narrow escape

Turmoil

Following the recommendation of her doctor, Mabel traveled abroad to get checked on her pregnancy. As the work was rather pressing, I did not go with her but remained in Lusaka, still moving daily to and from Chilanga.

One day, while returning from Chilanga with a colleague from Tanzania called John, a few kilometres before getting to the Kafue roundabout (the entrance to Lusaka city at that time), we started seeing a few cars doing U-turns in total disregard of the traffic. I was still surprised when we also noted a lot of cars with their windscreens smashed and waving their arms at us, and the cars before and after us, to stop and turn back. Then we heard explosions. It took us a few seconds to realize that there were gunshots! Something very odd was happening but we could not know what!

Without a second of hesitation, I turned the pick-up around and started to retreat back to where we were coming from. It was then that we saw a large of crowd of people blocking the road ahead of us and throwing stones at the cars that tried to break through. Clearly, we were trapped between rioters. The area we were in was quarried for stones and there were usually many piles of rocks while people waited to sell them. We knew that there was plenty of ammo to smash our car so, unable to move through the road, I engaged 4WD and headed for the bush, hoping to be able to avoid the trouble and rejoin the road further on. It was not to be so we decided to abandone the car somehow hidden, hoping that the rioters would ignore it, being stationary and unoccupied.

We hatched a plan B that was to walk through the bush, attempting to get to the house of Des, my mechanic that was a few kilometres away. However, we had not yet walked more than a dozen paces when we heard a voice that, through a megaphone, asked the rioters to stop. We saw a couple of pick-ups loaded with soldiers and a convoy that was forming behind them. Without thinking twice, we run back to our pick-up, did another turn to now face Lusaka again and joined the convoy. Clearly, the intention was to attempt reaching Lusaka and we were prepared to take the risk rather than to remain where we were.

Soon the convoy started to move towards the city while the megaphone continously asked the rioters to clear the road. Many did but others would continue to attempt to block the road while still throwing stones to them. Then the soldiers replied by shooting above their heads and a stampede of riotrs ensued and, in a few seconds, the way was cleared!

We had a window of opportunity and we took it without thinking. I drove fast with my adrenline flowing, trying not to lose contact with our “protectors” regardless of the serious rock piles that were placed to block the traffic. It was a bumpy ride, but I managed to keep up while John held on to any available handle inside the car to avoid being knocked about by my rough driving. Luckily, we avoided injuries and damage to the car.

Once we entered the city, the soldiers continued through the main road while we deviated towards the East as I took John to his house. The air was heavy with tear gas and helicopters were flying above our heads when I dropped John and finally headed for home.

I got to our house and when I stopped the car I could still hear shooting and a far off murmur that clearly indicated that people were still revolting, despite the Government attempting to control the situation. The minute or so that Lemek, our gardener, took to open the gate felt like an hour and, as soon as the gate was opened, I rushed in and parked the car. I stayed a while re-gaining some degree of calm after what we had gone through. I felt as exhausted as if I would have driven hundreds of kilometres! I then made sure that the front gate was securely locked and told our employees to stay inside as I was not sure of the extent of the revolt and how it would end!

I then went inside and phoned Mabel to tell her that I was well so for her not to worry as I was sure that the BBC would be reporting on the events already. I got in touch with the project personnel and told them not to move from their houses until further notice. Luckily, Bruno was in Lutale, far away from the problems.

I locked the house and switched on the SW radio tuned to the BBC as the local radio was of not much use and got the UN VHF radio to participate in any security checks that they may do as well as getting information on the situation in the different areas of the city. What I heard was quite worrying as it seemed that the riots were spreading and luting was rampant.

It was Monday the 26th. of June 1990. Earlier, President Kaunda had announced an increase of more than double in the price of maize meal, the staple food of the country. The people were answering to these measures.

The night was reasonably quiet although sporadic shooting was heard. The following day we heard shouting outside the house. It was our turn for the rioters to visit us, probably on their way to the nearby shops and the supermarkets. Quite a few stones were thrown towards the house, but the house was quite far from the road and nothing was broken. To my relief, the crowd continued moving along.

The riots intensified over the next three days. A curfew was imposed, and I stayed home. Luckily, we had sufficient food in the house to last me for a few days. To my relief, on the 28th., the UN VHF radio announced that calm had been restored and essential personnel could go back to work.

The central and some of the commercial areas of Lusaka were severely damaged and most shops showed signs of having suffered a total loss. An estimated twenty-four people died and about one hundred and fifty were injured, many by gunfire. It was the most severe crisis that President Kaunda had suffered during his twenty-six-year rule and his power was severely weakened. When he addressed the Nation later, he repeated his offer of holding a referendum on the introduction of multi-party rule that he had mentioned the previous May.

A charged calm was restored but another surprise laid in waiting. On Sunday 1 July Lieutenant Mwamba Luchembe of the Zambian Army staged a coup d’état attempt [1]. At 3 am the coup’s leader announced via the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation that the military had taken over the government and he cited riots of the previous week as reasons for his action.

The move only lasted about six hours. However, when people learnt that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people demonstrated celebrating the event and, in the confusion that followed, there were rumours of some other military joining the coup.

At 9am, the Army loyal to Kaunda crashed his attempt and Luchembe was arrested although I do not recall that he was put on trial. The coup attempt added to the increasingly fragile situation of the President who, a week later, announced that a national referendum on whether to restore multi-party government would be held on 17 October 1990. We will go through these events later on.

[1] See: https://www.zambianobserver.com/mwamba-luchembe-and-his-failed-coup-of-1990-on-kenneth-kaunda/