By Chibamba Kanyama
Monday July 2010, during the four days break, I decided to switch off my phone and take an afternoon catnap. Woke up 16.20, switched on my phone and there was a text message from Ambassador Bob Samakai, principal advisor to President Rupiah Banda, ‘Trying to reach you. The President wants to meet you at 17.00.’ Put on hazards and was at State House at 16.55.
The President was in the living room at the Nkwazi House. Also in the house were Kwaleyela Lamaswala, a director at First Quantum Minerals, Susan Sikaneta, Permanent Secretary Sports and Samakai. It certainly had to do with soccer, the President’s passion. I was a director at Zambian Breweries at the time.
As had become his tradition when introducing me to people, Dolika Banda, his daughter, came into the introductions, ‘I was talking to Doilka yesterday day and she sends her regards’.
Dolika, used to be my regular guest on Business Review TV programme in the mid-1990s. She was director at Barclays Bank. RB appreciated the gesture and that was the genesis of our bond. He took every opportunity to announce the connection.
For example, after the inaugural African Nations Championship (CHAN) in 2009 where Zambia emerged third, the President hosted a dinner at State House. When he spotted me in the crowd, he called out, ‘You are here? I was talking to your friend Dolika last night and she passes her regards.’ He then turned to the audience, ‘He is a very good friend to my daughter, Dolika.’
Two years ago, as RB walked into a wedding reception where he was guest of honour, he saw me in the audience, ‘I was just chatting to Dolika. I will call her tonight and tell her I met you and that you send your greetings.’
The meeting at Nkwazi House was about sponsoring soccer. He was evidently passionate about football and wanted the corporate world to ensure Zambia lifted AFCON by sponsoring football (and Zambia won it a few months after he left State House. Though he has not been credited for that milestone achievement, his prior investment into the national team contributed to the success).
The discussion was short. We made commitments on behalf of our respective employers. The next three hours was really between the two of us. I came to know RB for who he was, a genuine and authentic leader. Three things emerged and worth sharing.
FIRENDSHIP IS ABOUT LOYALTY
While the President appreciated that divergent views were normal in a democratic nation, he was evidently unhappy some of those against his reign and taking the leading role in fighting him were personal friends, ‘As I speak, they are meeting somewhere in a foreign country. One of my ambassadors has even flown there using government resources and I have told him to refund the money to the state.’
His remarks were interrupted by Duniya, the little daughter, who came crying claiming the twin brother Temwani had whacked her. Temwani came running into the living room, cartwheeled between the sofas and faced the father. ‘Temwani loves bulling the sister because he watches too much Tarzan,’ he told us before counselling the duo to uphold peace.
He continued on the matter at hand, ‘I have always believed friends are friends; they are friends for life. Friends don’t betray friends. Even as President, I can never betray friends. if those friends had issues with me, I expected them to talk to me. That is what friends are for. You do not hold clandestine meetings to fight friends.’
This conversation went on for quite a while before he concluded, ‘If your friends do not stand with you, who will stand with you?’
RB had some serious misgivings against a section of the media that had constantly demonized him and personalized the attacks against him. ‘I would have reacted a long time ago but Dickson (Jere, Press Aide), has prevailed over me. I value press freedom and respect the advice given by my advisors to hold back.’
I responded, ‘Your Excellency, take it as a passing phase. You are being attacked for not prosecting President (Frederick) Chiluba. Accommodating him has turned you into their enemy.’
He explained his position on President Chiluba, ‘What is wrong about treating a fellow human being as human being first even if he is going through court cases? He is a former President for that matter.’
MY WORD IS MY BOND
Much of the discussion was about the leader of the United Party for National Development, Hakainde Hichilema (now President of Zambia). He suspected I was close to him. He disclosed there had been several attempts for a coalition or united front ahead of the 2011 elections.
‘I trust the young man HH,’ he narrated. ‘I believe one day he will be president but there is too much polarization on tribal lines. I want to help him.’
According to RB, the arrangement was to make HH Vice President so that in 2016, RB would step down for him. He continued, ‘We have had challenges. In our first meeting, I waited here for over 30 minutes for HH and his delegation. My advisors said to me, “You are the President, and he is an opposition leader, why do you have to wait for him?” I told them that in negotiations, you should focus less on your position and status; lower yourself; it’s give-and-take. This is important when your goal is to unify a country; accommodate everyone. He is a young man and very disciplined.
‘When we finally met, and agreed on a road map, I asked HH to have a press conference to announce our alliance. However, his advisors insisted they needed a written commitment, a kind of contract. They had a point, but I wanted them to trust me. I emphasized that a contract was unnecessary; my word was my bond. Once you agree on something, honour it. He is a very sincere young man and I trust him. When you have a chance to talk to him, assure him I mean really well for him.’
It was now 2100. I saw an opportunity to leave when a visitor from Zimbabwe was ushered in. He introduced me quickly, of course with links to Dolika and as I walked out, he remarked, ‘I will tell Dolika you came, (and) that we had a fruitful discussion.’
On Friday, March 11, 2022, President Rupiah Banda left us after a struggle with cancer. I will remember him as a great man and leader who valued friendships. I loved him greatly.