MI6 did secretly hire this man, it was because even they had witnessed the astonishing brilliance of his intellect and his extremely decisive nature. After all, during the Cold War, the top intelligence agencies usually recruited men that they thought were exceptionally gifted. In those days, to be an intelligence officer, you had to be intelligent!
And they were not the only ones who recognized VM’s mind. When VM was finally fired from government in 1972 for continuing to innocently express his honest thoughts, he was quickly poached by IBM itself, and he became their only black director for their Africa operations (their Africa operations management team was previously all white!) This was before the affirmative action era, when companies did not care about racial balancing and focused only on hiring the most meriting talents they could find on the planet.
Before he joined IBM, the last position he held in government was Governor of the Central Bank (Bank of Zambia) – where, without any background in finance, he became the first to recognize Zambia’s low foreign reserves as the most urgent problem and proceeded to personally devise mechanisms to fix this, before the bank’s many financial experts could solve it!
This was also the period when Kenneth Kaunda set up a Commission to ostensibly investigate the viability of a one-party state constitution (1972). Despite holding a position that was directly appointed by the president, VM again displayed a level of intellectual independence and honesty that was unheard of among politicians or civil servants before or since (most people become “independent” minded only after they have parted ways with the sitting president). This sitting Governor of the Central Bank took time off to write a political submission critiquing the president’s One-party state proposal; he could foresee how destructive this would be for Zambia’s development and his conscience would simply not let him pretend otherwise. Even more courageously, he took advantage of this same Committee to submit another proposal (for the upcoming constitution) to henceforth limit presidential terms to two, among other “controversial” submissions! He was obviously dismissed by the president after that insolent move and IBM instantly saw their lucky chance to hire Africa’s consummate professional.
VM worked as their only indigenous Country Director in Africa for six years before IBM decided to elevate him even further, to their Europe offices (in France). When Kenneth Kaunda heard about this good news, his immediate reaction was to order the confiscation of VM’s passport before he could travel, which brought VM’s IBM career to an abrupt end as he decided to just resign from the company. The official reason given for withholding his passport was that he liked saying bad things about the president whenever he traveled abroad. It’s quite baffling that this incorrigible psychopath is now eulogized by many as our great “founding father,” when the only thing he founded was a merciless police state and an enduring culture of jealousy; it was Kaunda who invented the so-called “pull him down” (phd) syndrome that is well known in Zambia.
But despite this despicable intrusion into his private life by the president, VM still decided to move on in life by opting to venture into private business in Zambia. Although many people feared to deal with him due to the well-known hatred the president had for him, VM still managed to be a surprisingly successful entrepreneur through his unique ideas and his unmatchable commitment to professionalism (he started the popular Honda Zambia dealership and also managed to get IBM to give him their Zambia dealership, which made him one of the wealthiest men in Zambia in spite of his strained relations with the president.) This angered Kaunda even more; he could not believe that this “rebellious” man was able to survive and thrive in an economy controlled by him, without begging for a job or for forgiveness, as would be expected of any average man. VM was too proud to do that.
The most painful part of these memoirs is when VM begins to describe in detail how he was finally arrested (independence day, 1980) at his home in front of his frightened wife and children; the all-night police search of his house (without a search warrant); and above all, the appalling conditions he had to soon endure in prison. The man’s characteristically dry humor spiced throughout this narration – for example, the arresting officer’s suspicion that this man wanted to take over the country was only confirmed when he saw the excessive abundance of books in his house – does not totally relieve the reader of the anger the story evokes. But this same witty humor was apparently what kept VM and the rest of the other great men accused with him – it was a who’s who of Zambia’s intellectual elite in there – from becoming too depressed. Thus, when he was transferred to the unbearably overcrowded and disease-ridden “cell 15,” which also had the most pathetic stench imaginable, he was cordially welcomed by his co-accused friends with “welcome to cell 15, please make yourself comfortable! [laughter]”
VM’s highly descriptive memoirs curiously leave out the part about the actual torture methods the “Special Branch” of Kaunda used on him, or even the mention of it. It seems this was too painful for him to recount; not even his sharp sense of irony could find enough humour to dilute the horror of the experience. He chose instead to spare his family the terror of imagining the details of this darkest part of his debriefing by leaving it out completely. All we know is that the torture was severe enough to finally force a “confession” out of him that was subsequently used to sentence him to death! (Those Americans who think the detainees at Guantanamo Prisons are tortured don’t know what they are talking about: compared to Kaunda’s Cell 15, Guantanamo Prisons are five star hotels; and ‘water boarding’ would have been a rare show of mercy from his Special Branch interrogators.)
Although he had never been a lawyer, VM managed to write an incisive appeal establishing the unconstitutionality of his incarceration, and the gross violation of original intent in Kaunda’s protracted State of Emergency deployment, that apparently moved the members of the Supreme Court. His decision to appeal by himself was not merely to show that he could do it: it was only necessitated by the little fact that Kaunda had thrown his lawyer into jail as well (using the same boundless State of Emergency powers) – just to make sure!
Such was the towering intellect of VM that even after experiencing such cruel torture and living under the anguish of an impending execution for a year, he could still argue cogently in his submission, even accurately reciting some landmark court cases from memory. He was released from death row after Zambia’s reputably independent Supreme Court ruled that his confession, having been coerced out of him by torture, was inadmissible.
But this episode permanently changed him and made him largely a depressed and distrusting man, feeling that the constant display of his intellectual gifts had only made him an easy target by vastly inferior people who were obsessed with ambitions beyond their own abilities or character and who thus saw him as a threat. He thus withdrew from the public eye and did not even take an active role by the time the exciting Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) was born (unlike his other co-ex-convict friends who provided some intellectual fuel for this revolutionary movement against Kaunda’s regime).
His perceptive mind quickly saw and noted that the MMD had no real vision of proper structural reforms beyond ousting Kenneth Kaunda from power, although he gave them the benefit of the doubt as a young movement. When Frederick Chiluba won elections against Kaunda in 1991, he briefly consulted with VM, having heard much about his legendary brain. VM reluctantly accepted the invitation and started giving his advice, but even the new president was not prepared for the fearless honesty that was to come from him.
VM still believed that the civil service should be made totally independent from politicians so that they could be completely professional in their work instead of being fearfully subservient to the party in power; he still saw this as the key to keeping politicians properly accountable while motivating civil servants to be highly innovative and confidently decisive (a model adopted in part by other intelligent post-independence leaders like Cambridge-trained Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and patterned after the efficient British system.) As the new president realized the implications of this proposition (i.e., some of the clout he could lose if he implemented it), he was no longer interested in VM’s thoughts and soon started to keep him indefinitely waiting in the lonely corridors of State House whenever he would go to render his advice. This attitude was unpardonably offensive to such a serious professional.
Frustrated and deeply disappointed, VM stopped going to see the new president after realizing that the spirit of Kenneth Kaunda had ominously remained in State House: another inferior being was also determined to have his weight felt by genuine men, and to be worshipped for his intellectual pretensions, having mistaken his humble gifts in crowd-pleasing rhetoric for real intellect. He too was desperate to be perceived as an actual thinker even though this was clearly not his domain. Which is why he too just had to be “honored” as a “Doctor of Philosophy” and demand that he be addressed as such — despite the clear absence of a single original thought in his life (like his predecessor).
In 1994, at the age of 63, Valentine Shula Musakanya finally succumbed to one of the recurring respiratory diseases he had caught in Cell 15.
Let our history books be reset. The struggle for African independence was not always as hard (or perhaps even as urgent) as our old “freedom fighters” and their “historians” claimed. What has been really hard is the struggle against tyranny – after independence.
Author is founder and president of Zambia Online (www.zambia.co.zm). He can be contacted at email@example.com.