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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Bemba in Zambia

View Group Chronology

Zambia Facts
Area:    752,614 sq. km.
Capital:    Lusaka
Total Population:    10,307,000 (source: CIA World Factbook, 2003, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Bemba in Zambia are unlikely to engage in sustained protest or rebellion in the near future. As the dominant ethnic group in Zambia, the largest risks for contentious action arise from various intragroup tensions and contested ascendance to the chief positions in some areas. Recent protests have also stemmed from political competition between rival political parties that are predominantly Bemba. However, the advantaged political position of the Bemba diminishes their risk of rebellion and protest.


Analytic Summary

The Bemba in Zambia live mainly in the northeast and in the copper belt (GROUPCON = 3). They have migrated throughout the country over time to pursue economic interests, so they are also found in other parts of the state. However, according to the 2000 census, fewer than 10 percent of Bemba live outside their regional base. Bemba are one of four historical kingdoms in Zambia and are the largest ethnic group in Zambia today. At the national level in Zambian politics, ethnicity is largely defined in terms of ethnicity. Bemba-speakers include both Bemba-proper (approximately half of all Bemba-speakers), plus multiple smaller groups that were assimilated linguistically and culturally to the Bemba prior to British colonization.

Historically, a Bemba paramount chief called the Chitimukulu claimed the loyalty of multiple Bemba chiefdoms. While all the chiefs were subordinate to the Chitimukulu, they had a great deal of autonomy, and centralization was moderate. There were no centralized military and only sporadic meetings of the subordinate chiefs. Centralized structures were, however, more prevalent than in other contemporaneous African kingdoms.

Zambia was colonized by the British in 1899, and by 1901 Britain had subjected the Bemba to taxation. Zambia gained independence in 1964. The United National Independence Party (UNIP) led by Kenneth Kaunda came to power at independence. It was considered a Bemba party despite the fact that Kaunda tried to hold the country together by de-emphasizing ethnic ties. UNIP stayed in power with Kaunda as party and state president until 1991 when multi-party elections were held for the first time. Frederick Chiluba, a Bemba, was elected from the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD). He has been widely criticized for favoring fellow Bemba in his cabinet and many non-Bemba perceive the north to have a political hold on the country. Chiluba left office in 2002, having decided not to contest the 2001 elections and faced with rising unpopularity due to corruption and mismanagement of government. Levy Mwanawasa, an ethnic Lenje, ran on the MMD ticket, winning the 2001 and the 2006 presidential elections. Mwanawasa died in 2008 and was succeeded by Rupiah Banda, who from the Eastern Province cluster of related ethnic groups.

The Movement for Multi-Party Democracy has traditionally been the main representative of Bemba interests. However, with the ascension of a party leader, Banda, who is not from an ethnic group within the Bemba-language cluster, it is difficult to ascertain if this is still the case. The Patriotic Front, led by Michael Sata, is also typically seen as a Bemba party.

The Bemba do not suffer from any demographic disadvantages, and as the politically advantaged group, they do not suffer from any form of discrimination (POLDIS06 = 0; ECDIS06 = 0). There has traditionally been little Bemba protest. In 1999, there was verbal protest in favor of giving Bemba chiefs more say regarding land and resources (PROT99 = 1). And in 2000, there was protest against the government’s appointment of a Bemba chief outside of traditional channels (PROT00 = 1). However, between 2001 and 2003, there was no further evidence of protest by the Bemba (PROT01-03 = 0). Protests in 2005 and 2006 revolved around the rivalry between the MMD and the PF, two parties seen as representing Bemba interests (PROT05-06 = 3).



Jeremy Gould. 1/2007. “Zambia’s 2006 elections: The ethnicization of politics?" News from the Nordic Africa Institute. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute., accessed 10/1/2007.

Kaplan, Irving. 1979. Zambia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: American University.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Posner, Daniel. 2005. Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Zambia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Andrew D. 1973. A History of the Bemba: Political growth and change in north-eastern Zambia before 1900. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Zambia. 1999-2006.

Zambian Statistical Office. 2001. “Language and Ethnicity.” Zambia Census Report, 10., accessed 9/7/2007.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006